President Paul Kagame spent the first two days of last week in the Southern Province talking to local leaders and citizens.
His speeches focused on three themes: How to fight poverty; ensure accountability and security. Kagame’s message to leaders and citizens can be summarised thus: “Work hard. Work together. Use resources well. Don’t wait for outsiders to solve the problems you can solve yourself. Security is important and citizens have a role to secure it. Leaders must do their job. Mindset change key.”
That said, the juiciest part of the visit came in the question-and-answer session after the president addressed residents in Nyamagabe district.
The engagement offered a good social setting to discern not merely how leaders interact with ordinary citizens but understanding social relations and the main problems affecting society. As often happens when the president visits the countryside and offers to listen to and answer citizens’ queries, Kagame was met with dozens of unresolved social, judicial and economic problems.
While there were some problems relating to agriculture and the recurrent scarcity of seeds to plant, which affect yields, from my count, 96 per cent of the problems were to do with land, land wrangles and delayed or denied justice.
In particular, complaints ranged from unresolved court cases related to land, demolition of citizens buildings by local authorities; lack of compensation from the government for land expropriated in national interest and gender bias in settling property-related disputes.
Anyone who has followed the president’s trips in the districts in recent years will note that the problems raised are similar to those raised in other districts where the president has visited.
So, why are these problems recurrent despite a call, made many times in the past, for local leaders to resolve them?
In local speak, some of one of the reasons given for the persistence of these problems is that Abanyarwanda bakunda imanza (Rwandans like court cases) and that even when courts give a final verdict, some refuse to give up or accept the conclusions.
But this is overly simplistic. The second explanation, often offered by President Kagame himself is that leaders don’t do their job as required.
Indeed, most of the cases brought up could easily be solved by local leaders; and in fact, some cases are caused by them.
For example, I personally know of a land dispute case where local leaders gave documents confirming ownership of plots of land to both the plaintiff (claiming customary ownership) and the defendant (claiming buying the land); causing unnecessary confusion in court.
Objectively then, the unresolved problems speak to institutional weaknesses and lack of co-ordination between institutions especially with regard to closing of court cases where bailiffs or the intervention of local leaders is required.
The lack of state compensation for appropriated land could be understood by some either as the inability of the government to pay due to lack of funds or willingness to; a factor that doesn’t encourage trust with citizens.
But the lack of compensation for expropriated land is more problematic because not only is land the basic resource for most Rwandans, but it also relates to the broader land question and how it has been managed thus far.
For instance, while a political decision was taken after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi to resettle citizens who didn’t have land, today, there are still cases and disputes in courts relating to individuals who later returned and claimed land rights under customary provisions of the law on land that had already been allocated by the state.
This problem needs to be addressed urgently, because if courts were to be allowed to overturn political decisions taken to grant land to thousands of returnees and other landless families at the time, it will open a Pandora’s box as there would be thousands more making similar claims.
Apart from the broader land problem, the character of the problems raised and the fact that when the president intervenes they are solved without any harm to anyone or institution illustrates the distance we are yet to travel to ensure that local leaders take their job serious.
To end the recurrence of such problems will require not only sensitising local leaders to be more responsive to citizens’ needs but also strengthening institutions and their co-ordination.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: ckayumba@ yahoo.com; twitter account: @Ckayumba