By David Himbara
Summary: The Kagame government illegally seized UTC in 2013 and took over its management. In 2015, the very government claimed UTC owed taxes. The regime seems to have forgotten it was the one managing the company. And then on April 25, 2017, Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) seized UTC charging that it owed $1.4 million in tax. RRA announced that it would auction UTC in 8 days if this amount of tax was not paid. Eight days passed…we are waiting to see the next game Kagame plays.
The story of the Union Trade Centre (UTC) begins with its founder and principal shareholder, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa. Tribert is a self-made pan-African industrialist whose enterprises trade in half of Africa’s 54 states and in the United Arab Emirates’ market. Tribert is either full or part owner of tea plantation, cement company, snack food company, furniture manufacturing plant, housing development, shopping mall, printing company, cattle farming, a transport company, and maker of tobacco products. Based on the average sub-Saharan African family of seven, Tribert’s businesses support 182,000 people across the region.
In 2006, Tribert launched the US$20 million UTC shopping mall in his native country of Rwanda. The event was honoured by the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame who was the chief guest.
Most leading businesses in Rwanda, including MTN, Access Bank, Ethiopian Airlines, RwandAir, Nakumat and Crystal Ventures’ Bourbon Coffee relocated to UTC. The shopping mall became home to 81 companies, employing more than 400 Rwandans.
In 2013, out of the blue the Rwanda government illegally seized UTC bizarrely claiming that it was an abandoned property, because the principal shareholder, Tribert, was not residing in Rwanda. The government used the Abandoned Property Law that mostly targeted individuals who committed genocide in 1994 and fled the country. The Abandoned Property Law defined abandoned as follows:
“any immovable or movable property unrightfully possessed by others due to the fact that the rightful owners: 1° died without leaving a legally recognized heir; 2° do not reside in Rwanda for various reasons without having left behind a person legally authorized to manage their property. This Law shall also apply to movable or immovable property neglected by owners for reasons referred to in items 1° and 2° of Paragraph One of this Article.”
To say that none of these terms applies to UTC is an understatement. UTC was corporate entity operating according to the law, registered and recognized by the national registry of companies; it was a law-abiding taxpayer in excellent standing with Rwanda Revenue Authority. Nevertheless, the government illegally seized UTC in 2013 and placed it under its own management.
In 2015, the government pronounced UTC a tax defaulter.
And then on April 24, 2017, Rwanda Revenue Authority seized UTC for failing to pay Rwf1,174,334,658.00 equivalent to US$1.4 million in tax.
The Kagame government is breaking the Abandoned Property Law, which was illegally applied to UTC in the first place. According to this law, the government is responsible for safekeeping abandoned properties until they revert to owners or their heirs:
“Without prejudice to other legal provisions, abandoned property shall be managed by the State represented by the Ministry until the owners show up…If the owners died with no heir, the abandoned property shall be devolved upon the State. An Order of the Minister shall determine the modalities of management of the abandoned property and collaboration between organs involved in the management.”
The government seems to have forgotten that it was the manager of UTC since 2013. Crucially, the government never indicated that there was anything amiss about UTC when the former took over management, The defaulting story conveniently arose in the third year of government management of UTC.
The story of UTC illustrates a miscarriage of justice – not once but three times. The initial seizure was a travesty of justice. Tarnishing the company as tax defaulter was pathetic. The pronounced auctioning of UTC is an insult to Rwanda’s justice system if at all it exits. Clearly, Rwanda is not a country of laws but arbitrariness according to the whims of its rulers.