How Tradition Remade Rwanda

The secret ingredient in Rwanda's efforts to rebuild its nation after the violence of genocide.


Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In the wake of the 1994 genocide, the new post-conflict government of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) inherited the tattered remnants of a highly centralized state. For years, the government engaged in crisis management, attempting to meet the basic needs of a traumatized population with little time to consider long-term matters of governance. It was only in 2000 that the RPF-led government opted for a process of decentralization in an effort to improve local service delivery, alleviate poverty, and create sustainable development. In the new system, local mayors would be responsible for implementing development programs, but there was no built-in mechanism to keep these local leaders accountable. To solve this problem, the government looked to the pre-colonial Rwandan practice of imihigo — in which leaders or warriors would publicly vow to achieve certain goals, and face public humiliation if they failed — and adapted it into a tool for modern public service.

The RPF government adopted a national policy of decentralization as a way to rebuild trust, give local people greater voice in governance processes, increase transparency, and maintain political stability — all of which were vital in post-genocide Rwanda. Protais Musoni, the respected minister of local administration, noted that those high up in the administration were concerned that they were out of touch with the needs of ordinary citizens. Firstly, many of the new government officials were returning exiles who had not lived in Rwanda for years, if not decades. Secondly, many in the RPF felt that people had been manipulated and misled by local leaders into participating in the genocide, and that ordinary citizens had no effective way to influence local leaders or check their behavior.  

The first phase of decentralization began by consolidating administrative boundaries. Previously, the state was comprised of 154 districts. By 2004, the government reduced the number of districts to 30, grouped into six provinces. These new, larger districts had more staff, and the resized territories were easier to administer. Mayors were appointed by the RPF-dominated central government, with plans to shift to a system of direct election of mayors. Until then, the government’s initiative was to staff the new posts with competent people and attract university graduates to technocratic positions in the districts.

Decentralization was a way of improving government responsiveness to citizens’ needs, while also making local leaders more accountable by giving ordinary citizens a greater role in evaluation. At the same time, government leaders still faced a significant dilemma: How could they ensure that the districts actually delivered on the central government’s development program?

Charles Munyaneza, the former director general of Territorial Administration in the Ministry of Local Administration, recalled that while officials were not specifically thinking about imihigo, "what people had in mind was [creating] institutions and to have leaders who would be accountable, who would deliver, and who would be responsible…. The issue of imihigo came as a way of implementing that or achieving that philosophical understanding."

In March 2006, newly-elected district mayors gathered to learn about how their work in the districts fitted into the government’s national development plans. During an official induction ceremony with President Paul Kagame present, one mayor, buoyant with his success in the district’s first elections, announced that his district would be the best performing district in the country. Another mayor quickly countered, saying that his was going to outperform the rest. The president intervened and pointed out that in Rwandan culture, making bold claims about accomplishments was no small matter. Kagame challenged the mayors to come up with imihigo for their districts that he could then follow up on and evaluate whether the claimed targets were achieved.

President Kagame assigned a small team to adapt the imihigo concept to modern governance. The term quickly came to be known around the country as a combined performance-management system, planning tool, oversight mechanism, and way of using social and traditional pressure to push mayors to greater levels of achievement.

Definitions varied on what constituted a traditional imihigo. Some suggested that it was simply a public vow. Others recalled it as having a basis in war, where warriors would throw a spear into the ground and publicly proclaim the feats they would accomplish in battle. All agreed that the consequences were serious for those who failed to fulfill an imihigo. Alexis Dukundane, of the Ministry of Local Government, put it simply when he said such a person would be considered "incapable" and would be  humiliated within Rwandan society. Government reports suggested that because the practice of imihigo was tradition-based and familiar, the concept generated enthusiasm and a sense of ownership among the population. Dukundane recalled: "People wouldn’t understand if you talk about performance contracts, but if you say imihigo, they understand."

