Upon the death of her husband, Vivian Mukagahima, a 60-year-old woman in Nyagatare District, discovered that a significant portion of her small plot of land had been encroached on by her neighbour.
When she tried to confront him, he threatened her, arguing that it had been his land all along. She reported the case to the district authorities. They advised her to seek services of mediators, locally known as “Abunzi”.
After listening to both parties and visiting the land under disputr, the mediators were able to settle the dispute and within a few days, Mukagahima won back her land from the neighbour.
Her success is, however, not shared by all. Marie Goreti Mukeshimana, a 50-year-old mother of five, residing in Nyarugenge District, Ngari sector, woke up one morning and realised that she was no longer permitted to till her farmland. Her husband had sold it to a wealthy man without her consent.
After failing to convince her husband to get back the land, she decided to sue him. Her case was recorded and two years down the road, it is still unresolved, lying somewhere in a court backlog.
Like Mukeshimana, several residents are not aware that Abunzi can help to solve their land disputes much faster than legal courts.
According to Johnston Busingye, the Minister for Justice, most land disputes in the country are small claims that can be resolved through mediation.
“The courts and the lawyer system is not only expensive, tedious and complicated, but it also risks issues like hired witnesses and conspiracies because the sessions happen far away from the land in dispute,” Busingye said at the weekend while addressing the 2013 National Land Dialogue.
“Mediators have an advantage because they reside in the areas where land disputes arise. They know the people; know their children and neighbours, so they are in the best position to provide credible solutions to disputing parties.”
Land wrangles still dominate cases received by the Office of the Ombudsman, with 525 out of 3,662 cases reported in 2010 and 2011 being land related. According to the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD), the Abunzi have arbitrated and concluded 788 land disputes in five districts in three years.
“The Abunzi system will be celebrating 10 years of existence in 2014. Through their work, we have realised that they have the potential to mediate most of the pending land disputes between families and residents,” Annie Kairaba, the Director of RISD said during the National Land Dialogue.
She, however, warned that the sustainability of their work depends on support, especially from the government.
“The Abunzi work as committed volunteers. If they are to satisfy high expectations from the community, with increasing responsibilities from the government, there is need for government to rethink a long term strategy to technically assist them,” Kairaba said.
The Deputy Director of Lands and Mapping at Rwanda Natural Resources Authority (RNRA), Didier Sagashya, urged Rwandans to register their land in order to solve disputes that may arise on ownership.
“Every Rwandan with land must secure their land rights. This will make it more efficient when solving land disputes, which are a result of multiple social, economic and historical processes,” Sagashya said.
Statistics from NISR indicate that nearly half of all reported disputes are over land that is less than one hectare, whereas, 85 percent of disputes are on land that is registered.
How Abunzi work
Like the Gacaca system, (a traditional conflict resolution mechanism) the Abunzi system was inspired by Rwandan traditional values of dispute resolution through the form of family meetings. In 2006, the Abunzi were created under the Organic Law with a task to mediate disputes that may arise among people living in the same community, in an affordable and accessible manner.
There are two types of Abunzi; a mediation committee whose jurisdiction is at the cell level and the appeal mediation committee with jurisdiction at the sector level.
The mediation committee is comprised of 12 residents of the cell and the sector respectively, with a task to resolve civil and criminal disputes related to land.
Such cases are by law not supposed to go beyond a settlement value of RWf3 million.