I must admit that I find every part of the Rwandan countryside extremely intriguing. My last visit was in a place called Iduha, overlooking the long and narrow Lake Muhazi, a few days ago. The Iduha slope that gently descends into Lake Muhazi is unremarkable because it resembles the myriad beautifully rolling hills that cover the entire length and breadth of Rwanda.
To access Iduha, you branch off from the main tarmac road to Rwamagana town in the eastern Province, and climb the steep, rocky hill of Gikoro from Musha, on a rut road that is all too familiar in any part of the country. Musha is about forty minutes’ drive from Kigali on the 62-km road to Rwamagana.
From Musha, to your left before you make your final descent into the Muhazi Lake valley, there is an innocuous building of mud, wattle and corrugated iron sheets in whose muddy compound you are likely to see a lone elderly man standing idly, sending blackened plumes of smoke skyward, from an equally blackened smoking-pipe.
If you think the old man of Iduha is one of those idlers that seem to be omnipresent along the road wherever you drive in Rwanda, you will realise your mistake once you take a peep inside the building.
This building, which seems to have seen better days at one time as a classroom or meeting-hall of some sort, today serves as a courtroom presided over by what is known in Rwanda as ‘Abunzi’. On my visit to Iduha, it is this meeting of Abunzi that I found particularly intriguing.
Abunzi are people trusted by their local communities to settle their disputes impartially. Because their ‘court’ is sitting, the old man smoking a pipe outside the hall this morning is one of the witnesses who must avoid listening to the testimony of another witness, so as to give unbiased testimony when his turn comes.
In the hall, a small crowd of the local peasantry are quietly listening, seated on wooden benches that are arranged methodically as in a church, while one of them is on his feet giving testimony of the case as he knows it.
The case at hand may be a piece of land in dispute, a few crops that were trampled by someone’s animals or a house that was partially destroyed by a tree that fell from another person’s homestead. Listening intently and taking notes furiously at a table on a raised dais in front of the hall are Abunzi.
Abunzi are not peculiar only to this part of Rwanda. They are members of the mediation committees that are spread all over the country, and Iduha is only one of very many similar, innovative community expediters of law.
Section 4, Article 159 of the Rwandan constitution established a mediation committee in each of the smallest administrative units, known as the ‘Sector’. Sectors form districts, which in turn form the five provinces of Rwanda: Kigali City, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western provinces.
The mediation committee members of a Sector are responsible for mediating between parties to certain disputes involving matters determined by law prior to the filing of a case with the court of first instance.
Abunzi comprise twelve residents of the Sector who are persons of integrity and are acknowledged for their mediating skills. They are elected from among persons who are not members of the decentralised local government, legislative or judicial organs, for a term of two years that may be extended.
It must be noted that Abunzi are different from ‘Inyangamugayo’, also persons of integrity who preside over ‘Gacaca’ trials that deal with crimes of genocide. However, the two committees handle a huge chunk of the conflicts in bruised Rwanda and are thus able not only to free up the legal system but also to build leadership values at grassroots level.
Abunzi, like their counterparts in the Gacaca courts, Inyangamugayo, are regularly trained in judicial matters and are helped in their sensitisation activities by competent institutions like universities. These simple arbitration innovations have proved so effective that the peasant folk of Rwanda everywhere are singing praises to them.
However, what intrigued me most about the Abunzi ‘courthouse’ of Iduha was the composition of the ‘jury’. Among the twelve members of the committee of Abunzi huddled around the table on the raised platform, eight were women, most of them with babies strapped on their backs: “The mothers are more partial because they care that both parties should not only receive their justice but also understand that unfairness to each other does not pay,” quipped one elderly man who was waiting for his case to be settled.
Unlike the classical system that is long, arduous and costly, this parallel ‘court system’ helps in quickly solving disputes, as well as problems both in administration and the judicial structure. It contributes in the fight against poverty by reducing on costs of arbitration and promotes understanding among Rwandans, and people have a renewed confidence in a judicial system that they had long given up on.
The populace is wholly immersed in settling their own problems while maintaining understanding among them, and they are eradicating acrimony that for long had marked the Rwandan society.
In a country where impunity had reigned supreme, this emerging fairness is taking root in the whole of Rwanda and the women are leading the crusade for its implementation. Most importantly, the women in their big number are playing a role in something that Rwanda is building, sometimes without the notice of the outside world: justice as the pillar of development.
No doubt, the successful Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum meeting of February 22nd and 23rd that attracted the distinguished presence of the Liberian president, Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and more than four hundred delegates from all over the world, is a recognition of the world that the Rwandan leadership is putting its money where its mouth is.
However, President Paul Kagame should be hailed more for being at the forefront of this leadership that has recognised the need for good governance, and the central role all Rwandans must play in their proportionate importance, if it is to be realised, and not only for the emancipation of women.
Of course, that the Women Africa Solidarity (FAS) and the Committee of the African Women for Peace and Development (AWCPD) have decided to award the African Gender Award to Rwandans through their president is welcome news to any one who has observed Africa and how the continent has long suffered under the yolk of misrule.
It is important, however, to note that Rwanda in the past decade has achieved a lot more in terms of fairness, justice and development than a mere 49% women representation in parliament. A look at the socio-politico-economic transformation at the grassroots of Rwanda reveals a country headed for near-utopian justice.
As for the women, they enjoy significant representation in all sectors, and sometimes their representation may be even more than 80%, and the case of Abunzi of Iduha is but one little example. Their evident visibility is only the tip of the iceberg and underneath lies the new Rwandan leadership’s determination to give expression to the energies of her individual citizens on a levelled and fair field.
It is so with women as it is with men, with the disabled as with the youth, with the public as with the private sectors. It is so with the journalists, and maybe international bodies like Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International that cry “Human Rights Abuse!” whenever a journalist cries “Wolf!” are missing something. They might give their credibility a lot more boost by investigating the capacity and intent of those very journalists first.