A Conversation with Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa
By: Jennifer Fierberg
After a long flight to Washington DC, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa sat down with this writer for an exclusive two-hour interview. Upon meeting him, one can immediately sense that Mr. Ayabatwa is a humble man with an obvious desire to improve the business community of Africa as well as empowering the lives of Africans through support in their business ventures. He is a soft-spoken man with a welcoming smile that never left his face no matter the topic.
Mr. Ayabatwa is retired but is certainly not lacking energy and drive. He is a leader in Africa as an industrialist who has spent 52 successful years manufacturing tobacco, tea, snack foods and cement. With businesses in 10 countries and 27 nations across Africa and the Middle East, he says he spends his retirement “going around with a fire extinguisher.” Speaking on his retirement, Mr. Ayabatwa said, “I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished over the last five decades. I have worked extremely hard to create jobs and opportunities for Africans and have no doubt that my sons and son-in-law will lead my companies successfully into the future.” His businesses have been able to provide employment for about 26,000 people who in turn support at least 182,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Mr. Ayabatwa was born in Rwanda in 1940 and as he enters his 73rd year of life, he remains a key tycoon worth billions of dollars. With this wealth, he focuses his energy on empowering and educating youth in Rwanda and other countries throughout Africa. He has built schools in Rwanda as well as a daycare center in Kigali. Mr. Ayabatwa has also built 100 homes in Kigali and sold them at cost to those who needed shelter.
In 1959, he moved to Burundi to escape the ongoing violence that Rwanda was experiencing against the Tutsi population and remained there for thirty years. He was denied the opportunity to complete his schooling, which ended at grade eight. While in Burundi, he found a job in the local post office then began to experiment with entrepreneurship by buying a truck in order to begin a delivery business. From transportation, he experimented with opening a bakery, then growing tobacco and becoming “the king of salt” in the region. To this day tobacco growing and sales remain the bulk of his income. In his retirement, the majority of his time is spent meeting with young people and teaching them to avoid business mistakes. His strong passion for empowering youth is evident in everything he commits to with his time and energy. Mr. Ayabatwa provides funding for school fees to students who want to complete their education and then hires them as interns in his businesses to further their path to success. He also funds ideas that these youth may have when they present a plan he believes will succeed and then the youth reimburse him when their ideas begin to turn a profit. The energy and drive he has is astounding and he is beginning the process of formalizing a foundation to further empower the youth of Africa to succeed.
The 1994 Genocide and an Advisor to President Kagame
In the early 1990’s, Mr. Ayabatwa believed in Fred Rwigema’s vision for the Tutsis return back to Rwanda. He stated that being a refugee for one’s life could cause a psychological pressure on a group to return home by any means possible. He decided to stand with Rwigema and began fundraising for the effort of the RPF. Mr. Ayabatwa contributed to the financial needs of the party in the early days but was only one of many funding agents. After the death of Rwigema Mr. Ayabatwa did not believe in Kagames vision for the invasion back into Rwanda but he stated he continued to support the effort because it was about Rwandans and not Kagame. He supplied cigarettes and funding for medical care for the soldiers who greatly appreciated this gesture for them but with this support was an underlying distressing disagreement regarding the use of child soldiers in the war. His main disagreement in those early years under Kagame during the struggle had to do with how he treated those young men and he was unsettled by the fact that Kagame used child soldiers in the war.
The first day after the end of the genocide Mr. Ayabatwa began to see things in the political arena with which he was not comfortable. He stated that he saw the party start to go into business by illegally seizing the businesses of those in Kigali. When he confronted Kagame about this situation Kagame replied that the party needed money and could not continue to rely on funding from Ayabatwa. At that point, Mr. Ayabatwa stated he stopped intervening in the financial operations of the party. He changed into an advisory role in the party in order to promote business and investments in Rwanda. He did not want an official title or any official responsibilities. During the early years, Kagame listened to Mr. Ayabatwa most of the time. He stayed and continued to advise Kagame because he loves his country and it is his home. Although, by 2008 Kagame had stopped listening to Ayabatwa because Ayabatwa was diverting from the plan that Kagame wanted him to focus on in regards to business and investments. Mr. Ayabatwa was the only advisor who could stand up to Kagame and he encouraged Kagame to leave space for other people in the business sector. One day in 2008, Mr. Ayabatwa was summoned to President Kagame’s office where Kagame and his wife questioned both Mr. Ayabatwa and his wife about her visits to Jeanette Rwigyema who is Mr. and Mrs. Ayabatwa’s niece. Kagame asked Mrs. Ayabatwa to denounce her relationship to Mrs. Rwigyema but she refused. Shortly after this event, the Ayabatwas moved back to South Africa due to concerns for their safety.
Since his exit from Rwanda in 2008, President Kagame has made some low level attempts to reach Mr. Ayabatwa, mainly through one of the members of his Presidential Advisory Council Members, Andrew Mwenda. Mr. Mwenda placed numerous calls to Mr. Ayabatwa encouraging him to sort out the differences he has with President Kagame but he has refused to do so and stated to Mr. Mwenda that President Kagame should call him. No such call has been made.
Mr. Ayabatwa is now seen as an “enemy of the state” by the government of Rwanda and President Kagame accuses him of supporting opposition groups, specifically the Rwanda National Congress, and therefore Interahamwe. He stated affirmatively that he has never been a member of any opposition group and has no plans to join any of the 24 political opposition groups. He clearly stated he has no political aspirations and chooses to focus his energy in empowering youth and continuing to build businesses around Africa. Mr. Ayabatwa stated he would work as a consultant in the business and development sector but he has no political aspirations because “they are all the same.” Nor does he have any desire to hold any political office. When asked if he would fund another invasion into Rwanda he made it clear he would not. He stated he has no regrets supporting the invasion of the RPF in the early 1990’s because it was about returning home but he was also clear that he never supported Kagames leadership style. He believes that the opposition to President Kagame needs to find another solution to changing the environment in Rwanda. Mr. Ayabatwa believes the key is getting assistance from the international community to oblige President Kagame to take the route of legitimate democracy without having to resort to violence. Then, once democracy is in place whoever the people of Rwanda vote into office will be the right one to lead the country.
