Rwanda ombudsman pushes for more powers to fight corruption

Sunday October 22 2017

Chief Ombudsman Anastase Murekezi. Photo: File

Rwanda's Chief Ombudsman Anastase Murekezi speaking in Parliament. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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Rwanda’s ombudsman has proposed amendments to the penal code to give his office prosecution powers over those implicated in embezzlement of state finances.

While saying that the current laws contain a restricted definition of corruption and related offences, Chief Ombudsman Anastase Murekezi told Parliament the country was yet to domesticate in its laws -- the expanded definition and offences of corruption as per the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) to which it is signatory.

The binding international anti-corruption tool considers fraud, embezzlement and misappropriation as the most common corruption-related offences that member states ought to pay attention to.

The ombudsman wants changes in legislation so his office can crack down on high-level corruption taking place in form of embezzlement, fraudulent procurement practices, abuse of office and power, and others.

“This is the category where the ‘big fish’ (high-ranking officials) are found, and big monies are lost but we find it hard to prosecute those implicated because our laws don’t define embezzlement as a corruption-related offence,” Murekezi said.

“We have submitted our proposals for amendments to the penal code which are being considered at the executive level. We expect the changes will be endorsed by the Cabinet,” he added.

Government tenders

The country’s penal code is undergoing a review likely to make penalties for crimes like embezzlement, fraud and mismanagement of public resources harsher than they were.

The ombudsman’s proposed changes could also see civil servants taken to court for causing financial losses to the state through fraud, illegal awarding of tenders and mismanagement of public asset.

According to the ombudsman, government tenders continue to be a major source of corruption that claim huge monies earmarked for crucial development programmes.

However, senior government officials like heads of parastatals, managers and financial controllers who rank among key culprits cannot be prosecuted for corruption and even those found guilty do not appear on the ombudsman’s annual corruption list.

The same applies to those who fail to defend the expenditure of funds in multi-million projects, where wasteful spending and fraudulent payment of public resources is alleged or proven.

'Big fish'

Concern remains over why the “big fish” are always missing on the annual corruption list.

The latest list released by the ombudsman last week only has junior officials in government, and regular residents convicted for low amounts of bribe.

Of about 170 people convicted for corruption and related offences from the second quarter of 2016, majority are people who gave, solicited or received bribes as small as Rwf1,000 or Rwf3,000 and were sent to jail for one or three years.

This is despite the Auditor General’s reports for the past two years indicating over Rwf200 billion taxpayers money was lost in graft and embezzlement.

Anti-corruptions organs say detecting implicated officials proves difficult and that it is difficult to find enough evidence incriminating the culprits.

Officials at the Ombudsman office said most cases are referred to the police or the National Prosecution Authority.

Over 20 heads of government parastatals, projects plagued by misuse of funds were last month summoned by the Parliament’s Public Account Committee over unaccounted for taxpayers’ money.

These officials include the water, and power utility companies, Rwanda Agriculture Board and University of Rwanda.

Earlier, what appeared to be renewed effort to crack down on misuse of public funds had seen top officials at Water and Sanitation Corporation (Wasac), Energy Development Corporation Ltd as well as the University of Rwanda arrested and arraigned.