Government institutions’ raison-d’être is to serve individuals

Two weeks ago this column raised some storm that has not yet fizzled out. The point was that I should not pair the Rwandan Directorate of Immigration and Emigration with the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) and hand them equal praise for exemplary service delivery.

Two weeks ago this column raised some storm that has not yet fizzled out. The point was that I should not pair the Rwandan Directorate of Immigration and Emigration with the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) and hand them equal praise for exemplary service delivery.

No one faults the immigration department on its service delivery, though. Rwandan tax payers and foreign investors seem united in condemning RRA over the way it treats them. Of course, many of those familiar with the Rwanda of yesteryears admit the treatment has seen considerable improvement. However, there is still a long way to go.

One particular story stands out for singular mention for its bizarre nature. It concerns a gentleman who knows Rwanda probably better than many Rwandans and who frequently expresses his impressions in the weekly Kenya-based newspaper, ‘The East African’. Mr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi has for long been doing research in, and often travels around, the country.

Golooba explains that every time he works on matters related to taxation, he has been “hit by an avalanche of complaints”. But going by the grief that he himself has suffered, maybe Golooba should be citing his own complaint even before that “avalanche of complaints”. 

In April 2010, he bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle at 18 million Francs. Before a year was over, however, his happy drive around during his research was brought to an abrupt end. His car was impounded for tax evasion. Yet, for his frequent travels in his research, a vehicle is indispensable.

All are agreed that tax evasion should be punished with utmost severity. Only in this case, the evader of the taxes is not Golooba. The evader is the seller of the car. What is perplexing is that the seller seems to be a car dealer who is very well known to RRA. Yet from March 14th, Golooba has been forced to incur huge expenses on his behalf, hiring vehicles while his 18m-Franc rescuer rots in the RRA parking yard.

When I enquired, RRA authorities corroborated the story in Golooba’s e-mail. They explained that their efforts to have the seller held in remand were frustrated by the court that released him on bail. And, since they had no other exhibit to hold against him, they resorted to seizing the car.

The Commissioner General explained he was looking for the official who allowed the registration of the car in Golooba’s names when there was a case of tax evasion. One official even advised Golooba to pay the unpaid taxes and await re-imbursement when the dealer finally pays. Beat that for illogic!

Suggesting double punishment for an innocent man? I know many officials in RRA to be hard-working and dedicated to their duty, but they’ll need to be more creative than this.

Yet again, this case may point to something bigger than the taxing body. President Kagame has on many occasions said that Rwanda is a work in progress, and this may be an example of the mismatched growth of the different institutions of Government. While RRA wants its dues without fail, the courts do not execute punishment of defaulters in time.

But beyond the immaturity of our court system, there may even be the possibility that the conventional court system itself is fundamentally flawed.  Just for hypothetical purposes, consider the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, which is charged with trying the architects and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

While the traditional Gacaca court system in Rwanda has so far cleared more than 1 million genocide dossiers, the UNICTR has labored through a trifling 54 cases at the obscenely high cost of more than $2bn. Which sends the frightening message that the conventional Western court system may never catch up with the rapid, extensive reforms that institutions in the country are undergoing.

So, suppose this RRA case had been referred to Gacaca. The offender – Abdalahamani Nzabarimana – who sold a car knowing he had taxation problems for under-declaring its true value, would have been called in front of women/men of integrity. So would have been the RRA official for managing this flawed transaction. Each case would have been examined and appropriate punishment would have been meted out to each party accordingly.

Every vexation would have been ironed out through calm discussion rather than vehement argument or insult-trading. The innocent buyer would only have been required to appear maybe in one session as a witness, after which he would have been spared the pain of being deprived of the power to smoothen his work. Today, even if justice were to be restored to him, it has been delayed and therefore denied.

Whatever methods of work our government may choose to adopt, its institutions must know that they apply them in the interest of individuals. In the event that any right of an individual has been infringed on, restitution must be immediate and apology explicit.

An institution like RRA whose life depends on individual taxes must know this, more than any other institution.
In her race to catch up with modernity, Rwanda needs institutions that meet her high aspirations to the letter.

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