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Abunzi Mediation: Rwanda

Abunzi Mediation: traditional conflict resolution for community empowerment and participation

June 3, 2023
Author: Laura Ospina

Rwanda’s Abunzi1 Mediation Committees are a unique, context-specific, traditional mechanism for conflict resolution that responds to the justice needs of communities emerging from conflict. The Abunzi are part of the Rwandan justice system and emphasize a restorative approach2 for people to address their conflicts. It creates a synergy between formal and community/customary justice, by complementing the role of the state, which is often overwhelmed and under-resourced to be able to offer timely and effective justice.3

The Abunzi mediators are recognized members of a community. They are chosen by municipal authorities, and vetted by the Ministry of Justice, on the basis of their integrity (local community recognition for being honest and having strong moral principles), and address local cases of a civil and criminal nature, such as land ownership and land succession issues, as well as child care compensation for abandoned children, breach of mutual agreements, issues of domestic violence, and familial matters, among others.4

After a dispute is submitted to the Committee, the parties involved choose three Abunzi among the Committee members to preside over their session. The mediation is public, unless decided by the Abunzi on their own initiative or upon request. During the session, the Abunzi hears from each party and from witnesses, when presented by the parties. During the mediation, the Abunzi helps both parties to reach a compromise, and when parties fail to do so, the Abunzi render a decision in accordance with the law, culture of the place where the dispute is being settled, or their own conscience, provided the decision is not contrary to written law. A dispute must be settled within one month from the day the dispute is registered and the verdict must be written and signed by the Abunzi on every page of the mediation agreement and made available within ten days after the dispute is resolved.5

During Abunzi sessions, the notion of “oneness” or the concept of abanyarwanda (Rwandan-ness), as opposed to being Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa,6 is always a central part of the mediations. In other words, its main premise is that a conflict does not only affect the two parties involved but also the community in which they live. As such, these mediations are usually carried out in the presence of family, clan, or community members, and promote the re-construction of the notion of oneness, of belonging to a community.7


Even though Abunzi mediators pre-date colonialism, as they are part of a traditional communal form of conflict resolution, the system gained recognition throughout the country after the 1994 genocide. In 2006, the Rwandan government passed Organic Law (No. 31/2006) which recognized the role of Abunzi in conflict resolution, as a way of decentralizing justice, and making it affordable and accessible for people at every level.8 It ensured the creation and implementation of the Abunzi Mediation Committees, as a fora for public participation in community dispute resolution. The Ministry of Justice and local authorities are responsible for the supervision of the Abunzi Committees.9

Currently, over 38,000 Abunzi mediators operate in Rwanda at the local level, and by 2020, it was estimated that the committees had managed to resolve over 90,000 disputes amongst different groups of individuals. Abunzi committees are composed of twelve people, and are elected by the Cell Council or the Sector Council,10 respectively, for a renewable term of five years.11 Specified in Law No 31/2006, as well as in Organic Law 02/2010/OL, before seeking justice in local courts, mediation by the Abunzi is mandatory for cell and sector level disputes, criminal cases and civil cases, where property value is below RWF 3 million (around USD 2,700).12


Even though the Abunzi serve on a volunteer and non-remunerated basis, they do receive in-kind compensations from the government, as well as from the private sector. For instance, during the 2018-19 fiscal year, a total of 15,183 Abunzi and their 56,799 dependents were provided with 100 percent community health insurance. 13,030 Abunzi were provided with monthly communication airtime (i.e., SIM cards) to facilitate communication with fellow Abunzi and staff from the Ministry of Justice; and a total of 13,100 bicycles were provided to Abunzi mediators to facilitate their daily work. 13


In an interview in 2020, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Johnston Busingye, stated that Abunzi mediation had helped reduce court cases by 85 percent, with 78 percent positive citizen perception, and a 77 percent integrity level.14

Additionally, the Abunzi system has opened spaces for ordinary citizens to participate in public processes, such as justice delivery and governance reform. For example, the Constitution ensures that at least 30 percent of the mediators that are part of the Committees are women.15 As such, the system has enabled women’s active participation, not only as mediators, but also as champions of change that challenge notions of vertical hierarchy that are often found in traditional/customary institutions.16

As the Abunzi system has gained more traction and recognition as a successful conflict resolution and justice delivery method, the Rwandan government has recognized the importance of providing more structure and formality to their work. As such, the Abunzi now receive periodic trainings in, for example, domestic conflict resolution, as well as logistical support from both governmental and non-governmental organizations, to improve the quality of their mediation services.17

However, the Abunzi Committees do face challenges where they have sometimes fallen victim to being politicized and instrumentalized by elites for a number of different reasons18. As they are part of the justice system, many times increased state involvement in the determination of the jurisdiction, mandate, and conduct of the Abunzi can dilute their independence—posing the danger of state-centrism in these local and decentralized initiatives.19

Nevertheless in Rwanda, a traditional institution has become a part of the modern post-conflict state creating a synergy between traditional and modern institutions of conflict resolution. Thus, its foundation has had to shift. Today, in matters of access to justice, the collaboration between the national government and local community justice systems is inevitable.