Protais Musoni, of the Ministry of Local Administration, said that imihigo targets were intended to be aspirational. "You are not going to be acclaimed for doing what anyone else has done or could do," he said. "An imihigo is supposed to be a stretching of the abilities of both the leader and the people." 

The modern imihigo system incorporated specific measures for planning, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability. The planning process included meetings at every level of government, to give central agencies and district governments a chance to negotiate targets. The procedure aimed to make targets measurable and achievable, and the planning process allowed the central government to ensure projects were consistent with the national government’s larger development goals.

Mayors talked to members of community councils to learn local demands, and then created five-year, three-year, and annual action plans. Annual action plans contained all the activities that an individual mayor and his staff pledged to complete during the year. These included rote administrative tasks such as preparing budgets, hiring staff, and completing paperwork and reports; the real priorities, however, were economic development, social welfare, and governance. Activities included building schools, equipping health centers, building marketplaces, paving roads, building bridges, and electrifying villages. Larger projects included resettling whole communities that lived in regions prone to landslides or flashfloods.

Before finalizing annual action plans, district mayors engaged in an extensive process of consultation with  a vice mayor for social welfare, a vice mayor for economic development, and an executive secretary. Together, they constituted the district executive committee. Once a year, all district executive committees met with representatives from the central government to establish a clear idea of their goals and limitations. They would also address budgetary constraints that might affect their planning; for example, Ministry of Education representatives would inform the districts of the money and resources available to build schools or hire teachers. While districts did have the ability to collect certain taxes, tax collection on a local basis was a struggle. Districts were therefore often financially dependent on allocation from the central budget, so the annual meetings were critical in the planning process and in the production of realistic imihigo.

District executive committees also held extensive consultations with various local-level councils, which wielded significant authority in their local areas. Each district was divided into sectors, each sector into cells, and each cell into a cluster of villages. Committees were elected at every level, and representatives from each sub-level were sent to the level above. (Each village committee, made up of the heads of the 10 households in the village, put forward a representative to sit on the cell committee. Each cell committee in turn put forward a representative to sit on the sector-level committee, and so on.) Individuals who sat on these councils were not full-time administrators, but respected members of the community. The district executive committees sought input from all the levels. The draft imihigo had to be approved by the district councils.

Imihigo targets were linked to performance metrics and given a score. If, for example, a district might commit to plant a million trees, the number of trees actually planted by the end of the year would determine the percentage of the activity completed. At the end of the consultation process each year, having settled upon an imihigo and measurement metrics, district mayors publicly signed their imihigo with President Kagame. The ceremonies were aired on TV and radio, and the imihigo documents made public online and in the local press, so that citizens in knew exactly what their leaders had committed to.

While imihigos were built in close consultation with local figures, the central government still played an assertive role by monitoring implementation. District executive committees were required to keep accurate records of activities and expenditures, andprepared a detailed progress report for the central government halfway through the fiscal year. At the end of the fiscal year, two teams were assembled, each with a representative from the Ministry of Local Administration, the prime minister’s office, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities, the implementation secretariat, and an umbrella civil-society group. Each team was responsible for 15 districts, visiting each district for two days. Leonard Rugwabiza of the economic planning and finance ministry remarked that the presence of high-level government officials ensured that mayors treated the teams’ visits with the appropriate degree of respect and preparation.

A typical two-day evaluation would begin with auditing the district’s paperwork at the head office, often going late into the night. A vice mayor explained: "If we report that we have held a meeting [with NGOs working in the area], they will want to see minutes from the meeting, a list of who attended, a list of what decisions were taken, and a report on the outcomes of the meeting." On the second day, the evaluation team would meet with the executive committee, giving them a chance to explain any problems they may have found in the paperwork, and to consider any difficulties the mayor may have encountered while attempting to implement programs. The team then would present the mayor with a list outlining the particular imihigo targets that the evaluation team would spot-check, such as the building of a health center or electrification projects.

