Beaming with pride, Epimaque Munyerangwe narrates how he is relieved after voicing his concerns at a citizens forum. “There’s nothing as good as having a platform to give ideas freely, where you can commend, refute or denounce. I have seen a significant change due to the discussions we had in our forums,” Munyerangwe says. The resident of Musanze District is one of the Rwandans who believe citizens forums are building the culture of openness. Citizens forums are one component of Never Again Rwanda’s long-term programme to societal healing and participatory governance.

Citizen participation in governance, especially of a society progressing from a wounded past, with many living a day at a time, a community programme was one people would not be eager to embrace. But the forums are permanent spaces established to facilitate dialogue among people in order to reflect on the needs, priorities and challenges within their communities. A society moving from a place of mistrust has been transformed to an empowered community where views, opinions and criticisms have been accommodated.

Never Again Rwanda has so far established eight citizen forums in eight districts; Gasabo, Musanze, Karongi, Bugesera, Gicumbi, Rwamagana, Huye and Nyaruguru. Each forum is made up of 30 members.

A few months following the establishment of the forums, significant results have been reported. Isaac Ngendahimana, another resident of Musanze, agrees that the initiative has produced results and he has been challenged to become an exemplary citizen. “I have become more confident among my peers. We discuss, brainstorm and deliberate various issues, all in a bid to promote good governance,” Ngendahimana adds.

Facilitating leaders

Local leaders at the grassroots level have been applauded for their continued support for the forums. However, members from the forum propose that local leaders should be given a monthly allowance to enable them exercise their duties diligently.

The citizens’ forum members meet once a month.

Previously, people could not approach their leaders to discuss their challenges and also reach a consensus on their priorities. “I could not take part in meetings, but now I go to such gatherings because it is good to listen to others and also give counsel,” Mwamini Batamuriza, another resident of Musanze, says. In areas like Gikomero sector, Gasabo District, members are forming sub groups of five to represent the residents in meeting with local leaders to discuss various issues affecting the community.

Among the issues addressed to the local leaders is the surge in malaria cases and how it can be contained. The vice mayor in charge of social affairs in Rwamagana, Jeane Umutoni, during the launch of the citizen forum, recently, applauded the platform for supporting their efforts in engaging their citizens in decision-making, and challenged citizens to find solutions to their problems.

Dr Joseph Nkurunziza, the country director, Never Again Rwanda, said: “If the citizens are not involved in decision-making and policy formulation, if then those policies reach the ground, it will equate to having wishes that do not come to reality.” Citizen forums have not only empowered citizens, but they have also built confidence in people, who can comfortably address their concerns to their leaders.

During the initial stages of the forums, slow progress was reported following the low participation of members. Owing to the fact that self-confidence was still an issue, many were still hesitant to voice their views and actively participate in meetings. But nowadays members testify how they have become more confident among peers.

Reaping benefits

Also, citizen forums have fostered unity and a sense of togetherness among people in a community. Because of the time members spend together brain storming ideas, listening to people with different beliefs and views, many have come to appreciate one another, a culture that has nurtured trust and openness and has spread through communities. Citizen forums have also helped address some of the most sensitive issues in the community like land disputes.

“The issue of land registration has to be revised and analysed, we can’t pay the same amount of taxes on land all through this area, there is land close to the infrastructure within the town, such land should cost more. We appeal to the higher authorities to address this issue,” a participant from Nyamata citizen forum in Bugesera argued.With the citizen forums, community members have become helpful to one another by taking initiatives to help those in need. For example, members in Musanze Sector, Musanze District, have previously helped a widow whose house was in shambles by repairing it.

In Karongi District, members also put together a fund where they deposit Rwf1,000 every month. This money is set to facilitate social activities in the area as well as other important initiatives.

The notion about advocacy was not familiar to many; however, through the citizen forums, many have learned the art of advocating for what they want.

Members have learned how to handle concerns objectively with an open mind without complaining and clashing with authorities. To complement the move to promote a citizen centered government, participants have been taught how to objectively analyse an issue, give relevant feedback and also think of workable solutions to the problem. Furthermore, the non-members have not been left out. They are always kept in the know of what’s happening in the forums and what decisions have been taken since these issues affect the whole community.

With such a platform, residents are reassured that their grievances are heard and would be addressed to the relevant authorities to take action. In designing the citizen forums, Never Again Rwanda expected the empowered citizens to become more aware of their rights and stand up for them. In the past, people were not aware of their rights and their limits and how to claim for what they are entitled to, this emanated from bad governance rooted in sectarianism of the past leadership.

Thanks to the transformation engineered by Government and sensitisation campaigns, many are enjoying the fruits of advocating for their rights through the forums. “We have gained skills, knowledge, and insight on situation analysis in various sectors. The forums are really paramount,” Concessa Kiberinka, from Gasabo District, said.

With support from Interpeace and the Swedish Embassy in Kigali, fitizen forums have also opened discussions about other challenges in the communities, especially on the subscription to community-based health insurance, Mutuelle de Sante. “We are perceived as partners to the Government in promoting good governance,” a member of the forum said.

Through citizen forums, people know what to expect from leaders, putting them to task on accountability. As a result, leaders are paying more attention to the needs of the people in their constituents. Citizen forums remain the voice of the common folk, the hope of a healing society and the strength of a developing community. The success stories among the people in various communities will echo a journey of hope Rwanda is taking toward sustainable development.