Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa is a controversial name that evokes both success and fraud in equal measure.
If the measure of success is how fat one’s wallet is, then Rujugiro certainly features. However if success is the aggregate sum of an individual’s character, then the aging tycoon scores a flat F. One great writer put it well —that success without honor or character is like an unseasoned dish. It will satisfy your hunger but won’t taste good.
Similarly, another great novelist said it better—“be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character–be careful of your character for your character becomes your destiny.”
No better way of describing the 76-year-old Rujugiro than the above statement. Rujugiro’s habits read fraud from A to Z. These unscrupulous habits have shaped the character of man who thinks money can buy him anything.
His story would pass for a typical Mexican drug cartel –only this time operating from Africa. His mafia-like lifestyle has seen him amass wealth through undercover methods. He is the kingpin of tax evasion, money laundering, smuggling and eliminating any opponent who stands his way in his hunt for an extra dollar.
Rujugiro was born in Rwanda around 1941. Like many Rwandans, he spent most of his adult life as a refugee in Burundi. It is from Bujumbura that Rujugiro cut his teeth in the business world of cigarette smuggling. Before venturing in the shady world of cigarette smuggling; Rujugiro contributed to the bankruptcy of an insurance company he worked for as a clerk through an elaborate scheme of fake vehicle accidents.
It didn’t take long until he became a household name as a front man for the business interests of key military and political figures in the Jean Baptiste Bagaza regime in the 1970s and 80s. In turn they would protect his business via monopoly. The impunity that Rujugiro enjoyed as a result of these relationships led him to wide scale smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion, something he has specialized in till today.
Rujugiro excels at smelling prey. It is a business model that has followed the same pattern since his Bujumbura days. It views accountability deficits as an opportunity for investment, identifying a country for investment whose systems of accountability are non-existent or are decaying.
Alternatively, where there are strong systems of accountability, he seeks out powerful (already corrupt or potentially corruptible) individuals within those systems and integrates them into his business by offering them some equity. In exchange, they help him to evade accountability and gain impunity. This is how Rujugiro has managed to hold different governments at ransom everywhere he has been.
And this is the point of departure with Rwanda or the beef with Kigali. Those who know the system in Rwanda know that it cannot accept to be held at ransom by anyone. Moreover, the political and military elite in Rwanda is cohesive and under control, which made it impossible for Rujugiro’s business model to thrive.
When he was arrested in London following an arrest warrant issued by the South African prosecution office over tax evasion, Rujugiro, in his shallow thinking thought Rwanda would immediately sever diplomatic ties with London for “daring” to lock up Mr. money–bags.
The arrogance of thinking that individual crimes must be a state responsibility, largely informed by his past dealings with rogue states is what led Rujugiro to turn against his motherland. It was a case of a childish argument “you didn’t fight my war, let me fight you now” —which largely explains the megalomaniac character of this fellow.
To embark on his ill-advised revenge scheme, he linked up with disgruntled RDF deserters and fugitives like Kayumba Nyamwasa and the late Patrick Karegeya to form the terror group, Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
In an ill-advised classical case of “money can you buy you everything,” Rujugiro has reached out to his wallet to fund the “revenge” scheme. He has paid lobbyists to tarnish Rwandan image, issued free shares in his companies to buy loyalty from well-established individuals in the region and cashed PR agencies to write and find space for derogatory stories on the leadership in Kigali.
For example, in September last year, Rujugiro paid $440,000 to the Washington Based Podesta Inc., a lobbying firm to buy access to U.S. Congress where his main stooge, David Himbara would testify against Kigali with the aim of throwing mud at Kigali.
After the September hearing in the American Congress, the group also tried to secure a similar hearing in the Canadian parliament but failed after Rwandans in that country mobilized against them.
Parallel to this, Rujugiro has been active in the region. In Bujumbura, he showered the leadership with free gifts of shares in his tobacco and cement business in exchange for a safe haven for his anti-Rwanda activities. He bankrolled Burundi’s ruling party during the controversial elections held two years ago with a cash donation to finance the elections and forty(40) brand new pick-ups for use in the campaigns.
In Kampala, most Ugandans learned about the name Tribert Rujugiro for the first time when a local tabloid revealed that Rujugiro had signed a business venture with President Museveni’s young brother Gen. Saleh Akandwanaho worth millions of dollars. In the agreement Gen. Saleh is given shares in Rujugiro’s Tobacco Company (15%) and in exchange, Saleh agrees to protect Rujugiro’s assets in Uganda and in the region.
It is said, when Rujugiro is in Kampala, he is protected more than the Generals of that country. His sons also enjoy similar security protection. This explains the very reason Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) has become the focal point for RNC recruitment inside Uganda.
In South Africa, a recent book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw titled “The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in power and Out of Prison” sheds light to Rujugiro’s exploits.
Pauw names Rujugiro among a ring of “assassins, arms dealers, and gangsters” who have turned South Africa into one of the “top five countries in the world with the highest incidence of trade in illicit cigarettes,” he reveals that the smuggling is “referred to as ‘the new gold,’ something that places emphasis on the lucrative nature of the trade in which, Pauw underscores, “Profit margins approach 1,000 % in an industry that has grown into one of the largest organized criminal enterprises.”
The consequences of the smuggling are vast. According to the book, “Tobacco smuggling doesn’t just deprive the state of taxes and duties, but it often masks other crimes, including money laundering, fraud, drug smuggling and human trafficking,” Pauw writes: “The smuggling of tobacco costs government 3bn rand because of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption.”
In a crackdown against smuggling in ‘black gold’ that was giving a bad reputation to South Africa, Rujugiro found himself detained in the UK on a warrant of arrest by the South African Prosecution Services. In 2007 South African Revenue Services (SARS) halted all operations at Rujugiro’s Mastermind tobacco company, in Wilsonia following a $7.4 million fraud case. He faced 25 counts of fraud relating to non-payment of excise duties, 25 charges of illegally exporting goods from the Customs and Excise warehouse, six charges relating to the non-payment of Value Added Tax, and a charge of irregular dealing in goods
In Nigeria, Rujugiro defaulted on the terms of a concession granted by the local authorities under which his company (Leaf Tobacco Company) was to enjoy a 60 per cent waiver in the importation of cigarettes, tools and inputs against the promise to start production locally in three years. Six years down the line, Rujugiro’s company was yet to start manufacturing cigarettes locally but was still handsomely benefiting from the generous terms of the concession.
That is that character of the man behind anti-Rwanda propaganda today. A man drank on ill-gotten wealth and one who thinks he can use his money to evoke regime change. Good enough, such times have changed for Rwanda and changed
Good enough, such times have changed for Rwanda and changed for good and forever.