It has been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, yet they grind exceedingly fine. This is a truth that Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, one of Rwanda’s most successful entrepreneurs, knows all too well thanks to a recent court victory that was seven years in the making.
The Rwandan Government Seizes the Union Trade Center (UTC)
The case dates back to 2013, when Rwanda’s Paul Kagame government seized Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s Union Trade Center (UTC) shopping mall, which at the time was Kigali's busiest commercial hub. To justify its seizure, the government claimed that UTC was an abandoned property per the Abandoned Property Law. This legislation was enacted to facilitate the state takeover of properties that were formerly owned by genocide perpetrators who fled Rwanda.
On its face, what made the government’s seizure so shocking was that in 2013 UTC was not abandoned. In fact, it hosted more than 80 thriving businesses who collectively employed approximately 500 workers. However, to circumvent this fundamental fact and use the aforementioned legislation to take control of the property, the government revoked the citizenship of Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, who was living in South Africa at the time. Like the seizure itself, this move was categorically illegal.
While the story so far would certainly qualify as a “worst case scenario” for any entrepreneur, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s injustice at the hands of the Kagame government was not over. In fact, it was just getting started.
In August 2015, the government executed the next phase of its illicit strategy by declaring UTC a tax defaulter in the amount of $1.4 million USD. What made this proclamation so absurd, was that the government owned UTC (per the 2013 seizure), and had been collecting rents from businesses for the previous two years. Essentially, this meant that the government defrauded itself of tax revenue, and then used this unlawful activity as justification to declare UTC a tax defaulter. After two years of threats, in 2017 the government auctioned UTC for $8 million USD — despite the fact that the property was worth around $20 million USD.
Yet despite this seemingly unbelievable storyline, two things remained constant throughout the ordeal: Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s relentless and unwavering assertion that he was a victim of blatant government corruption, and his vow to fight this injustice in the East African Court of Justice (EACJ).
East African Court Rules Government Seizure As Illegal and Tribert is Compensated
That courage and resilience reached fruition in November 2020, when the EACJ ruled that both the seizure of UTC in 2013 and the subsequent auctioning of UTC in 2017 by the Kagame government were illegal. To remedy this transgression, the court ordered the government to compensate Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa in the amount of $500,000 USD at an annual interest rate of six percent. He was also awarded court costs, and the court ordered the government to provide a full account of the rental income that it generated between October 1, 2013 (when UTC was seized) to September 17, 2017 (when UTC was auctioned off).
Commented Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, who is the founder and controlling shareholder of the Pan African Tobacco Group, Africa's largest indigenous manufacturer of tobacco products: “We are very appreciative of the decision rendered by the East African Court of Justice, which meticulously examined all of the evidence and scrutinized all of the witness testimony, and ultimately came to the only fair and proper conclusion that was possible: starting in 2013 the government acted with blatant disregard for the rule of law, and did not heed or fear accountability either in the court of public opinion or the court of law. If there is anything positive that might come out of this long, difficult and costly ordeal, it is that the government needs to change its attitude and approach to supporting businesses in Rwanda, and focus on enabling opportunities instead of erecting obstacles. A hostile and corrupt government sends the wrong message to investors and entrepreneurs within Rwanda and internationally.”
As for the next chapter in the UTC saga, there is one important piece of the puzzle that has yet to be clarified: who should own UTC now that the EACJ has declared the government’s seizure and auctioning as illegal.
Observed Senior Advisor David Himbara: “Imagine that someone comes to your house in the middle of the night, steals your car and then sells it to someone else. If the car is subsequently found by the police, it will be returned to its rightful owner. In the same way, UTC was illegally seized — which is another way of saying that it was stolen, though in broad daylight instead of the middle of the night — and subsequently auctioned off. Shouldn’t it now be returned to its rightful owner? We believe so, and so do many others who have been following the case closely.”