When President Paul Kagame was in Butaro sector of Burera district on May 8, many people lined up to report their concerns during the interactive session. A particular group of people from Kagogo sector were unfortunate.
They are sixty in number. Telecom giant MTN Rwanda owes them Rwf 16,881,010 for destroying their farmland 11 years ago.
They were perfect gardens sprawling with trees, beans, maize and other food crops. The harvesting season was to be in the next month or two.
Suddenly, workmen and machinery arrived – rolling through the gardens. Without warning, large portions of family gardens were destroyed – leaving some to struggle to get food.
In total, sixty families were directly affected in those dreadful month of late April and May in 2008.
The machinery that destroyed the livelihoods of these 60 families had been brought by South African telecoms giant MTN Rwanda which was setting up antennas in the area.
In the days and weeks that followed, the affected families confronted the firm, which was at the time the dominant player in the local telecoms industry. It was also one of the biggest taxpayers – wielding unchallenged influence over ordinary lives, as well as on local and central government.
The Chronicles is the only media in Rwanda that has reported about this case.
The company raked in Rwf 77 billion in revenue for the year 2016, and made more than Rwf90billion (about $106m) the following year.
This past week, MTN Rwanda chief executive officer, Bart Hofker, told local media that its revenue for 2018 had grown by 21.6 per cent to Rwf102.8 billion, compared to 2017.
Paying the Burera district villagers their Rwf 16,881,010 would have removed less than 0.016% from the 2018 revenue.
The case first came light on February 20, in a public session of the parliamentary Committee on National Unity, Human Rights and the Fight against Genocide. The committee had scheduled to hear explanations of several officials on various other issues.
The mayor of Burera district Florence Uwambajemariya was among them. When her turn came, MPs in the committee asked what the update was with regard to an issue of people whose property had been destroyed by MTN but had not been adequately compensated.
The mayor knew the case well, even if it had happened 11 years ago. She was not in charge at the district.
Uwambajemariya told the committee that she was powerless to solve the case. “I have tried several times to approach MTN such that we can handle this issue but have not got any response,” said the mayor, actually pointing out that she had written more than two letters, and the firm did not even bother to respond.
The case is painful and complicated. As of writing this story, the community seeking compensation had lost all hope it will ever be repaid.
Officials at the district are quick to say they were not there when it happened. The MTN executives say they don’t want to discuss the case. Parliament, which the community had tried as a last resort, is not sure when the case will be settled.
In the middle of it are helpless villagers who have been ripped off what they worked hard for.
A chronology of events provided by the community in interviews with The Chronicles rimes with that contained in a report of the parliamentary committee. Lawmakers conducted their own ground investigation last year and had been quietly engaging local officials until they went public in the February 20 session.
Back in 2008, after the complaints, representatives of the affected community held meetings with sector officials and MTN team.
A cash compensation was reached of Rwf 16,881,010 to be distributed among the 60 families.
However, months later, rumours circulated that people had been paid a total of Rwf 3,107,000.
Some of the locals we spoke to said they did not get any money.
So who got their portion? It turns out that when the money arrived on a bank account managed by Kagogo sector, new names appeared on the compensation list.
This new lot shared up the money, leaving the actual beneficiaries in the dark.
And who handled the handled the money? It is a question nobody at Kagogo sector has an answer for, except saying they were not in charge at the time.
Following the first parliamentary committee session, MTN was summoned. On February 27, MTN executives showed up with loads of papers.
They included: Chantal Kagame, Chief Business and Corporate affairs Officer; Alain Numa, Head of Corporate affairs, Richard Rutayisire; the Senior Legal and regulatory Officer. Another on the team was Innocent Harerimana from IHS which has since taken over management of telecom towers.
The team told the committee chaired by MP Elisabeth Mukamana, a completely different version from what was contained in the committee’s report.
The MTN team said that the Rwf 16,881,010 valuation was conducted without their involvement.
As the situation stood after the second parliamentary session, the MPs, the affected community and Burera district mayor had the same version, which was different from MTN’s as to what the original valuation was.
The committee gave MTN up to March 8, to provide a plan of how they will settle the compensation of the helpless villagers.
The date came, and MTN is said to have submitted pages of its “plan”. The Chronicles has not been able to establish the details in it, but going by the comments we have since heard from the mayor, committee chair and the community, there was no substance giving hope in the document.
MTN Rwanda “will not comment further”
When contacted on March 12, Numa, the MTN Rwanda Head of Corporate Affairs, who was on the MTN team that visited Burera after parliament intervened, said they did what was recommended by the parliamentary committee.
He and other officials appeared in pictures with the supposed affected people. They were together walking along the route of what was destroyed, and in a meeting.
Asked when exactly the people in Kagogo sector would be compensated, Numa told The Chronicles that he would not comment any further on the case.
When we went back to Kagogo sector after the MTN visit, the community had moved on. According to them, MTN if indeed it paid, it compensated the wrong people.
“Do you think we are surprised that MTN has refused to compensate us?” is how one of them Nteziyaremye Michel, put it.
For Uwayezu Innocent, the crops he grew were the source of money for not only food, but for buying school items for his son and daughter. His segment of the ravaged land had potatoes, beans and trees.
Mukantabana Florence’s land had trees which she sold as power poles or construction material to local counterparts.
“When you ask our local officials about the case, they tell you the case occurred when some were still in school and that they cannot follow a case that occurred in 2008,” said Mukantabana.
Nzabara Pierre said to us: “They came and created a route for their equipment through my land and it seized being mine. It is now the property of MTN.”
Nyirantereye Edith told us she doesn’t understand why MTN which she described as a “respectable company” has undermined them to such a point.
“We are aware of the fact that we have accused a powerful company that is why it is no surprise the injustice remains unsolved,” said Nyirantereye.
We asked what their remaining option was, and none could answer it.
Rwanamiza Enock suggested the issue will be solved if judicial and security agencies took up the case.