Pan African businessman Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa has been battling at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to recover his shopping mall in Rwanda. The case revolves around the illegal seizure and auction of Ayabatwa’s Union Trade Centre (UTC) by the Rwanda government. Back in 2013, the Paul Kagame government seized the US$20 million UTC shopping mall located in the city of Kigali, Rwanda. The government subsequently auctioned off UTC for a mere US$8 million, after alleging in 2015 that the company had defaulted on taxes, even though the government had expropriated the mall two years earlier. When seized in 2013, UTC was Kigali’s busiest commercial hub hosting over 80 businesses that employed nearly 500 workers.
Kagame government contravened its laws to seize UTC
To justify the seizure of UTC, the Kagame government used the 2004 Abandoned Property Law, amended in 2015. The purpose of this law is manage the abandoned properties whose owners died or fled Rwanda after participating in the Genocide Against the Tutsi in 1994. Under the Abandoned Property Law, the state may take over an abandoned property in two cases, namely, where the property owner died without a legally-recognized heir; or when a property owner fled Rwanda and does not have a legally-authorized person to manage the abandoned property.
EACJ concluded that none of the conditions defined in the Abandoned Properties applied to UTC. The Court determined that the Rwanda government failed to prove that UTC was an abandoned property. On the contrary, UTC was a fully functional incorporated company with a board of directors and management when it was seized. The government dismissed UTC management and commandeered its physical assets and finances. EACJ further determined that the government failed to show that Ayabatwa was tried and found guilty of genocide crimes. That Ayabatwa resided outside Rwanda, which is what the government only proved, was not a crime.
The East African Court of Justice ruled that Rwanda government’s seizure of UTC was illegal
On November 26, 2020, the East African Court of Justice declared that the seizure and auctioning of Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s UTC mall by the Kagame government was illegal. EACJ ordered the government to account to Ayabatwa for the incomes UTC earned from rental and sale from October 1, 2013, when the mall was seized, to September 17, 2017, when the mall was auctioned off. In addition, the Court ordered the government to compensate Ayabatwa for general damages to the amount of US$500,000 with an annual interest of 6 percent. Ayabatwa was also awarded the Court costs.
There is, however, one unanswered question in EACJ’s judgement. If UTC was illegally seized and auctioned off by the Rwandan government, as the Court determined, shouldn’t the mall be returned to its rightful owner?
Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa is the founder of PTG-HLD which trades across Sub-Saharan Africa and manufactures consumer goods in Angola, Burundi, DR Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United Arab Emirates.