Rwanda: Abunzi Tenure Ends, Cases to Be Filed to Local Leaders - Temporarily

Community mediators, locally referred to as 'Abunzi', around the country vacated office Friday, July 31, following the end of their five-year term.

Cases previously filed to mediation committees will now be submitted to local leaders in the respectve jurisdictions, pending the election of new panels, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Abunzi represent a hybrid of conventional justice system and Rwanda's traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.

They are elected by the people at the village level to resolve disputes that were previously referred to courts of law.

In a statement released Thursday, July 30, Justice Minister Johnson Busingye said that new claims which ordinarily fall under the jurisdiction of Abunzi - both at the primary and appeals level - shall temporarily be filed to the executive secretaries of cell and sector, respectively.

However, speaking to The New Times, Busingye clarified that local leaders will not be adjudicating cases but are encouraged to help settle disputes amicably.

"Local leaders will not adjudicate claims in place of Abunzi, they have no such power under the law," he said. "What we have asked them to do is to register claims which citizens want to table before Abunzi, so once Abunzi are elected they adjudicate them. They can, however, resolve disputes as local leaders in their own right, which they usually do and which we very much encourage."

The mediators, who serve as volunteers under a renewable five-year mandate, operate at two levels: the tribunal of first instance at the cell level and the appeals committee at the sector level.

Although the date for next election has not been announced, the schedule is likely to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced government to ban large gatherings.

The seven-member Abunzi committees, among others, handle disputes related to land and other immovable assets, whose value does not exceed Rwf3 million.

They also settle cases involving movable property or breach of contract whose value does not exceed Rwf1 million.

In addition, they mediate between family disputes, including paternity, matrimonial inheritance and succession issues.

Abunzi were introduced at a time the country's judicial system was faced with a huge backlog of cases.

By last year, there were more than 18,000 mediators across the country.

Since the introduction of Abunzi back in 2004, statistics from the Ministry of Justice indicate that the grassroots panels have resolved 74 per cent of all claims received.

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