How will Rwanda justify its multimillion dollar Arsenal deal?

On Wednesday 23 May, Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and London-based soccer team Arsenal Football Club announced that Rwanda would become the official tourism partner of the Premier League club. The estimated $40 million (€30 million) deal was greeted with incredulity by many around the world, especially by Dutch MPs who wondered how a country they supported with aid is able to afford such a deal.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Rwanda, a country that is already seen as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’, is making an active push to publicize its potential as a tourist destination. Rwanda now welcomes a million tourists a year. And the country was already awarded World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) first Global Leadership Award in March 2018. Travel & Tourism represents 13% of the country’s GDP and 11% of employment. And WTTC forecasts that out of 185 countries in the world, Rwanda is eight in long term growth of travel and tourism’s total contribution to GDP (2018 – 2028).

Ever since the start of his tenure as the chairman of the African Union, Rwandan president Paul Kagame has been devoted to free movement of persons within the continent. Last week, his country became the third on the continent to submit ratification instruments for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)—after Kenya and Ghana—and the first to ratify the protocol with free movement of persons and the African passport. Rwanda has also signed Bilateral Air Service Agreements with Togo and Ghana, bringing the number of countries with which it has such agreements to 60.

The Rwanda-Arsenal deal, once viewed in the light of other news of the country that broke during the week, becomes less egregious. Perhaps the most significant critique of the deal that remains is, why Arsenal? Other countries in the world often run tourism ads in international news outlets like CNN, but to have a country’s name emblazoned on the sleeves of a football club, one as rich and popular as Arsenal F.C., is unprecedented. That feeling that the Rwandan government is robbing its poor to feed the rich, which comes from a cursory examination of the deal, is understandable.

Kagame is a well known and vocal supporter of Arsenal F.C. It is therefore not farfetched to imagine that this deal has happened only because of his personal interest in the Islington-based club. Sports writer Jonathan Liew even goes as far as to speculate in The Independent that Kagame’s influence in the Rwandan deal could have contributed to the recent departure of long-time manager of the club Arsene Wenger.

“Did Kagame, in fact, manage to get a lot more for his cash than simply a few logos on sleeves and post-match interview backdrops?” Liew asks. “Did he make it a condition of his financial largesse that Arsenal finally act on his tweet from six years ago and install meaningful regime change?”

The kind of influence referenced here is the one usually arrogated to authoritarian regimes, and Liew knows this. This is why he says, “virtually all of football, and virtually everyone in it, is in some way tainted by the stench of unwholesome regimes and their deep wells of lucre. Manchester City and Abu Dhabi. PSG and Qatar. The vast sums of Russian and Chinese investment in a number of European clubs. UEFA are taking Euro 2020 and next year’s Europa League final to Azerbaijan, another country that the UN torture panel eventually gave up trying to investigate.”

Kagame’s Rwanda isn’t yet considered an unwholesome regime, but there’s perhaps no African leader who attracts praise and caution in equal parts like he does. His vice-like grip on the country’s politics and perceived expansionist involvement in neighboring Congo means he will always be viewed warily by international observers in spite of his undeniable drive to make Rwanda an economic powerhouse. While Nigeria and South Africa, Africa’s de facto economic powers, continue to falter in pursuing a clear vision for the continent, Kagame seems to have taken off where deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi left off, with more clout and less humanitarian baggage.

The Dutch parliament might complain all it wants—GroenLinks MP Isabelle Diks has expressed his displeasure that payments such as the €30 million is being made, while the international community is trying to tackle the poverty—but Kagame might never offer them an explanation for using his favorite football club as a PR tool. He has proven time and time again that he’s only interested in the opinion of the world when it’s in line with his vision for his country.