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Is corruption on the rise in the EAC’s cleanest country?

By Magnus Mazimpaka

Disheartening local investigations have reinforced the need for a strong Ombudsman office

One of the popular slogans about Rwanda is its zero tolerance for corruption. Last year, Transparency International published a report ranking Rwanda as the least corrupt country in the East African Community.

In terms of percentage, Rwanda scored 6.6 percent followed by Tanzania with 28.6 percent, Kenya with 31.9 percent, Uganda with 33 percent and Burundi with 36.7 percent.

Although it’s not scarring, 6.6 percent is still corruption and can be a significant figure based on different aspects.

After the report was released, Transparent Rwanda, a subsidiary of Transparent International, decided to conduct a nation wide survey to assess the perception and describe the nature of corruption that contributed to the 6.6 percent figure.

A total of 2400 households and 297 companies were interviewed to affirm whether they think corruption exists in public and private institutions. They were then asked to describe what they thought were the primary causes of corruption.

The report published eight types of corruption. They included giving a job to a relative who has no qualification, bribing public officials, giving demanding civil servants money in exchange for a favour, selling classified or confidential information, exempting traders on tax, selling public goods at a lower price, abuse of power, and diverting government projects to other areas.

Out of the 297 companies that were surveyed, at least 17 enterprises (5.7 percent) had paid bribes in the last 12 months preceding the survey. And out of the 17 companies, big enterprises (13.6 percent), especially in the service industry, were much more corrupt than small enterprises.

The report also discovered that 44 percent of all companies had bribed to speed up dossiers to avoid the official paper work.

By rank, the national police force is considered the most corrupt institution followed by the customs service, tax service and the health system. Interestingly, police, discredits the report saying it is unfair because it is not scientifically done.

Police Spokesperson Sup Theos Badege does not disagree that there are police officers who have been caught for taking bribes, but, he says, “those are isolated cases and they get punished; corruption is not instructional in our force.”

The other important thing is that the report does address the officials who steal or squander huge junks of state funds, yet the Auditor General reports that billions of francs disappear every year.

For example, in 2007, the Auditor General reported to the parliament that a whooping Rwf6.5b of taxpayer money was missing or unaccounted for.  In 2008, the figure went down slightly to approximately Frw4.4 billion. Last year, the Ombudsman’s office reported that it investigated 100 corruption cases, up from 30 in 2009. Whether this is on account of more corruption in the country or the result of the office’s improved ability to investigate is still unclear.

In recent years there have been several high profile cases that have come to the attention of the public: In 2009, prosecution discovered that George Katurebe, the then Director of Cepex (Central Public Investment and External Finance Bureau), had swindled close to Frw500 million.

Another grand case was that of the former governor of the eastern province, Theoneste Mutsindashyaka, who faced charges for continuously failing to declare all assets he owned to the Ombudsman’s office. Mutsindashyaka was also found guilty of wrongfully awarding a tender worth Rwf 1.7 billion for the construction of provincial headquarters.

According to both the Auditor General’s report and the Ombudsman’s report, corruption is much more understood in terms stealing public money, especially through tendering procedures and unaccounted expenditures.

After discovering that government was loosing billions of francs through tendering process, Rwanda decided to introduce the public procurement authority to allow free and fair competition and to minimize corruption in the system.

Close to 90 percent of the national budget now goes through a procurement process, according to Deputy Ombudsman Augustin Nzindukiyimana.

Rwanda’s public procurement authority, established in December 2007 to replace the National Tender Board, handles mega contracts and is only overseen by procurement technicians. Senior officials have no access and power to influence or get involved in tendering procedures.

To tighten the grip on combating corruption, the Ombudsman’s office is actively involved. All senior officials have to declare their wealth and assets every year, including the president.

The Ombudsman’s office has changed the landscape of governance and accountability in Rwanda. Currently, in a bill tabled to the parliament, the Ombudsman is seeking more powers to compliment its duties.

The controversial bill would give it the powers to prosecute or participate in the prosecution processes to improve the coordination of information between the two offices.

To justify the demand for powers, Nzindukiyimana cites the case of the director for prisons who had built a mansion worth tens of millions of francs even though his declaration of wealth specified that he earned only Frw45, 000 per month.

The director was asked to explain how he got the money to build such a house, to which he couldn’t provide any answers. “It was unthinkable that a person who earned such a salary can own a mansion,” says Nzindukiyimana.

However, the aggressiveness in checking corruption right from the top has not eroded corruption in Rwanda per say, instead, corruption has shifted its goal posts.

Signs and several corruption cases show that it is now deeply cultivating itself at the grassroots level.

Recently, a team of investigators from the Ombudsman’s office dug up corruption cases and malpractices in a government project charged with distributing thousands of cows to poor families across the country.

The team discovered hundreds of administrative leaders who had awarded themselves cows and deliberately diverted other cows to unintended recipients.

Observers believe corruption in Rwanda is too silent and bites hard. The kinds of assets senior officials own—mansions worth tens of millions of francs in posh neighbor hoods and fuel galloping SUVs—raise questions.

Nzindukiyimana agrees that this cannot be ignored, but he is reluctant to believe that they accumulate such wealth from state coffers.

He believes some officials benefit from credit schemes for civil servants, although some end up becoming notorious loan defaulters. “It is not easy to know where they get all the wealth, but at the same time I can’t say it is through corruption.”

The Independent would like to acknowledge that Eric Kabeera took the photos that appeared in the “Do-it-yourself circumcision” story that appeared in issue 157. We apologise for this.

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