Two weeks before Rwanda closed its borders with Uganda at Katuna on February 28, 2019, the Rwandan High Commissioner to Uganda, Maj. Gen. Frank Mugambage, met President Museveni and presented Rwanda’s demands. One was the immediate closure of all businesses owned by prominent businessman Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, the owner of Meridian Tobacco Company, in West Nile over claims that he was recruiting rebels and supporting dissidents ﬁghting Rwanda. Watchdog Uganda brings you an interview carried out earlier with the businessman by government owned Sunday Vision on why he fell out with President Paul Kagame and on claims that he was recruiting rebels.
Who is Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa?
Ayabatwa is my father’s name, Rujugiro is my middle name and Tribert is my Christian name. In those years, there was no birth registrar and I can’t recall the exact year I was born but I was told I was born in the early 1940s. I grew up in Rwanda and at the age of 19, I fled to Burundi, because of the political upheavals and lived there for 20 years. When there was a change of regime after Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza was overthrown by President Pierre Buyoya in 1987, I spent three years in jail in Bujumbura. In 1990, I fled to South Africa and returned to my home country, Rwanda in 1995. I lived there for 15 years, until 2010, when I left and went back to South Africa. Now I split my time between South Africa and Dubai where I do my businesses.
Why did you flee the country?
When I was a refugee for 20 years in Burundi, I helped in the struggle against President Juvénal Habyarimana regime and in 1994 after we had defeated him, I tried my best to help the people settle in Rwanda in different capacities as a local entrepreneur and businessman, but there are many things that I did not agree with President Paul Kagame. I understood I was dealing with someone who did not understand his role. His claim that he did not come to Rwandan leadership on anyone’s ticket hurt me. If you consider how many people died in that war, the financial sacrifices made by all those people and the support we received from the Ugandan population and then he tells you he did not come on anyone’s ticket. I sensed this was a man I could not do anything with and I decided to leave and go back to managing my businesses.
What was your role in Rwanda both before and after the 1994 struggle?
My contribution to the struggle was immense, both financially and physically. I helped in the logistics and fundraising and sacrificed whatever I had, to help the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) win the war against the Habyarimana government. At that time, all my assets in Burundi had been frozen by President Buyoya. When I returned home, I set up businesses that not only employed the locals, but paid taxes to government. I was the biggest businessman in Rwanda.
There are accusations from your country, through Amb. Maj. Gen. Mugambagye which have been channeled to President Museveni that you are using your connections in Uganda to recruit rebels and funding the Rwandan national Congress, a group of dissidents fighting Kagame.
Kagame knows that very well. I am not interested in Politics. I funded the 1990-94 war because I was a refugee and I had no passport from my own country. I had a reason. When I saw my brothers and friends suffering outside their own country, I decided to help. This time, I have no reason at all to involve myself in politics. I have my business and he knows very well that I don’t venture into politics. Kagame knows that if I opted to help the rebels fighting against him, it would take less than six months to defeat him.
You said you operate between Dubai and South Africa. Your President recently pointed to a link between a group of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa and his troubles with Uganda. Have you had meetings there with these groups?
Not a single day. I assure you I am not at all interested in Rwanda politics. He can do whatever he wants and I helped him to get to where he is. There are people who are not happy with what he is doing and I know they will deal with him in their own way, not me.
There have also been claims by Rwanda that you are in touch with some military and intelligence officers in Uganda who are helping you to mobilse and fight Kagame?
Let me ask you a question? Do you really think that Uganda can help in organising dissidents to fight Rwanda? If I see what Uganda has done for us, and see where Rwanda and Kagame are, how can you think that they are going to sponsor someone to fight Rwanda? What does Uganda get from Rwanda? Nothing. They closed the border now it’s them crying. Listen to the radios. The people are complaining of hunger. Claiming that I am working with Ugandan military to destabilize Rwanda is totally wrong and I am sure there is no Ugandan military man who has that intention.
When you left Rwanda, you had invested a lot in business and owned one of the biggest malls in Kigali, among others. What happened to them?
In 2013, when they realized I couldn’t kneel before them, they seized the mall thinking that since it cost a lot of money to construct and had good income, I would go back to save it. The only condition to save that mall was to go back to Rwanda, but I did not go back because whatever I invested in Rwanda was not for the purposes of making profits, but my contribution to society.