Evaluation scores were based on the completeness of imihigo activities. An activity that was 90-100 percent complete would be scored a 10; 80-89 percent would be scored a 9; 70-79 percent, an 8; and so on. These scores were then part of a weighted final score that assigned 60 percent to economic activities, 30 percent to social-welfare activities, and 10 percent to governance activities. (The relatively small percentage allotted to governance reflected the belief that effective governance was inherent to successfully complete a project that contributed to economic development.)

The evaluation teams provided recommendations on how any failures could be addressed in the future, with particular emphasis on how they should be carried forward into the next year’s imihigo. Final reports were officially present to the mayors and also publicly disseminated through the districts and on various government websites and forums.

Districts were then ranked based on their imihigo performance, both within their respective provinces and within Rwanda as a whole. A high ranking translated into bragging rights for district mayors and governors. Fred Mufulukye, the director general of the Territorial Administration, said that one of the significant achievements of the system was fostering competition between districts. "Now districts — both citizens and mayors — want to compete and want to be the best," he said. "This competition drives development." According to Leonard Rugwabiza at the economic planning and finance ministry, high-performing districts could receive special funding for projects.

Because the rankings were presented at public forums, citizens had the information to judge the performance of their elected mayors. If a mayor was consistently underperforming, he could be removed by the local District Council (whose members were indirectly elected). According to one observer, 75 percent of mayors were removed from their positions between 2007 and 2009, though  it was unclear how many were removed for imihigo-performance related reasons. Enige Rugamba, the director general of planning at the Ministry of Local Administration, explained that during the same period, there was an overall reform in governance procedures, such as strengthening the auditor-general’s office, the office that investigates cases of maladministration, and the Public Procurement Agency. Many mayors were ousted, and in some cases jailed, due to corruption and irregularities in procedures as part of the new standards of accountability and increased scrutiny.

While no comprehensive data is available to determine whether the imihigo process resulted in better service delivery in the districts, anecdotal accounts suggested there was improvement. For example, a 2010 U.S. Agency for International Development report on family planning in Rwanda asserted that the inclusion of family-planning issues in the imihigo for the district of Nyamagabe more than doubled the adoption rate of modern contraception. Protais Musoni, in his paper on decentralized service delivery, noted that the introduction of imihigo resulted in fewer administrative conflicts in the local government from 2006 to 2007 and in improvements in local development projects, such as malaria eradication and tree planting. Fred Mufulukye, director general of Territorial Administration, observed that preliminary results showed great general performance, especially in education (such as a new system for nine-year basic education), health (health insurance coverage above 90 percent nationwide), road construction, high agriculture production through land consolidation, environmental protection, and governance.

The system did have critics. Apollinaire Mushinzimana, coordinator of the decentralization implementation secretariat, noted that the system had created "a strong perception from local government that the central government is ‘looking at us.’" Leonard Rugwabiza recounted a story he heard about the pressures of scrutiny as a mayor: "People were saying, ‘You know, when you’re the mayor, you’ve got a contract of one-day renewable. Every 24 hours you can be removed.’" Frank Habineza, chairman of the opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, drew a sharp distinction between decentralization and deconcentration. He argued that institutions may have been decentralized, but that decision-making and planning were still very much a central-government activity, and not as localized as the process might appear.

In 2010, the success of district councils also was unclear. The idea behind vesting so much authority in an indirectly elected local committee was that such a group would be in touch with local demands and wield significant oversight powers. However, these committees were voluntary, and some members failed to attend the council’s quarterly meetings; others actually worked in Kigali and were out of touch with local demands; and others still were employed by local governments, for example, as teachers, and because schools were dependent on allocations from mayors, providing real oversight presented potential conflict.

Other critics argue that because the success of imihigo was tied to the RPF party’s popularity at local levels, the system did not guarantee stability. But despite these criticisms, the ambitious imihigo process appeared to be delivering on much-needed development targets in Rwanda’s districts.

Daniel Scher is a former associate director at Innovations for Successful Societies, and is currently completing a law degree at the University of Michigan Law School. Christine MacAulay works for the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and is a former research affiliate at Innovations for Successful Societies.

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