The Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Dr. Emmanuel Ugirashebuja, on Monday, presented proposed changes in the Constitution to Members of the Conference of Chairpersons of the Chamber of Deputies for consideration before they are taken to both houses for approval, as Rwanda looks to clean up and fine tune the supreme law which was promulgated in 2003 and amended in 2015.
At least 130 articles will be affected during the revision which is mainly aimed at synchronizing presidential and legislative polls due next year, as the country prepares to adjust to the new changes which will see presidential terms reduced from 7 to 5 years and to ensure that the two elections are conducted simultaneously, as it is in other countries in the region and elsewhere.
The exercise to merge the two elections is not only seen as a cost-cutting measure in terms of the budget spent on organising and holding elections but it will also save Rwandans the trouble of going to polls every two years.
Dr. Ugirashebuja, who was flanked by the Minister of State in Charge of Constitution and Legal Affairs, Solina Nyirahabimana, and Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, chairperson of the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, explained that the proposed changes were initiated by the President of the Republic, who used his prerogative to write to Parliament asking the house to make necessary changes in the law and update others.
Dr. Ugirashebuja said that while the synchronisation of presidential and parliamentary elections is the main trigger for the proposed draft changes, it was also seen as an opportunity to review some of the articles in the constitution that bring about redundancy and bureaucracy.
“Synchronising the the presidential and legislative elections is very important because it means Rwandans will be able to go to elections and simultaneously vote for the President and MPs, unlike before where these elections were held separately,”
“It also means that the budget we spend on elections will be reduced, which means that this is a cost-cutting measure. However, for that to happen, some articles in the constitution must be amended,” Minister Ugirashebuja told the committee of chairperson.
It means that Parliamentary elections which were scheduled for this year in September will take place next year along with the Presidential elections. According to Dr. Ugirashebuja, the current MPs will have to remain in office till next year when Parliament will be dissolved ahead of the elections.
Harmonizing the two elections is expected to save the country over Rwf6bn spent on organising presidential and legislative polls separately.
For a constitution promulgated in 2003, Dr. Ugirashebuja said that it was an opportunity to change some of the provisions that can be seen today as redundant, bureaucratic or simply irrelevant in the context of where the country is and where it is headed.
In the explanatory note submitted to Parliament, among other changes, the President of the Republic requested the house to approve the extension of the current mandate of MPs by an extra two years, to allow the synchronisation of elections to happen next year.
Some of the articles proposed for revision will undergo minor changes, according to the proposed constitutional review bill, in some cases simply twitching and fine tuning the language while some will be dropped, readjusted or rephrased, to make the constitution more efficient and pragmatic.
What are some of the changes?
Among other key proposed changes, public pronouncement of court decisions will be scrapped if the proposed change is adopted. After the trial, judges and magistrates will be uploading the judgement in the system known as Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS) where all parties involved can access it.
“In our view, public pronouncement of verdicts is not a principle of justice but rather a methodology. The trial is already done, this is just the outcome. It doesn’t warrant the parties involved and judges to be present in court physically,” Dr. Ugirashebuja explained.
He however said that the methodology will not be removed completely but it should not be sanctioned by the law, factoring in the technological progress the country has made. He explained that it is the practice in progressive countries and the Covid-19 pandemic proved that technology can be used to efficiently dispense justice.
The officials argued before committee Chairpersons that the time spent by judges and magistrates delivering public court rulings can be used to deal with the backlog of cases they have to hear.
The Attorney General argued that time is wasted on pronouncing cases, sometimes taking days to complete reading all the many pages repeating what has already been said in court, simply because that is what the law says.
For cases of public interest, Dr. Ugirashebuja said a media brief or explanatory note will be issued and the court decisions can be accessed through the Judicial spokespersons and court registrars at all levels.
He also explained that the methodology of public pronouncement of decisions, which is mistook for a principle of justice, meant that cases, some of which were of private nature, such as divorce, had to be pronounced publicly, before all and sundry, yet in actual sense the public had nothing to do with such a case.
Prime Minister appearing before Parliament
Among the proposed changes, the Prime Minister will no longer have to appear frequently before Parliament to brief legislators about government activities, with the appearances reduced to at least three times a year instead of once in three parliamentary sessions.
This would give the Prime Minister enough time to prepare a comprehensive report on government government activities rather than appearing once in each parliamentary session, yet some of the sessions are as short as two months.
Also in the changes, Presidential appointees will no longer have to go through vetting and approval by cabinet and other institutions if the proposal is approved, as this was found to cause delays in people taking up their responsibilities.
It was argued that the process is time wasting and bureaucratic and holds back individuals and institutions from moving forward with whatever they want to do.
In the same light, it was proposed that countersigning of executive orders and decrees by all members of the cabinet be removed because of the delays it causes. Instead, a Minister or Institution head will be co-signing with the second signing authority and that will be it.
According to State Minister Nyirahabimana, these procedures provided for in the law were found to be delaying the implementation of important decisions and holding back people from doing what they are supposed to do.
“We are a country on the move. We no longer need these processes that hold us back. We assessed most of these articles and found that they no longer fit in the context we are in today. If the President of the Republic has appointed someone, why should we then work backwards vetting and approving?” she said.
She pointed out that before the appointments are made, due diligence and vetting has been done elsewhere and by the time the name goes to the Head of State, background work has been done to remove any doubts.
Nyirahabimana said these proposed changes will bring about efficiency and save the country time being spent on unnecessary red tape procedures.
Other articles proposed for amendment include Article 136 relating to the state of emergency and state of siege, article 137 on the declaration of a state of emergency and state of siege, and Article 138 on Parliament during a state of siege or state of emergency to change the wording and translation which was misleading.
Dr. Ugirashebuja said that a state of siege normally will happen when there is a state of emergency, meaning that the article will just mention ‘state of emergency’. Similarly, given the urgency of declaring a state of emergency, the President would not have to wait for approval from Parliament as it is required in the constitution currently.
Mukantaganzwa said that among other proposals, several articles that have translation challenges will also be revised to align the meaning across all the three official languages; Kinyarwanda, English and French.