This writer asked Mr. Ayabatwa why is President Kagame seizing all of his assets now when he has been out of the country for close to four years. He replied that he could only speculate as to President Kagame’s reasoning and that his assumption is that since Kagame cannot control him personally then he will control his assets and reputation. Mr. Ayabatwa stated, “When you love control and you want to control someone and can’t you take any measure. “By doing this I would accept a relationship of boss and servant. This will never accept.” He further assumed that the plan is for Kagame to force the business owners in the UTC into Kigali Tower, of which President Kagame owns. Yet, the rent is much higher at $25 per sq meter and involves charges such as water and power as well as an unknown percentage of monthly profits. President Kagames interest is in making money and not the people of the UTC. If the UTC business owners are forced into Kigali Tower the majority, if not all, will lose their businesses due to the higher costs.
The fight to save the UTC is not based on money or any financial gain but it is based on principle and the connections with the people in the UTC as well as the people of Rwanda. “Whatever I made in Rwanda was to help the country, not to build my own wealth.”
In 2008, the United Nations Group of Experts accused Mr. Ayabatwa of exploiting minerals from the DRC. Mr. Ayabatwa fought the accusation and was completely cleared of any wrong doing one year later. The source of this accusation is unofficially linked to President Kagame who has continued to plant seeds of doubt about Mr. Ayabatwas character, business and political associations as well as his investments. The only ongoing challenges he faces in regards to these false allegations have to do with opening bank accounts in western countries. Mr. Ayabatwa stated that when he seeks to open investment accounts in the US or UK these reports come up but in most cases he is able to provide his letter from the UN clearing his name and then conduct business as usual.
UTC and doing business in Rwanda
Mr. Ayabatwa is the owner of the Union Trade Center in (UTC) Rwanda, which is valued at $20M USD. The UTC has 81 tenants and employs 400 people. All renters pay a monthly rental fee of $17 per sq meter and 10% of charges (such as water/electricity) to Mr. Ayabatwa each month under legal contracts that all parties have signed. The UTC was developed to provide a business center for a group of Rwandans who were refugees in Burundi who asked the government of Rwanda to sell them the plot of land where the UTC stands today. These business people approached Mr. Ayabatwa and asked him to purchase the land. After discussions with Kagame, he agreed to give the land to Mr. Ayabatwa under the condition that he remains a part of the venture as long as it existed and that a mall or shopping center be built there not individual shops. Kagame wanted a development site that would stand out. “I had no intention of building the UTC to benefit me but I did it to support the development of Rwanda. President Kagame opened the shopping center and expressed his appreciation for it.”
The government of Rwanda has decided to seize the UTC under a law that was passed in 2004 claiming that the UTC is an abandoned property because Mr. Ayabatwa, specifically, does not reside in Rwanda and the government of Rwanda even cancelled his passport in 2012. The UTC pays taxes to Rwanda, has a board of directors inside the country and a specific person who Mr. Ayabatwa signed over legal power of attorney to upon his leaving the country. Sadly, his power of attorney was arrested on Thursday November 14th being accused of holding fraudulent documents from Mr. Ayabatwa and continues to remain in jail. The government of Rwanda contends that the UTC is an abandoned property but with an active board of directors who live and operate in the country and 400 employees that all pay into the national social security fund it is clear that the UTC is not an abandoned property. Along with the UTC, in the last few months, the government has seized Mr. Ayabatwas personal home, valued at $2M USD that was being occupied by family members. The National Prosecutor also froze twelve bank accounts of nominal value with the exception of the bank account held by his wife that was used to help fund a foundation that supported widows in Rwanda.
Future of Rwanda under Kagame
Mr. Ayabatwa believe that President Kagame will remain in power as president of Rwanda in 2017. “A third term for Kagame will see Rwanda go from bad to worse.” Today is already bad because Kagame uses his position and power to obtain anything he wants by force. Mr. Ayabatwa stated that he would like to live in Rwanda again it if were a peaceful place and not ruled by one man who can arrest him at will with no reason. He stated, “There is no law now, what goes up must come down. It is a matter of time. It’s not even Kagame but the power of the president. Even the next one can do the same.” The US and the UK have the power to put Kagame under pressure and cool him down and to think like a normal man and not a God. If he is put under enough pressure, he could cool down. “Rwanda has nothing and needs help. Kagame can choose to either be isolated or do things in a normal way.” The Hutu population has been oppressed for too long and if the social situation continues on the path is it then the Hutu will have no other option then to rise up and revolt in the next one to two years. “The Tutsi came back and fought because all rights were taken away. We are in the same situation now with the Hutu,” stated Mr. Ayabatwa, “there is no animosity between lower level Hutu and Tutsi in the country today.” He further elucidated that the army of a few years ago is not the same army of today. In the way Mobutu ruined his army is the same path that Kagame is on now.
“Every day I wake up and try my best to make a difference where I can. I love my country. I have hope for my country because I have seen much change in Africa. If President Kagame were to go tomorrow there will be another Kagame waiting to take his place. I care about the people having power, not a single leader,” said Mr. Ayabatwa about Rwanda as we were ending our time together for this interview. Mr. Ayabatwa made very clear that: “I am not fighting Kagame and I have nothing against him at all. I am not even criticizing him just his misuse of power.”