Tribert Ayabatwa Rujugiro was born in Rwanda around 1940.
He lost his mother and was eventually expelled from school at the age of 13 by the colonial administrators of Rwanda’s education system.
Rujugiro didn’t give up on education and struggled to obtain a certificate which allowed him serve as a clerk and typist.
Due to the pogroms in Rwanda, Rujugiro fled to Burundi as a refugee at the age of 19.
In Burundi, Rujugiro landed on a job of a clerk. He also took off time to study French at Alliance Francaise.
As luck would have it, Rujugiro would later land on a job at a petroleum storage company where he learnt the nitty-gritty of doing business.
Since Rujugiro’s boss was always away from office, he had the opportunity of talking managerial decisions. It was not too long before he ventured into the bakery business.
Rujugiro quickly started importing wheat, flour, cigarettes and salt to Burundi where he built a fortune.
By 1978, Rujugiro had risen to become the leading manufacturer of cigarettes in Burundi which saw him expand his business to 27 African countries including Chad, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo and Sao Tome.
Notably, his brands are also sold in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Uganda, Rujugiro has a huge factory worth $20m.
How did Rujugiro, Kagame Fall out?
President Paul Kagame and Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa have a strikingly similar history.
The two men rose to reach the pinnacle of their careers in their respective fields, having started from humble beginnings.
Kagame was a refugee who became a general and head of state. Ayabatwa was a refugee who became an industrialist manufacturing and trading across Africa and the Middle East.
According to an investigation conducted by ChimpReports, Kagame and Rujugiro met at the beginning of the struggle to return to their homeland from exile in 1990.
They were introduced by the late Maj Gen Fred Rwigema who at the time was leading the Rwandan Patriot Front’s (RPF) struggle to return to Rwanda. In Uganda, Rwigema was quietly assembling a force of Rwandan fighters and mobilizing weapons to fight the regime of Juvenal Habyarimana. He also engaged Rwandans in the diaspora to raise funds to support the cause.
Rujugiro’s role was to assemble fellow businessmen and women to finance the war effort which went on for four years from 1990-1994.
Upon the mysterious death of Rwigema in 1990, Kagame took over the leadership, which brought him into closer contact with Rujugiro as the funder and mobilizer of the financial support.
While the relationship between Kagame and Rujugiro was healthy during the struggle, it steadily degenerated when Kagame and RPF took power.
The relationship subsequently collapsed in 2009.
A Rwandan official, who preferred anonymity so as to speak freely, said the difference between Kagame and Rujugiro revolved around the role of government and the business community in rebuilding the Rwandan economy.
Ayabatwa believed that the government and the ruling party should concentrate on creating a conducive environment for doing business and let the private sector create prosperity.
Kagame was of the opposite view. RPF had to go into big business, which soon became Rwanda’s largest business empire, with interests in almost every economic sector.
Crystal Ventures, the RPF’s holding company, has investments in everything. It is in furniture. It is in finance. It is aviation. As the British newspaper the Economist remarked on March 2, 2017, Crystal Ventures “owns the country’s biggest milk processor, its finest coffee shops and some of its priciest real estate. Its contractors are building Kigali’s roads. There are several firms offering security services in Rwanda but the guards from ISCO, part of Crystal Ventures, are the only ones who tote guns. The company is reckoned to have some $500m of assets.”
Asked in a recent interview, Rujugiro RPF had a party protocol through which individuals got their issues addressed.
“Slowly, President Kagame blocked this channel to the point that RPF became synonymous with him. Kagame literally hijacked the party. It was now a one-man show,” said Rujugiro.
“Even the private sector, it became part of the Kagame machine. Crystal Ventures Ltd, the ruling party business empire, grabbed business opportunities from genuine business people in our country. I decided Rwanda was not my cup of tea,” he recalled.
As RPF got entrenched in business, private sector operators, both foreign and domestic, began to mysteriously lose licenses and in some cases, closed shop altogether.
The list of foreign companies that fizzled out include the U.S. multinational Chevron Corporation, the Saudi Arabian Bakri International, Terracom, Olyama Holdings, and Natural Resources Development Rwanda.
Rwandan businessmen who lost out include Valens Kajeguhakwa, Alfred Kalisa, Assinapol Rwigara, and Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa himself.
Assinapol, the father of former presidential hopeful, Diane Rwigara, died in an alleged accident on the evening of February 4, 2015, on the road between Utexirwa and K – Club in Kigali.
Centre can’t hold
In 2009, the relationship between Kagame and Rujugiro finally collapsed.
At a meeting involving the two men and close confidants, Kagame castigated severely all his critics, including Rujugiro.
According to Rujugiro, Kagame proclaimed that he came to power at “nobody’s ticket” – he was his own man and self-sponsored.
Therefore, if Rujugiro and others did not like the direction in which the country was headed, too bad.
“That is when Ayabatwa decided to leave Rwanda forever,” said a once close confidant of President Kagame.
Three years later, the Rwandan seized Ayabatwa’s US$20 million shopping mall, Union Trade Center (UTC), and other properties. UTC was subsequently auctioned off for US$7 million.
Rujugiro unsuccessfully tried to challenge Rwanda’s decision before the East African Court of Justice. The court decided it did not have jurisdiction over legal disputes in the ambit of national courts.
The Rwandan government went further to nullify Rujugiro’s passport and citizenship yet he is a native-born Rwandan.
Thus, Rujugiro joined the long list of former RPF supporters who fled Rwanda into exile.
Nevertheless, Rujugiro went on with his businesses in other countries and is currently based in South Africa.
The latest saga between him and Kagame is in Uganda. Kagame insists Ugandan authorities close Ayabatwa’s businesses based in Kampala and Arua.
Kagame claimed that Ayabatwa and the Ugandan government were supporting Rwandan rebels led by dissident Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa who seek to overthrow the Rwandan leader.
So far, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni appears unimpressed by Kagame’s arguments for closing Ayabatwa’s businesses.
In a recent letter published in the New Vision, Museveni suggested that Kagame ought to pursue the Ayabatwa case through Ugandan courts.
President Museveni said he raised the issue of rebels while meeting Rujugiro.
“The President asked if I was fighting Kagame. I told him that I was not interested in Rwandan politics and was not involved in any shape or form,” said Rujugiro.
He said if he really wanted to help the rebels fighting Kagame, he would help them from 90 percent of income coming from the remaining businesses.