Ombudsman outlines plans to intensify corruption fight

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Aloysie Cyanzayire, 52, former chief justice, is the Rwanda's first female chief ombudsman since 2013. (Faustin Niyigena)

Following last month’s report by Transparency International, which ranked Rwanda as the fourth least corrupt country in Africa, The New Times’ Eugene Kwibuka spoke to the country’s Chief Ombudsman Aloysie Cyanzayire to make sense of current efforts against corruption.

She says Rwanda can do more to fight corruption, starting by educating those who are still young about its evils and involving everyone in the crucial duty to report corruption cases.

She also talks about current challenges in the anti-graft campaign and how to address them.

The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2015 released last month by Transparency International ranks Rwanda as the fourth least corrupt country in Africa and 44th globally. How did you receive this news?

I would say that it’s a good step that we have made as Rwanda but I believe we can do better. My wish is that we make more steps as Rwandans to fight corruption and it’s possible. Being number 44 globally or number four in Africa means that there are people who are ahead of us. But what is important is not to compare ourselves with others, what is important is to assess what we are doing to reduce corruption. We may not succeed in ending corruption but we can do everything we can to significantly reduce it.

How does a corrupt-free society affect the country’s economy?

There are many economic benefits for a corrupt-free country and many problems for a country where there is a lot of corruption. Let me talk about the problems caused by corruption for a country in order to understand what would be the benefits for lack of corruption.

First of all, a country with a lot of corruption ends up without money to invest in common interest projects because the funds line individuals’ pockets and are used for personal interests.

When money is accumulated through corrupt means, it ends up being hidden in foreign bank accounts or invested in assets abroad instead of being used in the country of origin.

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Aloysie Cyanzayire shakes hands with Eugene Kwibuka after the interview. (Faustin Niyigena)

So, in a country where there is corruption, governments end up without money to invest in public-interest projects such as building schools and hospitals, paying teachers or providing electricity because the funds are stashed away and used for personal benefits.

So, can we say that Rwanda is reaping from its anti-corruption stance?

Of course there are a lot of things that we have been able to do because we try to fight corruption. And it should be understood that we can do much more if we can further reduce corruption.

Clearly Rwanda is among the least corrupt countries in the world. How did we manage to do it; what systems are there to help us fight corruption?

The main driver for the fight against corruption in our country is political will to do it. We have a zero-tolerance stance against corruption right from our country’s top leadership. We also have legal frameworks and government institutions that have been set up to fight corruption.

Institutions like the Auditor General’s office, classical judicial institutions, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Rwanda Public Procurement Authority, and the Public Service Commission help in the prevention and fight against corruption.

Another important thing that we have in Rwanda is the close collaboration between institutions in the fight against corruption. Their working together helps to achieve the goal of fighting corruption.

Can you explain how effective are those institutions in place?

Our office, the Office of the Ombudsman, has a responsibility to mobilise people so they can understand what corruption is and how to fight it. But we also have a mandate to prosecute corruption suspects on top of the prevention role.

There are other institutions which don’t have prosecutorial powers but help in the prevention of corruption and their work helps other institutions which have the powers. For example, the Office of the Auditor General assesses how the government money is spent.

Their audit reports help prosecution to trace how the money was used. In case a certain government project didn’t achieve its goals, prosecutors can use the audit report to investigate whether there were corruption cases involved.

So, the Auditor General’s report helps in prevention of corruption because people in different government institutions work with the expectation that someone will ask them about what they are doing.

Is the Office of the Ombudsman also mandated to fight corruption in the private sector or it’s just among public servants?

Yes, we fight corruption cases everywhere and at any institution. What matters is whether a corruption case is reported to us, we follow it up.

What’s the role of ordinary Rwandans in fighting corruption?

Every citizen has a role in fighting corruption. Many honest Rwandans have an important role in fighting corruption. They help designated institutions to prevent and fight corruption. Their role should first be to understand what corruption is and how it affects people’s lives in the country.

Honest Rwandans who understand the bad consequences of corruption should aim to always report it. They shouldn’t just observe corruption suspects; they should report them to the bodies in charge of fighting corruption.

The latter can’t achieve anything without people’s help.

What current challenges do you have as the Ombudsman’s office in fighting corruption?

The main challenge we have is people’s low participation in reporting corruption. Major reports about fighting corruption in Rwanda, such as Transparency International Rwanda’s reports and others, point to the fact that the level of reporting corruption in the country is still low. So, many people keep saying that there is corruption but very few actually make steps to report its specific cases.

Is it, maybe, because people don’t know the channels through which to report corruption?

I don’t think it’s about not knowing the channels because we explain them every day. People know the numbers to call to report corruption, they know that they can use suggestion boxes at different offices to report corruption, and they can send us messages even without mentioning their names, but they don’t do it enough. Sometimes we open the suggestion boxes we have placed at different offices and we find no messages in them.

So, why are people reluctant to report corruption cases?

I think it’s not in people’s habits here in Rwanda and it may be the same in many other societies. Most people like talking about their problems but they don’t tend to make steps at a personal level to solve them. So, we need to keep sensitising people to report the problems to relevant institutions.

Are there any other challenges in your work to fight corruption?

We still have challenges in engaging non-governmental stakeholders in the fight against corruption. Members of the media and the civil society are very critical partners in the fight against corruption but we haven’t fully used their potential.

We also need influential members of the private sector to play a more active role in the fight against corruption. As for the media, we still feel that there should be more investigative journalism to help us reveal corruption scandals. Some journalists keep saying that there is corruption in certain programmes such as Girinka (one-cow-per-family) but they don’t take time to investigate and bring us the evidence.

