Rwandan tycoon Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa at centre of 2019 border closure dies

Saturday April 20 2024

Rwandan industrialist Ribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa. PHOTO | COURTESY


Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, the Rwandan businessman who was thrust into the heart of the Uganda-Rwanda diplomatic dispute that led to Rwanda closing its border in 2019, died this week in the United Arab Emirates.

Media reports quoted family sources as saying Rujugiro died at his home in Dubai shortly after dinner on Tuesday night while he watched a movie with a grandson. He was aged 82.

The business mogul and industrialist is known for his investment in Rwanda and Uganda, especially in the tobacco sub sector.

But in the 2019 diplomatic crisis pitting Kigali against Kampala, he was accused of fanning a rebellion against President Paul Kagame’s regime. He was accused of financing an exiled opposition group, Rwanda National Congress, cited for terrorism activities in Rwanda and DR Congo, accusations he denied.

Two weeks before Kigali closed its border with Uganda, then Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda Maj-Gen Frank Mugambage met President Yoweri Museveni over the deteriorating relations.

He demanded, among other issues, that Uganda close Rujugiro’s businesses.


Read (from the Archives): Rwanda to sell exiled tycoon’s property

The Rwandan investor had acquired large swathes of land in Uganda’s northwestern region of West Nile for tobacco growing and gave thousands of jobs to local residents, under his company, Meridian Tobacco.

The reason for such a demand was that Rujugiro was suspected of sponsoring dissidents based in different countries, including Uganda and South Africa, who wanted to overthrow the government in Kigali.

Rwanda linked Rujugiro to former Kagame comrades-turned enemies and exiled in South Africa, especially Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa and the late Patrick Karegeya. Rujugiro had a business empire spanning Angola, Burundi, DR Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

The businessman had property in many countries and had been an adviser, ally, and confidant of President Kagame during the war between 1990 and 1994, until 2010 when they fell out in what Rujugiro said were irreconcilable differences. In interviews with Ugandan media in 2019, Rujugiro strongly criticised the regime in Kigali.

The Meridian Tobacco Company runs the Leaf Tobacco Company in Uganda.

While in exile, Rujugiro fought off the seizure and sale of his property— The Union Trade Centre (UTC) — in Kigali by the government and even went to the East African Court of Justice.

In August 2022, EACJ awarded him $1 million after it found that the Kigali government violated the East African Community Treaty when it took over and sold his shopping mall.

Read (from the Archives): Taxman: Exiled Kigali tycoon's mall on sale

The award was to attract an interest of six percent every year until Rwanda made the full payment to the claimant.

UTC was put under statutory management after the government classified it as an “abandoned property” in 2013, four years after Rujugiro fled Rwanda. He owned 97 percent.

The EACJ had awarded UTC $500,000 in general damages and the cost of the suit in 2020 but declined to award compensation for the sold mall. The UTC mall’s value was estimated at $10 million.

In 2013, UTC petitioned the regional court, challenging the government’s actions to take over the mall’s management and directing tenants to pay rent into the unclaimed property agency bank account.

Rwanda had said the mall was an abandoned property and was auctioned by the taxman to recover taxes, actions taken in accordance with domestic laws.

The court, however, said the state agencies’ actions were not people-centred and not market-driven, an operational principle of the EAC under the Treaty.

The mall was auctioned in September 2017 for Rwf6,877,150,000 ($6.87 million).

Rujugiro left Rwanda for South Africa in 2009 after battling tax evasion and money laundering charges in the United Kingdom.