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 decentralize 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 training on mediating domestic conflicts, as well as logistical support from both governmental and non-governmental organizations, to improve the quality of their mediation services. In 2012, 30,768 Abunzi were operating across Rwanda.