Access to Land in Rwanda

By The Rwandan Analyst


The contention of land is still a dilemma for Rwandan citizens. Ancient refugees of 1959 passed more than 30 years and the law prevent them to retake their lands. Putting aside legal obstacles, their resort to violence thanks to their relatives who are now in the army or threaten the current occupants by false incrimination of rebellion, complicity with FDLR, physical violence, all but a few.  


Members of the Munyegomba family fled Rwanda after 1959, and other residents occupied their land. The family returned after the genocide in 1994, when those who had occupied the land in their absence fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The residents who had fled returned in 1996 and 1997, to find that the land had been reoccupied.

The Munyegomba family left the land again a few years later, when armed groups with a base in Congo, commonly referred to as “infiltrators,” carried out deadly attacks in Rwanda in the late nineties. The residents who had returned from Congo successfully petitioned the national authorities to get their land back. They again started farming the land, and continued to do so until recent months.

Between 1998 and 2011, the Munyegomba family attempted to reclaim the land through judicial proceedings against a community leader – the father of Oscar Hakundimana – but failed: In appeal, a court ruled that the land belonged to Hakundimana’s father. During the national land registration process, the land of Hakundimana and other residents was registered, and the farmers were given land certificates, despite the Munyegomba family’s opposition.


The land rights are often politicized so that anytime the owner legally recognized are deprived of his prerogatives.

2.1.Partiality of local authorities violating laws in favor of the former refugee

At the end of 2015, however, local authorities announced during a community meeting that agricultural land belonging to 30 households – an earlier claim concerned 140 households – should be handed over to the Munyegomba family. Three people who voiced their opposition to this announcement, including Oscar Hakundimana, were arrested and released the next day.  Several other community meetings followed at which local authorities continued to press residents to give up their land claims. In reaction to such refusal, the police called in 30 people for questioning and briefly detained Hakundimana, who had again publicly refused in a meeting to abandon his land. A local official threatened other residents with arrest.

To enforce this arbitrary decision, the mayor of Rubavu, Jeremie Sinamenye, came to the village and announced at a community meeting that the 30 households had to leave their land. He said they had acquired the land fraudulently, that residents had agreed earlier to leave their land, and that they would have to pay rent if they refused to leave.

During the community meeting, Hakundimana criticized the mayor’s decision. A participant in the meeting later told Human Rights Watch: Oscar said that the government should respect the law, but that there seemed to be other things going on. He said, “We have legal documents. But now you come to take them. Is it not the same government [who gave us the land titles]?” The mayor responded: “Don’t you know who I am? You have become a rebel against us. I don’t know how I can respond to you.

The day after the meeting, residents wrote a letter to the provincial and national authorities, asking the governor of the Western province to suspend the mayor’s decision, given that the mayor had ignored their legal land titles. In an apparent response, soldiers arrested Hakundimana. During his arrest, Hakundimana and several others were beaten. he military arrested Oscar and brought him to a military camp. […] When they arrived in our village, those of us who live nearby asked the soldiers: “We’ve heard that you kill people. Did you arrest Oscar just to kill him? We know he is innocent. Why did you arrest him?” The soldiers told us that we are all rebels against the government, and that they cannot tolerate our mistakes. Then they beat us severely with wooden sticks.

2.2.Detention as threat forcing him to leave the land

Hakundimana has been in pretrial detention ever since. The prosecutor’s office accused him of asking during the meeting with the mayor which branch of government the mayor represented, and of saying that the Rwandan government detests its population, so the population should also detest the government. During a hearing before the court, the prosecution also accused him of speaking to the media. Hakundimana denies the accusations and told the judges during a pretrial hearing that he was arrested because of the land dispute and his insistence that his father won a court case about this land, so he could not now surrender his claims to the land. After Hakundimana’s arrest, several residents fled their homes for several days, fearing arrest. “Police and military are looking for us,” one resident told Human Rights Watch while in hiding. “We feel targeted. We cannot access our fields because the police and military are there. If they find us, they won’t take us to the police; they’ll kill us.”

2.3.Issue of compensation further to expropriation

Many residents said the compensation they were offered was insufficient. Several told that only people with larger plots received compensation, or that the compensation for their houses, land, and crops did not equal the actual value. Some were told that they would be partly compensated with a place in the model village.

Others said that the legal procedures under Rwanda’s 2015 law on expropriations were not followed. The law establishes the procedure for approving expropriations in the public interest and for determining compensation for land, activities carried out on that land, and for the disruption caused by the expropriation. Those affected must be duly informed about a decision to expropriate and must be present during the valuation procedure. The owner of the land can approve or challenge the decision reached by the assessor. The law states that “fair compensation must be paid to the expropriated person before he or she relocates.”

Some residents said that the expropriation of their property without equivalent replacement land creates serious risks for their food security and livelihood. One farmer said: “We really admire the development of our country. But the development of this country should also consider our food security. We cannot live in houses without land to provide for our food.”

Several residents said that living with four families in one house, in a centralized settlement, as will be the case for the model village, is contrary to their traditional and preferred way of living. 

2.4.Local authorities powerless vis-a-vis militaries and fomer 1959 refugees 

Residents told that they were concerned about the independence of the authorities and afraid of being arrested. One said:

Our opponents come to our farm land and destroy our crops. When we ask questions about this to the authorities, they don’t respond. These other people [who also claim the land] have more power than us. They are supported by the government and can take our crops. We are afraid that, even today, we can be arrested. They accuse us of being members of political parties that are outside of the government

2.5.Incrimination as weapon to muzzle them

after some had gone into hiding, the local military commander accused them in a community meeting of joining the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, based in eastern Congo.

The wife of one of the residents who was targeted said: it is a problem of money. Our opponents are rich people who have a lot of money, and they are backed by the military and the authorities. They persecute us to get our land. […] They registered my husband on a list of a political party, the PS-Imberakuri [an unregistered opposition party]. But he doesn’t know how this happened. They do this to find evidence to persecute people, to say that they are against the government.

these charges that they accused him of are lies. How can he provoke insurrection of the population against the state when he participates in a meeting by the authorities? They just want to accuse him of false accusations to frighten the other residents. Hakundimana has been charged with “rebellion” and “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population.” 

Conclusion: feedback logical but without tangible effect

In response to a letter from residents, the governor of the Western province visited the area on December 21. Regarding Hakundimana’s arrest, he said “such a thing does not happen in this country” and that residents cannot be imprisoned for expressing an opinion. He instructed the mayor of Rubavu to find a solution to the dispute. Yet, nearly three months later, the situation has not changed and Hakundimana is still in detention, while his trial is ongoing. The Rubavu mayor visited the locality after the governor’s visit, but he has not announced how the dispute will be addressed.