Seventeen years ago, the Government of Rwanda adopted the National Decentralisation Policy, whose the ultimate goal was to allow the citizenry to take charge of their country and to hold leaders accountable.
The policy, which was introduced following decades of misrule that characterised the country culminating into the Genocide against Tutsi, aimed at increasing citizen participation in decision-making, enhancing transparency and accountability, and to ensure sustainable local economic development.
The move, which came immediately after Paul Kagame took office as President of Rwanda in 2000, followed three main choices he had made to rebuild the country after the Genocide against Tutsi.
Those choices are; unity, accountability and thinking big.
Politically, centralisation simply means that a group of few people in a particular place exercise full control over a country or an organisation.
Decentralisation is the opposite of Centralisation. It refers to the process of transferring powers, authority, functions, responsibilities and the requisite resources from a central government to local governments.
It was, however, going to be difficult to suddenly decentralise governance in Rwanda without causing administrative chaos, because the country had, over centuries, been managed under centralised systems.
Thus, decentralisation was conceived to be implemented into phases.
The first phase was Deconcentration, whereby services and functions reserved to be performed by central government were executed by central government public servants located in local governments but hierarchically responsible directly to central government.
The second phase was Delegation, whereby services and functions reserved to be performed by central government were delegated to local governments and the requisite resources transferred to them for effective provision of these delegated services.
The last and current phase is the Devolution, under which the district is autonomous with its council and powers, authority, functions, responsibilities, services and resources which were previously centralised and have been transferred to local governments.
The policy was guided by the “funds follow functions” principle, meaning that all transferred responsibilities should match with financial and human resources, all geared toward economic, political and administrative empowerment and reconciliation of the people of Rwanda to determine their livelihood and own their destiny.
Decentralisation is among the major reforms the country undertook in the aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi. It put an end to the all-powerful mayors (then referred to as bourgmestres) and empowered citizens so much they now can freely and independently decide on their governance and development.
The then mayors were known by the French acronyms of “Triple C” ( to mean, cachet (stamp), cachot (jail) and cash).
For the first “C” (cachet), mayors could not be challenged and citizens would hardly succeed in such a petition. The mayor had full powers to decide on which service to be given to the citizen or to influence any decision that would likely go against their wish. When the mayor had signed and sealed or not, it was…the end.
The second “C” (cachot) meant that mayors had power (abuse of power) to arrest and detain anybody. And the “police communale” staff were only there to serve the mayors’ interests.
The third C (cash) meant that mayors had full control over the management of the district finances and assets. There were no accountability mechanisms in place. The district accountant would serve the mayor, not the district.
Not only was the above a clear indicator of absolute power – which lacked minimum of transparency and accountability standards –, but it was also a political system that not serve the citizenry.
Rwandans today can be happy with what they have achieved. The weekly citizens outreach activities at the grassroots are among the various mechanisms through which the citizens’ voices are heard.
Recently, a national participatory planning exercise allowed the general public, right from the grassroots, to decide on projects and investments the Government should implement for local and national development and transformation.
There has since been a paradigm shift that has ended era of the mighty mayors, into one of the mighty citizens.
The annual performance contracts (Imihigo) for leaders have been institutionalised in local governments and this promotes a healthy competition in service delivery, community ownership and accountability among the different districts.
Both the mayors and citizens feel the pressure to deliver in their respective roles, which also promotes unity and solidarity.
The issue today is about the quality of services to be delivered to the citizenry. I am happy we all have the right to quality services. That achievement is about good governance and accountability.
Indeed, Rwanda has changed for good. We should keep the momentum. It is a shared responsibility for all of us to consolidate and sustain the gains of the liberation struggle.
Social protection programmes such as Girinka, Mutuelle de Santé, anti- malnutrition efforts, decent housing, community health workers, universal basic education, among others, are indicators of a people-centred government and a dignified population.
Today, the district budget exceeds ten billion Rwandan francs, fourfold the budget for the parent ministry (Local Government and Social Affairs), while districts employ hundreds of staff.
Could we have the staff and services deconcentrated again to the cell level? I believe it is possible and it would be more effective because the foundation is strong.
The journey has been long and difficult, but decentralisation has paid off for Rwanda. It only required visionary leaders, and a united, empowered people.
The author is a member of the Pan African Movement, Rwanda Chapter.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.