Exiled tycoon moves to court to stop Rwanda govt’s seizure of his properties

Friday November 1 2013

The mansion belonging to Rwandan tycoon Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, who is exiled in South Africa, which has been taken over by the government. The businessman has moved to court to stop the seizure of his other properties, including a tea estate. The state recently took over his United Trade Centre (UTC) mall. Photo/Daniel Sabiiti

The mansion belonging to Rwandan tycoon Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, who is exiled in South Africa, which has been taken over by the government. The businessman has moved to court to stop the seizure of his other properties, including a tea estate. The state recently took over his United Trade Centre (UTC) mall. Photo/Daniel Sabiiti 

By Special Correspondent Rwanda Today

The government has moved to attach a multimillion-dollar residence of embattled tycoon Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa weeks after it took over his mall.

And now the 73-year-old tycoon, who is exiled in South Africa, fears that several of his other properties in Rwanda could be seized after the District of Kicukiro and Rwanda National Police occupied his mega mansion located in Gikondo, Kicukiro, on October 25.

Mr Rujugiro’s publicist, Dr David Himbara, said relatives of the businessman were ordered out of the house without notice.

Dr Himbara added that Mr Rujugiro fears his multimillion-dollar tea estate in Nyaruguru District, Southern Province, could be next in the crosshairs of the Commission for Abandoned Properties.

The Nshili Kivu Tea Company, which Mr Rujugiro took over in 2006, pays taxes in excess of $1 million annually.

“Officials of Kicukiro District and a large contingent of police officers marched into the mansion and took it over,” said Dr Himbara. “No warning, no court order, nothing.

“Relatives of Mr Rujugiro and several employees lived in it and were taking care of it. They were told to vacate it immediately.

“We think that the next target is the tea estate. The rate at which this is happening is really absurd.”

Mr Rujugiro, who was President Paul Kagame’s economic adviser, left Rwanda in 2009 after battling tax evasion and money laundering charges in the United Kingdom.

Then, the businessman went straight to South Africa, where he has since lived, and it emerged later that he had fallen out with the government.

Financing dissidents

Once among the ruling party Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) stalwarts, he now faces allegations of financing groups that are opposed to the government. These include Rwanda National Congress, which was founded by exiled renegade army officers Lt-Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa and Col Patrick Karegeya.

The posh mansion, which has more than 60 rooms and other amenities, is valued Rwf1.3 billion ($2 million) and boasts a panoramic view of Kigali city. It is located near a multimillion-dollar housing estate commonly called “Kwa Rujugiro,” which the tycoon had allegedly sold off.

Over a fortnight ago, the government finalised the process to repossess the Union Trade Centre (UTC), one of Rwanda’s largest shopping malls located in the heart of the city. Days later, a law that gave the government the right to take over “abandoned properties” was tabled in parliament, a move Mr Rujugiro said was aimed at justifying illegal seizure of his property.

The draft legislation, which is still in parliament, is aimed at giving the government legal cover to take over properties of people who “may (1) have died and there is no legal heir; (2) be living in exile due to various reasons; (3) be staying abroad due to various reasons.”

Efforts to reach the Mayor of Kicukiro, Jule Ndamage, for comment were futile by press time. According to a source at the district, however, a directive was given to the Commission for Abandoned Properties of Kicukiro along with police to move into the house.

Not giving up

“It is thought that the house was sheltering unknown individuals who were plotting against the government,” the official, who requested anonymity, told Rwanda Today.

The police said they were merely law enforcers and referred this newspaper to the district authorities for further details.

The government has often accused the tycoon of funding dissident groups, which might be plotting attacks on Rwanda. According to reliable sources, it is feared that the money to finance subversive activities could be coming from within the country.

After it took over the $20 million UTC recently, the government gave a directive to the more than 80 shop owners to henceforth pay rent to a government account or vacate the premises. The mall, which opened in 2006, is home to high-profile business offices such as Ethiopian Airlines, RwandAir, Air Uganda, MTN Rwanda and regional supermarket chain Nakumatt.

“We had no option but to follow government orders,” a tenant who owns a phone and computer shop in the mall told Rwanda Today.

Earlier, in July, the state froze 12 accounts in Access Bank belonging to Mr Rujugiro and his wife Nathalie Mukagatete.

According to Dr Himbara, Mr Rujugiro has moved to court in an attempt to overturn the seizure of his properties.

Pan-African businessman

“On the issue of UTC, Mr Rujugiro has taken the government, specifically the Commission for Abandoned Properties, to the Commercial Court of Rwanda following the illegal seizure,” he said. “The court issued a waiting number but has not set an appearance date yet.

“We have also appealed to the Office of the Ombudsman to see if they can halt this process. There are no properties of Mr Rujugiro which are abandoned.”

Dr Himbara added that Rujugiro is a “pan-African businessman, who cannot sit in one country.”

Mr Rujugiro, whose businesses are scattered across South Africa and the Great Lakes region, has described the government’s move as a threat to private investment in a country that is perceived to be good for doing business in.

Dr Himbara said the businessman has operations all over sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and that he cannot – nor should he be expected to – reside in every country in which he does business.

Earlier, Pierre Kalisa, the head of the commission in Nyarugenge District, had told Rwanda Today that the properties had not been seized as alleged but rather the commission took over the day-to-day management of the mall.

“What we wanted to do was really ensure that the property is well run and that it meets its obligations,” he said. “For example, if the owner had obligations to meet with banks, insurance and other bills, we reconcile all these and pay. What remains is Mr Rujugiro’s money and he can claim it anytime.”

Criminal investigation

However, the National Public Prosecution Authority says Mr Rujugiro is being investigated regarding several charges, including funding negative forces.

According to Alain Mukuralinda, the Prosecution spokesperson, attaching the properties or freezing the tycoon’s accounts had nothing to do with “politics,” saying it was entirely a criminal investigation.

“The accounts and properties are being held pending investigation as stipulated by the 2004 law which gives Prosecution the power to repossess or freeze abandoned properties or accounts suspected to be used for criminal acts,” Mr Mukuralinda said, adding that what was happening was “not illegal.”