CRIME - A racket in which leaders of a church-affiliated NGO allegedly used Genocide orphans as a means of raising billions of francs and later diverted the funds for their own use has been exposed. The NGO, Italia Solidale Rwanda chapter was set up in1997 by two priests; Father Anaclet Mwumvaneza attached to Saint Famille church in Kigali, and FatherAnthony Kambanda former head of Nyakibanda Seminary in Butare.
The organisation was started to help over 2,000 orphans in need left vulnerable by the 1994 Genocide who had been registered by the church. The two priests approached Italia Solidale, a humanitarian NGO based in Rome for financial assistance.
In 1998, the head of Roma Italia Solidale, Father Angelo Benolli flagged off the project dubbed ‘distance adoption project’ but on the understanding that the funds would be managed by St. Famille on behalf of the orphans.
Documents available to Sunday Times indicate that Roma Italia Solidale sent about Frw1.8 billion to Rwanda between the years 1997 and 2003.
But details of how the money was spent are not clear to date. There are allegations that some employees within the NGO used the funds for their personal enrichment since there are no mechanisms in place to check the spending.
A source from the NGO told Sunday Times on October 24 that the benefactors in Italy reportedly became angry because the money spent did not match activities on the ground and asked the church to surrender the project.
In 2004, Fr. Benolli reportedly appointed Gerald Ndamage, a former worker at St. Paul pastoral centre in charge of project development, to transform Kigali Italia Solidale into a self-sustaining local NGO.
Ndamage is now the current national coordinator.
Under this arrangement, guardians of orphans would access a starting capital to begin their own projects which would sustain the children after the Italians had withdrawn.
But now the guardians are up in arms, accusing the current top leadership of the NGO of reportedly pocketing millions of money meant for them.
According to Jean Baptiste Ndoriyobigya, a guardian of two orphans who represents beneficiaries living around Kigali, ‘ghost’ orphans, people long dead, children from well-to-do families or former employees of Italia Solidale benefited from the funds before the account was frozen in November last year.
“They have even changed the name of the NGO from Italia Solidale to Rwanda Solidale. They have no shame,” Ndoriyobigya alleged.
“We are very upset. It is a complicated scam and we want authorities to get to the root cause of the problem,” Veronica Mukamanzi, a guardian of three orphans said during an interview at The New Times offices in Kimuhurura last Thursday.
The NGO’s leadership has now been charged before the Nyarugenge Court of Lower Instance to give details on how the money was spent.
The guardians through their lawyers have also petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that an audit into the activities of Italia Solidale be carried out. The court has ordered that all Italia Solidale accounts be frozen.
Ndoriyobigya, claims that the scheme is a “wide and complex syndicate” mostly involving top officials, relatives, friends through marriage ties, or friends with similar interests.
He alleges that because the benefactors do not demand accountability or deal directly with the children or widows, local Italia Solidale officials used to pay orphans small amounts and then keep the rest on their own personal accounts.
In documentary evidence available to Sunday Times, an orphan Joyeuse Murebwayire says she had been duped that her benefactor stopped sending funds yet when she checked the records, it was discovered that the money was still coming.
Monica Katabogama, another guardian claims on many occasions, Ndamage used to coerce children to write to their Italian benefactors thanking them for the financial assistance even when the money had not reached them.
The critics claim that the unfolding events go a long way in explaining the ‘magic’ some church leaders- despite not being paid salaries- are able to live very expensive lifestyles.
Last year, the police arrested Ndamage and Faustin Ngendahayo (in charge of Kigali projects) and dragged them to court but were later released on bail pending investigations into their case.
NGO leaders speak out
Father Anthony Kambanda told Sunday Times that he was involved with the project until 2003 when it was removed from the hands of St. Famille and handed over to Ndamage.
He said he does not know the total amount of money the benefactors had sent before he quit but recalls that during his reign, each child was receiving about Frw 90,000 annually to cover school fees and other basic requirements like food, accommodation and clothes.
He said the total number of children in school then was 2,000 from Kigali, 80 in Nyamata and 50 living in Butare.
Kambanda said that Ndamage and others should carry their own crosses and solve the crisis between Italia Solidale and the parents instead of dragging the priests’ names into the mud.
“I started the NGO with Father Mwunvaneza and the idea was to help the orphans. But later, the project was taken away from us and handed over to somebody else who should be accountable,” Kambanda said in a telephone interview.
“If parents have taken him to court over mismanagement of the funds, then he should not use me as a scapegoat,” added Kambanda:
Gerald Ndamage on the other hand accuses his predecessors of mismanaging the fund. In an interview at New Times offices on Tuesday, said there was a plot by the priests and some few parents to frustrate his work.
“They are not happy that I am in control. The former Italia Solidale leaders were spending money without accounting for it,” he said accusingly, stressing that no amount of pressure would divert him from the goals set by the NGO.
He explained that towards the end of 2004, he met Father Benolli in Nairobi who requested him to take charge and salvage the project.
“He told me that he had sent over 1.8 billion francs and yet there was little to show for it. We want to know how the priests spent the money which they possibly thought had become their personal property,” Ndamage said.
Freezing of accounts
In November 2006, the Mayor of Nyarugenge district directed that Italia Solidale activities be halted because the NGO was operating illegally.
In a letter signed by the mayor, Origene Rutayisire and addressed to the director of Union de Caisse de Travailleurs (UCT), the bankers of the NGO, he alleged that Italia Solidale was diverting the funds.
According to the mayor, the money was being mismanaged and he asked UCT management to freeze the NGO’s accounts until the problem had been solved.
“I have written informing you that the leadership of Nyarugenge district has decided to ask Italia Solidale halt to business,” Rutayisire’s letter reads in part.
Subsequently the Prosecutor of Nyarugenge Court replied on December 04, 2006 directing the Bank to freeze 13 Italia Solidale accounts. He said the court was invoking Article 67 to73 of the law No 13/2004 governing the NGO activities to freeze the accounts.