Control of Corruption in Rwanda?

Interview with ANTICORRP contributor Alessandro Bozzini

There is no space for corruption in Rwanda

Photo credit: Adam Jones (Creative Commons)

Last week marked 20 years since the start of the Rwandan Genocide, and many observers praise the country for the dramatic recovery it has made since 1994, especially with regard to economic development. Controlling corruption is often quoted as one of the key reasons of Rwanda’s success.

According to data from the World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators, between 1996-2011, Rwanda improved its control of corruption score moving from the 20th percentile to the 70th percentile. ANTICORRP project researchers identified the country as part of a number of “achiever” countries (those which had either improved dramatically in the rankings or were regional outliers) to be investigated more in-depth.

Alessandro Bozzini lived in Rwanda for three years, working on anti-corruption issues, and is the author of an upcoming project report on the country and the extent to which it has managed to control corruption. He was kind enough to share his experience working in Rwanda as an anti-corruption practitioner, as well as give us a preview of the report.

1. What challenges did you face when writing the report? What surprised you during the process?

I lived there for 3 years working on corruption issues, so when I was approached to write the paper I had the majority of the information and contacts that I needed.

A challenge in Rwanda is [obtaining] data. There is a different standard of record-keeping, first of all, and transparency is limited. People in general are also reluctant to discuss sensitive political issues and speak out on corruption, especially grand corruption.

2. From what you’ve seen, how has Rwanda changed in the past 20 years in terms of controlling corruption?

It’s interesting…people tend to compare Rwanda today with Rwanda 20 years ago, as if the country didn’t exist before the genocide. The country during and right after the genocide was at its lowest point, it was completely torn apart, so the change from then until now is indeed dramatic. However, some of the things people say now about Rwanda, that it’s a “development star,” were not unheard of in the 70s or 80s.

In terms of anti-corruption measures, after 1994, the leadership had to re-build the country, so the push toward cracking down on corruption came a bit later and has been quite successful at curbing  petty corruption. I’m not aware of any previous corruption studies on Rwanda, and of course I didn’t live in the country then, so I can’t really say how successful control of corruption was pre-1994, but I take the official narrative of, “the country then was very corrupt, but not now” with a grain of salt.

3. Let’s talk about governance indicators. By certain measures, Rwanda is performing incredibly well. Does this square with what is actually happening on the ground?

Relatively speaking, yes, because if you look at a number of indicators, you see that the country scores high on control of corruption indicators and low on other accountability indicators. Overall, I think you get a representative picture as indeed the country has managed to control some corruption, but there’s little transparency, no independent media, no independent judiciary, virtually no independent civil society…

4. How useful are governance indicators in the context of Rwanda and how do you think they could be more accurate – what do they miss?

It depends on the indicator. Rwanda poses a challenge in terms of governance indicators. There’s limited transparency and limited useful data. Like I said, people avoid talking about sensitive issues. Once, for example, I saw a survey showing that 92% of the population is satisfied with the job the police do. I’m always cautious when I see such high numbers out of any survey. There’s no real independent media, not much independent civil society, so it’s hard to say whether such surveys are biased toward the government narrative or not. Expert surveys and analyses on Rwanda tend to reveal opinions that are so polarised, that it’s difficult to use these as well.

5. In terms of governance and controlling corruption, what would you say is the greatest challenge the country is currently facing?

Corruption, at least petty corruption has been reduced via a top-down approach.  But petty corruption is not the main problem. The bigger issue is the presence of a mighty power conglomerate. Politics and economics are very tightly linked, and there are a number of companies closely associated with the party or with the army. Naturally, in such an arrangement, favouritism is likely to occur, particularly in procurement. There’s very little official opposition, as opposing parties have repeatedly been banned or failed to register. Parliament is quite weak, there’s virtually no public debate; everyone seems to agree with everyone else. Luckily the current leadership is invested in developing the country, but given the monopoly on power, there’s certainly a constant risk of grand corruption, particularly favouritism, conflict of interest and undue influence.

The biggest challenge that the leadership faces is strengthening institutions and granting real independence to the media, to civil society, to the judiciary. They currently control everything quite tightly.

6. Is there a penalty for corrupt behaviour? What happens to whistleblowers?

 Yes there is a penalty for corrupt behaviour and it’s disproportionately high. It’s good that there is a penalty of course and that law is enforced, but you have to wonder if people fall in line because they care about doing the right thing or because they’re afraid?

There’s a whistle-blower protection law. But a lot of people don’t speak out mainly because there’s just not a culture of debate and disagree in public. Also, public dissent is not tolerated by authorities. Therefore, people don’t speak out about sensitive issues. They discuss them behind closed doors.  

7. Are there any lessons for neighbouring countries? If so, what are they?

The key lesson is that commitment from top leadership is important for successfully taking on corruption, but it’s not enough. A top-down approach might help control petty corruption in the short-term, but this doesn’t necessarily help control grand corruption. In order to do this, transparency and independent judiciary, media, civil society, are needed- checks and balances are needed. 

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