Traditional African methods of conflict resolution exist within a particular cultural context and have been practiced for extended periods of time, evolving within African societies, rather than being a product of external importation. Their role in seeking peaceful solutions to local disputes is unquestionable. Traditional methodologies are built around concepts of mediation, restitution, conciliation, restoration, and compensation. They are rooted in the economic environment, socio-political, cultural and historical contexts of societies allowing them to be responsive to local realities. The Rwandan Abunzi reconciliation system is one of the many successful examples of home-grown solutions to dispute mediation and conflict resolution that is based off of traditional concepts of justice.
The word ‘Abunzi’ can be translated into ‘those who reconcile’ or ‘those who bring together’ (from the verb kunga). Traditionally, Abunzi were men known within their communities known for their integrity as mediators and were asked to intervene in the event of conflict arising. To this day, Abunzi committees draw off of these traditional conciliation practices and play a central role in settling local conflicts in Rwanda. Currently, the submission of disputes to ‘Abunzi’ committees is a mandatory preliminary precedure used for resolving a large number of disputes prior to cases being referred to the formal court system. In fact, parties to a civil dispute are required to submit that dispute involving matters whose monetary value does not exceed amount of money fixed by law prior to the filing of a case with the court of first instance, i.e. the Primary Court. Firmly established throughout the country there are presently 2,564 mediation committees with over 30,000 practicing ‘Abunzi’ in operation. Reflecting the Rwandan government’s commitment to facilitating access to justice for its citizens, the conciliation process through ‘Abunzi’ is free, accessible and participatory.
The ‘Abunzi’ are chosen on the basis of their integrity and mandated by the state to handle local cases within a certain monetary value. Article 141 of the 2003 Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda revised in 2015 sets up the ’Abunzi’ committees with the responsibility of conciliating parties in conflict with the aim of consolidating national unity and peaceful coexistence among Rwandans. The ‘Abunzi’ committees, which exist in every cell and sector, are elected by their community in theaim of allowing for local ownership that promotes community participation. The ‘Abunzi’ are a clear example of the synergies between the state and local grassroots methods of conflict resolution. These conciliation committees are creating space for ordinary citizens to participate in public processes, such as justice delivery and governance reform. Rwanda’s decentralized approach to justice is not only accessible, but also affordable. Essentially opening up democratic spaces for various actors to exercise their agency in a constructive manner. Responding to the overburdened modern court system in Rwanda, the ‘Abunzi’ system of conciliation has helped to address the question of access to justice by ordinary Rwandans, who might not be able to afford to participate in the formal litigation justice environment.
iPeace maintains a strong relationship with local ‘Abunzi’ and encourages its clients to seek peaceful conflict resolution through the processes before ‘Abunzi’. The majority of our cases that reach local ’Abunzi’ committees are resolved without further action having to be taken within the formal court system. These traditional institutions have complemented the state, which is oftentimes too overwhelmed and under-resourced to be able to offer effective justice in a timely manner. The ‘Abunzi’ conciliation restorative approach helps people to address their conflicts without resorting to litigation and other retributive approaches.
Traditional conflict resolution institutions often aim for the restoration of broken relationships. The punishment of perpetrators is not their priority. The law N° 37/2016 of 08/09/2016 determining organisation, jurisdiction, competence and functioning of ‘Abunzi’ committee actually prohibits ‘Abunzi’ giving punitive sentences. Hearings gain compliance mostly because of a combination of conciliation and state-backed threats, as Abunzi can request the services of the police when witnesses and parties fail to cooperate with the conciliation.
Besides resolving the conflict, a vital aspect of the traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution in African societies is their capacity to involve members of the public and to build a sense of community through engaging and participative methodologies to resolve disputes. Usually the resolution of conflict by traditional institutions is done in the presence of family, community or tribe members, allowing for the construction and restoration of the notion of belonging and communality. Abunzi committee sessions are open to everyone, including the family members of the disputants and members of the public. When compared with the retributive system of the modern courts, the ‘Abunzi’ system showcases the values and principles of decentralisation of power, communal participation and consensus-based decision making.
Traditional institutions of conflict resolution are part of the evolving modern civilisation and should no longer be perceived as simply isolated rituals occurring in remote rural villages and townships. Traditional institutions have become a part of the modern post-conflict state, hence the notion of ‘hybrid’ political orders. African mechanisms for conflict resolution are unique, context-specific, and responsive to the justice needs of societies. As Africa continues to develop and strengthen its political institutions, attention ought to be drawn to ensure that these traditional methodologies are preserved and incorporated into modern governance systems. The ‘Abunzi’ conciliation system is a distinct example of the benefits of merging traditional context-specific, cultural methodologies in order to address modern day issues that the state and its citizens face. Therefore, it is important not only to give due recognition to such institutions but also help to facilitate increased collaboration between the traditional and modern institutions of conflict resolution throughout the continent.
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