After an hour’s drive from Kigali towards Gatuna on the Uganda-Rwanda border, at Mulindi, you turn right onto a dusty murram road snaking through the lush green tea plantations, deep into one of the most deeply rural parts of Rwanda.
After a 15-kilometre drive through tea plantations and Eucalyptus forests, you are welcomed by a rare sight in the countryside — an incomplete five-storey residential complex surrounded by several other older residential houses.
Despite the rusty iron sheets and the peeling walls, it is easy to tell that these were some of the best residential settings in rural Rwanda, indeed, in the whole country.
On an adjacent hill sits yet another sprawling residential complex in a huge compound, looking abandoned and dejected. This used to be Felicien Kabuga’s village house but it is currently occupied by one of his sisters.
Surprisingly, the imposing four-storey complex was not Kabuga’s but one of his younger brother’s — Alexis Nsanzumuhire, whose financial muscle was only second to Kabuga’s in this Gasimba family that grew to be one of Rwanda’s most influential families in the pre-genocide era.
We are now in the Gasimba household. Gasimba (no known second name) is the father of Felicien Kabuga and several others.
Kabuga, the eldest son of Gasimba’s first wife, became the most successful of all his children.
By all standards, this is a humble way for any human being to start, with little exposure and no education, to later become the most influential businessman with political influence second only to the president’s — that is the story of Felicien Kabuga.
Through a splintered but heavy wooden gate, we enter one of the homesteads, into the compound of a vintage but still good looking residential house, complete with an old but well maintained white Suzuki Samurai in the parking yard.
We are inside the home of Alphonse Cyiza, Kabuga’s younger brother. A few minutes later, a mature, healthy looking woman invites me and my photographer into her home. She seats wooden chairs as we wait for her husband.
The 66-year old Cyiza old bears a striking resemblance to Kabuga. According to Cyiza, Gasimba was a carpenter who worked with missionary brothers in the colonial days. Gisimba married two wives because he was well-off at the time.
“Our mothers were sisters. We were many children. I cannot remember the total number. I would need to note down every name,” said the retired civil servant.
“Our father educated us. Those who studied earlier, including Kabuga, did the catechism. They did not get any formal education but they knew how to read and write as well as do mathematics.”
However, after he became an influential trader, Kabuga took English lessons, rather than French, because he reckoned English was key to his trade activities between Uganda and Kenya. He also spoke Kiswahili fluently.
“Kabuga started doing business in the 1950s when trade was flourishing between Rwanda and Uganda. He started with handicrafts made out of papyrus including ropes and baskets. He would take them to Uganda then come back with salt,” Mr Cyiza recalled.
“From salt, he moved to clothes before graduating to bicycles — this is still in the 1950s. I can’t recall the exact years but he was then one of the few people who owned bicycles, bought from Katanga in Zaire,” he added.
In the early 1960s, when Arabs and Indians were the only communities engaging in trade, Kabuga was one of the few Rwandans who owned a shop. He ran a small outlet in Rushaki. He was also importing goods, selling them in Kigali, Byumba and Butare.
Cyiza has fond memories of his elder sibling, whose business acumen superseded that of any of his family members.
“Others tried their hand on business but no one succeeded like Kabuga. He was all over the place, running errands between Uganda and Kenya. He bought his first car in the early 1960s. I was still young but I remember it was a brand new Chevrolet,” he recalled.
The 66-year old said that at about the same time, Kabuga got married in one of the most lavish ceremonies then.
In the early 1970s, Kabuga moved to Kigali and put up his first commercial building in downtown Kigali, known as Quartier Commerciale, followed by a residential house in Kimihurura. He then put up more residential houses in Remera and Gikondo.
“In the 1980s, he started building the one at Muhima, the big one, it was the talk of the town then. I can’t recall most of the properties in Kigali,” reminisced the elderly man with a distant smile, as if rolling back the years.
Among other memories, he recalled Kabuga’s growing political influence in the country — a result of his close friendship with former president Juvenal Habyarimana.
In fact, Habyarimana’s son married Kabuga’s daughter, which together with his financial muscle, put him among the closest allies of Habyarimana and his wife Agathe Kanziga — the famous Akazu.
“Habyarimana would come here often. They were good friends. Sometimes they would come here to relax and have a drink — ikigage, a local brew made out of sorghum,” said the pensioner, pointing to a hut in the compound of what used to be Kabuga’s house.
Kabuga was also a social and jolly man: “He was a man of the people. They liked him not because he was rich but because he related to them and helped many of them. He participated in many activities,” said Cyiza, citing one of the first schools in the area, College de Rushaki, as among the contributions of his fugitive brother.
Right in front of the households are tea plantations, stretching as far as the eye can see. These are Kabuga’s; he bought them from Belgians who were leaving the country in the 1960s.
“He employed hundreds on those plantations and paid school fees for their children. That’s why they liked him,” he said.
“He also related well with us, his siblings. He supported most of his siblings to grow in business, especially Nsanzumuhire, save for me, who went into the public service,” he added.
Nsanzumuhire, who passed away four years ago, together with other family members, including Cyiza, fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo after the genocide but were to return, along with thousands of others refugees.
Cyiza returned with his children in 1996.
“The RPF encouraged us to return home. I was not facing any charges. I was repatriated along with my children, save for one who disappeared. I was given back my properties and started off with a new life; so there was no need to stay in exile,” Cyiza said.
Nsanzumuhire did not return until 1999. His influence was such that upon his repatriation, a public holiday was declared around Byumba Prefecture.
His return influenced the return of many other refugees who were crammed in DRC camps.
Unlike his less monied brothers, Kabuga and his immediate family did not flee to the DRC but to Kenya. In fact, Kabuga had evacuated his children and wife way before all hell broke loose.
As the war intensified, with the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) advancing towards Kigali, Kabuga carefully plotted a way out for his family, leaving himself a clear path, just in case he had to flee. The plan worked.