Accountability is a word that has been in the news a lot lately. Not everyone likes it. Quite a few actually hate it. When accused of not being accountable, some people will mumble some inaudible, incoherent response and hope that is the last they hear of it.
Others will cringe and cower at its mention. Inventive ones will fashion synonyms for it, such as intolerance and autocratic.
Why has accountability become a contentious and uncomfortable topic? Many will say that it becomes an issue only when its demands catch up with an individual, not before. The discomfort, it seems to me, is because accountability means living up to standards of conduct in public affairs that many find difficult to match.
Accounatability has been mentioned in the same breath as other words – leadership, responsibility and service. It means therefore that it must be seen in the way an individual discharges the responsibilty that goes with the office he holds and the commitments that he makes in order to fulfil these responsibilities.
Responsibility also means not only dutifully carrying out the routine demands of the office, but more importantly, ensuring that services are delivered to those for whom they are intended. In other words it is the discharge of a social contract. When the contract is breached, accountability is not fully met.
The performance of particular duties require resources – financial and material. In this sense the provision of resources as a condition for the performance of a given task is a contractual arrangement.
If the resources are diverted, then the contract has been breached. This is where there has been the greatest problem. Lack of accountability has often been equated with diversion of resources from a particular function.
It is clear that an individual is accountable at three levels. First, one is accountable to the public for whom he provides services and on whose behalf various leaders hold office. Second, one is accountable to the chief executive who has placed trust in him in the discharge of a public responsibility. And third, one is accountable to his conscience.
If this is the case, why is it so difficult to keep to the contract? I think one of the reasons has to do with the attitude to public office and public resources. These are seen as a free-for-all.
There is no harm in dipping one’s hand in the till and taking away your ‘share’ before someone else does (there is sure to be someone else). Our neighbours have an apt phrase for this attitude. They call it ‘falling into things’. It is really like hitting the jackpot.
Equally, no one will blame you if you put your interests first. In fact you are expected to. The same neighbours have another useful expression for this. They say one’s ‘turn to eat’ has arrived and no one should say no to the invitation to a free meal.
Another reason has its roots in the colonial period and the first two post-independence governments. The colonial state was seen as an alien institution. You could cheat it without feeling guilty about it. The post-colonial governments were exclusionist.
Those who were `in’ felt the state was theirs and were therefore entitled to `eat’. Those excluded got fed up with the crumbs and eventually pushed the first lot away from the plate and began to eat. They, in turn, kept others away. Entitlement and exclusion have therefore, combined to deny complete ownership of the Rwandan state.
A related reason is donor-dependency. Getting used to handouts from do-gooders(abagiraneza) is bad for developing a sense of ownership and accountability. There is always a tendency to spend lavishly what you have not worked for because it does not feel like it is yours. You can even steal it because it does not belong to you and the owner is far away. Worst of all it does not encourage work.
Still, theft is a sin and diversion of resources for personal use a crime. People who do either must have developed a way of cheating or silencing their conscience. Indeed they have. One such way is in the use of language. They distance themselves from the state which they refer to as ‘they’.
Public resources belong to ‘them’. But ‘they’ and ‘them’ remain unidentified, anonymous. So it makes it easier to steal from ‘no one’. There is ‘no one’ to whom one is accountable.
The distancing is also a means of denying ownership of the state and public resources. They can be taken without any feeling of shame or guilt..
All this does not, of course, mean that those who do it do not really know the owner of public resources . They do. This is only an attempt to explain away their lack of public responsibility, absence of public spirit and unwillingness to account.
All is not doom and gloom, however. Attitudes are beginning to change, especially those of ordinary people.
First is the change of attitude to work. People are now working hard to create their own wealth. They see the benefits.
They are paying taxes. So they have a stake in national wealth (resources) and how it is used and will increasingly demand accountability from those who manage it.
Secondly they are increasingly making democratic choices and will demand that their leaders be accountable to them.
In the past, whenever the president visited a district, he was met with a litany of laments.
Now he is greeted with a list of proud achievements. Perhaps before long, accountability will no longer be a feared or distorted word, but a normal part of our values.