Rwanda: Legislating in the Era of Covid-19

When Covid-19 first spread to Rwanda in March last year it quickly changed our way of life and how we do business. A lockdown was immediately imposed and many institutions and individuals turned to online platforms to make themselves productive. Parliament was not left behind, rather it also tried to adapt to the new normal. Before long, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was already conducting hearings virtually to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

And it was later noted that the hearings were effective.

PAC hearings are designed to ensure accountability in management of public resources and the latest sessions were focused on the findings of the Office of Auditor General for the fiscal year 2018/2020.

The hearings covered misappropriation of public funds, overspending, stalled government projects, and delays in provision of much needed financial support to the vulnerable.

Other aspects included the growing trends of expropriation before compensation, procurement of substandard or wrong equipment, and disregard of informed advice.

But the House also conducted several virtual plenary sessions, including those dedicated to scrutinising and passing draft laws. Nonetheless, with restrictions easing toward the end of last year, physical sessions gradually resumed, while in some cases a hybrid format was employed.

PAC leveraged on virtual tools like WebEX's for public hearings.

"The Covid-19 pandemic caught us by surprise," PAC Chairperson, Valens Muhakwa, said.

Muhakwa said that the use of technology resulted in additional time spent on adjusting technology equipment and connecting to it for various sessions, noting that as a result, where a session would normally take about two hours, it took about three hours.

Commenting on the lesson learned from the pandemic, he said that it is always good to have alternative means of carrying out parliamentary work during unforeseeable circumstances.

These are some of the major sessions held last year:

Session on public asset mismanagement cases

The Plenary Sitting of the Chamber of Deputies on Thursday, November 12, 2020, requested the Ministry of Justice to ask the National Public Prosecution Authority to prosecute those who were involved in public asset mismanagement.

The resolution came after PAC concluded that there had been public assets management irregularities, urging action.

For instance, the lawmakers observed that officials at Business Development Fund (BDF) had ignored risks highlighted by its investment and monitoring teams before compensating claims of loss incurred by financial institutions that had provided loans - guaranteed by BDF - to businesses.

BDF is an institution responsible for helping SMEs raise capital for bankable projects through loan guarantees. According to the Auditor-General's report, BDF's investment and monitoring teams had assessed five claims associated with committed credit guarantee worth Rwf548 million as ineligible for compensation.

However, BDF management approved compensation of these claims against the advice of their own technical teams.

Parliament also wanted an inquiry into how BDF provided credit guarantees to 13 ineligible businesses, including those owned by foreigners, which ultimately saw the Fund pay over Rwf1 billion in compensation for six failed projects.

Two virtual hearings were held on September 17 and October 7 during which the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that BDF was failing in its mandate, and proposed reforms in how the Fund extends credit guarantees.

Later, on December 14, the cabinet would change BDF's senior management team.

Missing tourism receipts

Another issue that came to the attention of the Lower House was hour tourism receipts were being managed. Members of the Chamber of Deputies urged the National Public Prosecution Authority to bring to book those involved in causing a loss of $408,486 (over Rwf388 million) in tourism revenues that the Auditor General said in his report was misappropriated.

The tourism revenues in question had been collected between August 2018 and January 2019.

The money, the AG report showed, had been collected manually instead of using the official online platform (Irembo). It indicated that the funds had not be deposited on the bank account of Rwanda Development Board by the time an audit was carried out in March 2020.

Shoddy local projects

The parliamentarians also weighed on in issues related to management of public funds in local governments and major upcountry investments. One of them was related to procurement of medicines for Ruhengeri Hospital in Musanze District which were to expire in just three months. They reckoned there was no evidence the drugs would be consumed before their expiry date.

The House also expressed concern about a project in Gatsibo District where they said a contractor had only constructed three kilometres of drain, at Rwf760 million, instead of seven kilometres as initially planned in the tender. They called for an urgent investigation into the matter.

Another infrastructure project that raised eyebrows in parliament is the unfished rehabilitation of a 3.9-km Kadahenda-Nyakiriba road in Nyabihu District, initially at some Rwf758 million. However, the works were suspended midway through the project and the contract cancelled in mysterious circumstances.

However, the lawmakers noted, the contract was reactivated two years later, and the contractor received an upfront payment of Rwf151 million, but the works were never resumed.

Review of land transfer fees

On February 25, 2020, members of the Chamber of Deputies' Standing Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Environment told the Minister for Environment, Jeanne d'Arc Mujawamariya, that the fee charged on land transfer was a burden to citizens with small plots, especially in rural areas. They called for revision.

The legislators said that the flat fee of Rwf30, 000 charged on each plot of land across the country should be adjusted based to reflect the value of plots of land - depending on size, location, among other factors.

Mujawamariya pledged that the fees will be revised.

Management, benefits of public servants

Parliament voted the 2020 law establishing the general statute governing public servants, which was subsequently published in the Official Gazette n° Special of 08/10/2020. The new law replaced the one enacted in 2013.

From doubling short-term sick leave period to increasing termination benefits and removing mandatory oath for public servants, the law brought about a number of changes to public servants management.

It provides that a female public servant who gives birth to a stillborn baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy is entitled to a leave of eight weeks.

That is double the period in the law of 2013 which stipulated that a female employee who gave birth to a stillborn baby or whose baby died before a period of one month shall receive a leave of four weeks from the occurrence of the event.

The new law also stipulates that termination benefits for a public servant are calculated on the basis of their last gross salary, after deduction of taxes only, and on basis of the period served in public service.

It further indicates that public servants who have been employed from at least one year to 25 years will get an additional one-month salary to their termination benefits.

For civil servants who have at least 30 years of experience, they will be getting 10 months' salary in termination benefits.

New law on community health insurance scheme

Parliament also enacted a new legislation easing access to healthcare services. The Chamber of Deputies passed the new law governing the organisation of the community-based health insurance scheme (CBHI) on August 4, 2020.

The law replaces the one of 2015.

First established in 2003, CBHI, commonly known as Mutuelles de Santé, seeks to offer medical cover to people with low income and those who are in informal employment.

The scheme covers healthcare services for some 80 per cent of Rwanda's 12 million people.

The original bill tabled by government included a provision that a ministerial order would determine extra fee that will be paid by a CBHI member who has not yet paid 50 per cent of contributions by December 31 of every year.

But the MPs questioned this article, describing the fee as actually a fine, and it was later struck out. Instead, the amount of contribution one should have made before accessing treatment under the scheme was increased from 50 per cent to 75 per cent.

However, if one fails to clear the remaining 25% by December 31 they will not be offered any CBHI service. Previously, one would be treated only after paying the whole health premium.

Mutuelles de Santé is a mutual fund to which people make financial contributions depending on their financial capacity. The highest individual annual contribution is Rwf7000, while the least is Rwf3000 a year. The government picks the bill for the most vulnerable.

Air transport deals

Parliament on December 3, adopted legal frameworks for a raft of air transport agreements between Rwanda and 11 countries, namely Chile, Dominican Republic, Finland, Jamaica, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mauritius, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe.

The Minister for Infrastructure, Claver Gatete, said at the time that the ratification of the agreements paved the way for air connections between Rwanda and those countries, a boost to the former's ambition of becoming a regional hub.

entirenganya@newtimesrwanda.com

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