How did you acquire the land where the mall was constructed?
Fifty refugees who came from Burundi went to Kagame and asked for that plot. When he refused, they came to me and asked me to help them get the plot. I requested Kagame to help them. He said he could help them if I was one of them and committed to building nice, which could brighten the image of the country. I accepted to do so and when those people saw that the investment was more than $10m, none of them had the financial muscle and decided to sell their share and I paid them. That is ho built that mall. Most of my projects in Rwanda had social links.
What about your other properties and businesses?
Everything was taken, including my homes, which cost me about $2m. They claimed it was abandoned property. My wife had a small farm of about 10 hectares. That land was taken over by Government, on claims that it was abandoned.
Is your entire family out of Rwanda?
I have a brother who is still living there because he thinks that Kagame is correct.
When the Rwandan Ambassador met Museveni and requested him to close down some of your businesses in Uganda, did the President notify you about this request?
Yes. In February. President Museveni asked to meet me. I went and met with him. “Tell me the truth,” he told me, and then asked, “Are you fighting Kagame?” I told him I was not interested in politics and I don’t see how I can fight him. President Museveni then told me that there was some writing going around by a one David Himbara who was Kagame’s economic advisor. President Museveni told me Himbara was writing on Kagame and that he was my friend. I told him Himbara was my friend and Museveni asked me to stop being his friend. I told Museveni that Himbara had worked for Kagame for over eight years and my friendship with him was not based on our differences with Kagame. President Museveni later told me that Kagame wanted peace and for them to have that peace, I should try to sell my business and leave Uganda. I told the President I was going to find a buyer, sell my business and get out of Uganda because I didn’t want the region to have problems because of me. I am trying, but I have not found a buyer.
What is the name of your company in Uganda and how many people does it employ?
The company is Meridian Tobacco Company, which is worth over $100m (about sh372b). It opened in the West Nile town of Arua in 2010. The Arua plant is a subsidiary of African Tobacco group that operates in several other African countries. We have directly employed over 450 people and we support over 15,000 smallholder farmers, plus another 1,600 occasional workers, such as transporters doing business with Meridian.
Why does Rwanda want you to close down your successful tobacco business in Uganda?
They do not care about me. Kagame knows I am a single guy and I can live on $1,000 a month. I started off as a clerk and whatever I do, I do it for the people. Rwandese authorities are jealous of my investments in Uganda. You go to Arua and see what I have done there. I have a business in South Africa, Dubai, Nigeria, Angola running very well and I sell my products in 24 countries. If I closed tomorrow, my business in Uganda is less than 10% of my income and if at all I wanted to help the dissidents, I would use 90% of my other remaining businesses, which are outside Uganda.
Do you see yourself one day meeting President Kagame over your differences?
I see it as impossible. I don’t think he has anything to tell me. He is not a stranger to me. He was part of my family. My cousin was married to his sister. His mother and sister were under my care in Burundi when President Milton Obote expelled Rwandans from Uganda in the early 1980s. I kept them until the National Resistance Army took over in 1986 in Uganda. He will have a lot to explain to me.
Now that you say you are not interested in politics, what are you going to do for your country? Everyone in life does what he can and what he knows best to do. Politics is not my area. I involved myself once because of the situation of the refugees. If the Rwandans see that they are suffering and they have a leader who is not serving them, let them fight the injustice. I have done what I can by contributing towards the recovery of Rwanda.
Before you left Rwanda, what was the last position you served in?
Individual business can’t go far and big multinationals survive because they have many supporters. I put together 42 Rwandan business people and asked them to mobilise funds and form a company that could invest. We formed the Rwandan Investment Corporation. I told the 42 people to put money together and that whatever they contributed, I would add 50%.
We were able to raise $25m. I was the chairman of that company and we had a main project — producing cement in Rwanda. We had school complexes and a number of projects, we wanted to make free trade zones. But today, I don’t know what became of that company. I wanted to develop the Rwandans to work together. I didn’t have any position in Government, even though one day Kagame offered to appoint me to the Senate.
How close are you to President Museveni?
I have met him once when he wanted to ask me about the request he had received from Kagame in February. I appreciate what he is doing for Uganda and his statesmanship.
This interview first appeared in Sunday Vision
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