A Big Round of Applause to Community Mediators in Rwanda Senate

Verediana Nyirabarigendera, 34, a resident  from Nganzo village located in Gakenke district, Rushashi sector of Northern Province was married to a man who woke up one day of 2017 and disappeared.  

Until now, his whereabouts are unknown and the biggest concern to his wife is that the husband left several gaps in the family, including the land titles which he took with him. .

Nyirabarigendera’s in-law family gave her a piece of land to cultivate but one sister-in-law later on changed her mind and took advantage of the gaps. 

She told Nyirabarigendera that she “had no right to any property from her brother’s sweat and ought to go away.”

Nyirabarigendera defended that she was there to stay since she was “legally married despite the marriage certificate having disappeared with the husband like all other family documents.” 

When the sister of her husband received to listen, Nyirabarigendera submitted the case to mediators, Abunzi, a community justice made of honest men and women in the community who settle conflicts and sustain the justice among grieving parties.

The case was received and a hearing fixed in the following five working days to allow the defendant prepare her defence.

During the hearing which was attended by both parties, witnesses who are their neighbors confirmed that indeed, Nyirabarigendera was married to the man who disappeared.

Medicators ruled in favor of Nyirabarigendera and confirmed that the property of the family is registered to both husband and wife as a legally married couple. 

However, seated under a huge tree, the mediators also tasked Nyirabarigendera to look for the disappeared certificate and documents proving that she is married to the ‘missing’ husband to have the land and other family properties registered in her name. 

Nyirabarigendera and the family of her ‘missing’ husband were satisfied with the decision and life continued with less conflicts.

Normally such a case would require Nyirabarigendera to hire a lawyer and pay at least Rwf1million for her case to be prepared for arbitration in a civil court. 

This would take nearly six months of paperwork and travel expenses to appear in court if it was not for community justice. 

The abunzi (Literally translated as ‘those who reconcile’) are local mediators in Rwanda, who are mandated by the state as the conciliatory approach to resolve disputes, ensuring mutually acceptable solutions to the conflict.

Abunzi are elected by community members on integrity and age lines, to solve a number of disputes related to land, financial or property-related disputes with a monetary value of less than Rwf5million.

Rwanda Senators have said such work done by mediators in executing community based justice through mediation should be quantified on its impact.

There are in the country over 17,000 mediators who solved 70% of the case that were submitted to them in the concluding financial year  of 2019-2020, according to the Senate political and governance committee report.

 The Senate oversight report presented on June 9 was conducted to control the function of Mediators, Abunzi Committee in regard to respect of law and legal time. 

The report findings showed that compared to judicial courts, there were few cases of corruption among mediation courts.

“With the exception of a full mediation court in Kaduha, Nyamagage district that was bribed to take a biased decision, we established that citizens are satisfied with work of Abunzi who solve conflicts much faster than courts,” said Senator Lambert Dushimimana the committee chairperson.

These findings are also backed by the 2019 Citizen Report Card by Rwanda Governance Board, where 74% of citizens are satisfied with Abunzi services.

The Senate said that to improve their service delivery, mediators still need to be empowered with more traditional arbitration skills.

The senate also advocated for Abunzi’s infrastructure and the need to be empowerd with young educated citizens. 

“We cannot quantify the impact of Abunzi yet we see that they are doing a good job. That is why we call for quantitative research,” Dushimimana said.

All senators agreed on the need for Abunzi to focus on mediation as a primary job and refer criminal cases to other court jurisdictions, however resolved on need to train mediators on Rwandan cultural mediation methods to achieve this.

Since mediation in justice is one of Rwanda’s homegrown solutions, the Senate said the success story of Gacaca community justice can be replicated within Abunzi.

On the issue of lack of access and offices to carry out the Abunzi duties, the Senate said that at least 50% of Abunzi work under makeshift places and a budget needs to be considered by the government.




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