There are also challenges with our capabilities as institutions in charge of fighting corruption. For example, we need a forensic laboratory here at the Office of the Ombudsman but it requires a lot of money. Here in Rwanda, the police send samples to Germany for DNA tests.

In certain countries the police and the anti-graft body like ours should have their own forensic laboratories and other IT equipment that is used to gather evidence. Those are some of the things we don’t have and we find ourselves having to use the little means we have to achieve more.

What are you doing to address these challenges?

We want to strengthen our mobilisation campaigns to engage members of the private sector and the civil society in fighting corruption. We have started a special dialogue with members of the private sector and we want to work with the media to promote investigative journalism. We will also start a special dialogue with members of the civil society.

In terms of building capacities for our staff, we are working with the Institute of Legal Practice and Development (ILPD) to start anti-corruption studies. We want to use the institute to get qualified teachers who can train our staff from here without having to send them for costly studies abroad.

Let’s talk about recovering stolen public funds. We have a law in the country which says that offense-related assets owned by public servants should be recovered. How is this law being implemented?

The law is being implemented but it is the Ministry of Justice that is playing the main role in implementing this law.

Recovering public assets requires a process in courts and it’s mostly the Ministry of Justice that has the obligation to recover the public assets. But we will also be playing our bit in recovering public assets when we start prosecuting corruption cases since we now have prosecutors to do it. We also use the anti-corruption advisory council to raise the issue of recovering offense-related assets.

We believe that it wouldn’t be enough to punish culprits without compelling them to return the stolen assets. We think more should be done to recover offense-related assets.

There are complaints that corruption convicts in the country tend to be those involved with petty amounts of money while people who embezzle money in big government projects are rarely convicted of corruption. Where are the big fish among corruption convicts?

For me, the big-fish and small-fish thing has become more of a slogan than is the truth. I say this because when you look at people who were prosecuted for both corruption and embezzlement, you would find the big fish there.

But because people convicted with embezzlement don’t appear on our corruption convicts list, it gives the impression that the big fish are not touched.

The problem is that our laws don’t include embezzlement in corruption-related offenses. So, even if we at the Ombudsman’s office consider embezzlement as a corruption-related offense, we don’t document it because it’s not within the range of corruption in our Penal Code.

So, those who are convicted of embezzlement don’t appear on our annual corruption convicts list. We have suggested that the Penal Code be revised to include embezzlement among corruption-related offenses so that we can document its cases.

Otherwise, when you look at embezzlement cases, you will definitely find big fish there as convicts; people like ministers, permanent secretaries in ministries, heads of parastatals, and managers at the district level among others.

So, you believe putting embezzlement under corruption-related offenses in our Penal Code will help in identifying big fish among corruption convicts?

Yes, absolutely. I also want to urge people to not only talk about big fish in corruption but also report them to us.

When people talk about big fish that are not punished, it is as if they have information about them. They should therefore go ahead and report them so we can carry out investigations.

Let’s talk about the way forward in fighting corruption. Are there any new methods you hope to introduce to better fight corruption?

One of the things we want to do is to strengthen cooperation with other government institutions in charge of fighting corruption as well as members of the private sector and the civil society. Working with them is the only way we can win the fight against corruption.

We also want to engage young people in fighting corruption through education. We want to inculcate in them values of integrity. When you look at countries that are doing well in fighting corruption such as Scandinavian countries, they didn’t achieve it overnight.

They invested in teaching young people about the values of integrity and we need to do the same to achieve our goal in the long term. So, we have engaged the Ministry of Education and they have agreed to include values of integrity on the curriculum for primary schools. Teaching the right values to young people is key in fighting against corruption and it is in line with the country’s anti-graft policy.

Another thing that we want to do is to strengthen our systems to gather evidence needed in the fight against corruption. We want to use social media to encourage people to report corruption.

We also know that two months ago the first bailiff was appointed in the Office of the Ombudsman, how is a bailiff going to help you to do your work?

We have one bailiff who is in charge of enforcing court orders in case other country’s institutions in charge of doing it delay to deliver. Our bailiff will be executing a court order but also request that officials who delayed to enforce the court orders be held responsible.

Your office also has two prosecutors who started working this year, how are they going to work?

Now that we have prosecutors, it means that we can do preliminary investigations about certain crucial cases and go ahead and bring them to court without having to request the National Public Prosecution Authority to do it.

The prosecutors will also be helping investigators from other institutions to do their work while building a corruption related case.

How will you choose which cases to be taken up by your prosecutors and those to be sent to the Public Prosecution Authority?

It will be based on our own appreciation. We will not take on many cases because the Prosecution Authority is there to do it but we will be picking the most crucial cases that we feel we can handle. We may also decide to jointly handle the cases working with the prosecution authority.

We would also like to know whether you have been receiving many complaints from journalists about denied access to information.

The trend is not high. We have received some complaints but in small numbers.

People also talk about sex related corruption these days and they say it’s on the rise. Have you received any complaints?

People talk about it and it’s mentioned in the perception index by Transparency International but we don’t have many cases about it. There should be reasons for this because there are challenges where victims don’t come out and report the cases even if they definitely happen.

We have set up a special desk for sex related corruption since 2013 but up to now no one has reported to us. There are some cases about sex related corruption that we tried to investigate but victims couldn’t cooperate and we couldn’t build a consistent case to take to court.

Any other message you would like our readers to know?

What we want is for everyone to understand that the fight against corruption can’t be left to government institutions only. It should be everyone’s business because we are all affected by corruption. Africa is losing billions in corruption and we miss out on building good schools and hospitals in our countries.

We shouldn’t be happy with taking our children and sick ones to western schools and hospitals when we can build them here at home. We should aim for longer term benefits and build a system that favours everyone. It’s up to us to choose and build the system we want and everyone should play a role.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw