The word Abunzi can be translated as ‘those who reconcile’ or ‘those who bring together’ (from verb kunga). In the traditional Rwanda, Abunzi were men known within their communities for personal integrity and were asked to intervene in the event of conflict. Each conflicting party would choose a person considered trustworthy, known as a problem-solver, and who was unlikely to alienate either party. The purpose of this system was to settle disputes and also to reconcile the conflicting parties and restore harmony within the affected community.

As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions - culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is the Mediation Committees, also known as Abunzi.

Abunzi can be seen as a hybrid form of justice combining traditional with modern methods of conflict resolution. The reintroduction of the Abunzi system in 2004 was motivated in part by the desire to reduce the backlog of court cases, as well as to decentralise justice and make it more affordable and accessible for citizens seeking to resolve conflict without the cost of going to court. Today Abunzi is fully integrated into Rwanda’s justice system.

This conflict resolution mechanism rooted in Rwandan culture was perceived as more accessible, less threatening and therefore more intimate and human. Those who referred their cases to Abunzi were more comfortable seeking mediation from within their community, which afforded them a better understanding of the issues and process at hand. As the Abunzi system gained more recognition as a successful method to resolve conflict and deliver justice, the importance of providing more structure and formality to their work increased. Consequently, the Abunzi started receiving trainings on mediating domestic conflicts, as well as logistical support from both governmental and non-governmental organisations, to improve the quality of their mediation services. In 2012, 30,768 Abunzi were operating across Rwanda.

Mediation committee services

During the fiscal year ending June 2017, Mediation committees received 51,016 cases. They are composed of 45,503 civil cases representing 89.1% and 5,513 penal cases received before the amendment of law determining organization, jurisdiction, competence and functioning of mediation committees. A total of 49,138 cases equivalent to 96.3% were handled at both sector and cell levels. 38,777 (76.0%) cases received by mediation committees were handled at cell level, 10,361 (20.3%) cases were mediated at sector level whereas only 3.6% were undergoing at the end of the year. The number of cases received by mediation committees increased at the rate of 30.9% over the past three years.