Felicien Kabuga: The quiet businessman from Byumba who took over Kigali

Saturday May 23 2020

The arrest of Felicien Kabuga—believed to be one of the masterminds of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and also considered its financier—is a big win for international justice, but an even bigger relief for the genocide survivors who had waited for 26 years to see him brought to justice.

On January 11, 1994, Gen Romeo Dallaire, the then Canadian commander of UNAMIR in Rwanda, received information that in one of Kabuga’s warehouses in Gikondo, were stockpiles of weapons.

During his trial, one of the leaders of the interahamwe, Jean Pierre Turatsinze, said the weapons had been estimated to kill 1,000 Tutsis every 20 minutes, if put in the hands of interahamwe.

In February 1994, a representative of Chillington, a British tool manufacturing company, which among other things makes machetes, was reported by the Sunday Times saying that the company sold more machetes in one month than it had sold throughout 1993.

Applications for import licenses examined by Human Rights Watch between January 1993 and March 1994 show that 581 tonnes of machetes were imported into Rwanda.

These machetes, at a cost of Rwf95 million were paid for by Mr Kabuga, according to Jean Damascene Bizimana, the executive secretary of the National Commission for the fight against genocide, (CNLG).


But who is Felicien Kabuga?

Mr Kabuga was born in Mukarange, then Byumba prefecture, currently Gicumbi district, in 1935.

According to his childhood friend, Theresphore Mukimbiri, Mr Kabuga was born into a poor family, and the only early schooling they both got was catechism from the Catholic church.

Mr Mukimbiri says the family’s fortune changed after Mr Kabuga met some Indian traders who were setting up business at the Rushaki market centre. And it is these Indians who introduced him to the world of business.

Around that time, his brother left him a bicycle, which he used to peddle general merchandise, like cigarettes and second-hand clothes. He bought and sold goods in Rushaki, before moving into tea trade, and much later relocated to Kigali after establishing his business.

Jean Nzarubara, who was a businessman in Kigali before the genocide and used to meet Mr Kabuga in meetings that brought together business owners, describes him as “a mild man, with few words.”

“We knew him as a rich businessman from Byumba dealing in tea and wheat processing. He came to Kigali in the 1970s and took over. There was even talk that linked his wealth to witchcraft, but that’s perhaps because people were not used to such dramatic growth in wealth,” he says.

It is not clear when, but Kabuga’s business ties extended to the region and to Kenya in particular, where he is believed to have invested in real estate and transport.

Rwandan genocide scholar and researcher Tom Ndahiro says that Mr Kabuga took advantage of the goods vacuum left by the liberation struggles in Uganda in the 1980s, and supplied the Ugandan market, building his wealth on that trade.

But it is also said that he benefited from being part of president Juvenal Habyarimana’s inner circle (known as the Akazu), and enjoyed favours that came with proximity to power.

During Habyarimana’s rule, political and financial power in Rwanda was consolidated in a tight circle, the core of which was the extended family of the president. Kabuga was a prominent member of this group.

His two daughters were married to Habyarimana’s two sons, cementing the ties and intensifying his influence and power.

This extended Mr Kabuga’s tentacles to militia such as the infamous interahamwe (an extremist Hutu militia), armed civilians and administrative officials and was viewed as being the leader of those who held extremist Hutu views.

He is alleged to have planned and financed the genocide using his wealth and the infamous ‘’hate radio’’ Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines and Kangura newspaper.

In 1997, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha charged Kabuga with seven counts of genocide, including, complicity in genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.

According to Mr Kabuga’s ICTR charge sheet, he is alleged to have operated RTLM in a manner to further ethnic hatred of the Tutsi through disseminating messages with a goal to commit genocide.

In 1993, at an RTLM fundraising meeting, Mr Kabuga is said to have publicly defined the purpose of the radio station, as ‘’defence of Hutu power.’’

Kabuga is also alleged to have instructed, assisted and supervised members of the interahamwe who participated in the killing of Tutsis in Kigali’s areas of Kimironko, Kigali, Kibuye and Gisenyi prefecture.

It is reported that immediately after the genocide, he fled to Switzerland, where he unsuccessfully applied for asylum. He also lived in some European countries before settling in Kenya, where he is alleged to have received protection through the political connections he had there.

He went off the radar for years but when his wife Josephine died in 2017, Mr Ndahiro says, Kabuga sent a message which was read at the requiem mass. This reminded the world that he was still alive.

The $5 million bounty the US put on his head had not yielded any leads, but this funeral message alerted law enforcement, who started trailing him.

French intelligence agents trailed his children, leading them to an apartment in a Paris suburb of Asnieres-Sur-Seine, ending a several-year manhunt, spanning several countries.

Reports show that the coronavirus lockdown slowed down things in Europe, and many on-going investigations were put on hold, giving ample time for law enforcement to focus on Kabuga’s file, which led to his eventual arrest.