Rwanda govt takes over UTC, summons mall owners

Saturday October 12 2013

Union Trade Centre shopping mall in Kigali. PHOTO/Cyril Ndegeya

Union Trade Centre shopping mall in Kigali. PHOTO/Cyril Ndegeya 

By Special Correspondent Rwanda Today

Owners of some 81 businesses that operate from Union Trade Centre (UTC) were thrown into confusion by the government’s takeover of the mall.

The UTC, valued at $20 million, is principally owned by business mogul Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, who is exiled in South Africa. It has since been declared an abandoned asset and, according to the law, proceeds from such assets must go to the state.

The government wrote to the tenants instructing them to henceforth pay rent into an account operated by the Commission for Abandoned Properties from October 1.  

The commission was created through an Act of Parliament in 2004 and is best known for tracking and managing assets belonging to those who were killed in the 1994 genocide.

When Rwanda Today visited the mall, a mixture of fear and anxiety was evident on the faces of the majority of the tenants. Matters involving Mr Rujugiro, whom the state has linked to renegade Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) senior officers who are exiled in South Africa, are deemed to be very sensitive, forcing the tenants to only speak on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.  

On April 15, 2011, Rwandan police intercepted eight trucks belonging to Congo Tobacco Company (CTC), which is based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in which Mr Rujugiro is a shareholder.

Then police spokesperson ACP Theos Badege, now the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) boss, said intelligence had shown that the vehicles were meant to support “terror activities” of ex-army chief Lt-Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa and the former external intelligence director, Col Patrick Karegeya.

Some tenants said police officers “under the command of a very senior officer” distributed the letters.

“We recently saw them [police] throwing out the staff of UTC management up there. We later learnt that they were demanding for a list of all tenants here. It was terrifying,” one trader said.

Most of the big businesses and high-end service providers in Rwanda have outlets at the mall, which opened in 2006. Big corporations — such as Ethiopian Airlines, RwandAir and Air Uganda, MTN Rwanda and the regional supermarket chain Nakumatt —are among the mall’s tenants. The prime property also houses other various small businesses.

The letters to tenants and the management of UTC, copies of which Rwanda Today obtained, were dated October 2 and September 27, respectively.

“Based on the Commission for Abandoned Assets 2004 Act and the resolutions of the Nyarugenge District Commission for Abandoned Properties meeting held on September 27th, 2013, you are advised to inform all of the UTC mall tenants to channel their rent payments into the commission’s account number 011 1000 407 domiciled in Fina Bank,” the letter to UTC managers reads.

Cancellation of tenancy agreement

The commission wrote to the tenants: “We advise that UTC mall has been placed under abandoned assets category. It will now be managed by the Nyarugenge District Commission for Abandoned Properties. You are therefore advised to be paying into the commission’s account number 011 1000 407 domiciled in Fina Bank. Failure to comply will lead to cancellation of your tenancy agreement.”

The tenants say they are not sure whom they should pay rent to. One noted: “I entered into an agreement with UTC, not the commission.

“The dilemma is that this is not a court order that is being enforced. UTC management has made it clear; whoever defaults will be kicked out.

“We are afraid. We now place small orders.”

Some of the tenants also worry of the rent paid in advance, in case the authorities decide to close the mall – a move, some officials and commentators say, is unlikely.

“Nakumatt City Market alone pays some Rwf1.1 billion in VAT per year,” said one source. “UTC mall pays to the state annual fiscal dues amounting to Rwf150 million. Then consider the many businesses operating from there and people who would lose jobs in case of closure.

“I do not see the government doing that (closing the mall).”

In August the government, through then Prosecutor-General Martin Ngoga, directed the managing director of Access Bank Rwanda to freeze 12 accounts held by Mr Rujugiro and his wife Nathalie Mukagatete pending “criminal investigation.” The letter did not detail the type of investigation but the commission summoned the management and owners of the mall to its offices.

The UTC management could not comment on the matter. Sources said the saga is likely to end up in court but a scholar who follows the political terrain Rwanda is navigating warned that should Rujugiro seek legal redress he would be putting the justice system on trial.

Dr David Himbara, a former advisor to President Paul Kagame who is also in exile and advises Mr Rujugiro, recently said UTC would try to use legal means to block the takeover of the mall “even though we know this too will prove difficult.”

The government maintains that its move is legal since, like anybody else, Mr Rujugiro is not immune to criminal investigations.

National Public Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Alain Mukuralinda told Rwanda Today that the move to freeze accounts related to Mr Rujugiro was not illegal and dared those with a contrary view to go to court.

“Everything has a legal basis,” he said. “We freeze the accounts of anybody being investigated for criminal activities, and after investigations are done, we ask the bank in question to unfreeze the accounts.”

“This is standard procedure.”