Rwanda scores own goal with Arsenal deal

By Filip Reyntjens (Game Theory)

Published: Wed 30 May 2018, 8:58 PM

Rwanda keeps surprising. Recently the Rwandan Development Board signed a sleeve sponsoring deal with London Premier League club, Arsenal. Over a three-year period, the 200 sq centimetre ad "Visit Rwanda" will cost the country $39 million.
President Paul Kagame is known to be a committed Arsenal fan. Recently, he even tweeted that the club needed a new coach after Arsenal's once invincible league and cup winning manager Arsene Wenger's poor record over the past number of seasons. One may suppose that it is a coincidence that the deal was struck just after Wenger's retirement at the end of the 2017/18 season. Rwanda is the 19th poorest country in the world with a per capita income of around $700. Arsenal is one of the richest football clubs in the world. It's not surprising therefore that the nearly $40 million has upset quite a few people.
Dutch lawmakers immediately reacted angrily to the news that such a poor country receiving a great deal of aid from The Netherlands would sponsor one of the world's richest soccer clubs. Similar reactions could be heard in the UK, Rwanda's second largest bilateral donor. An MP described the deal as "an own goal for foreign aid". In addition, those concerned with democracy and human rights think the deal is sending the wrong message about a country that has a strong authoritarian streak running through it.
The question is: Is Kagame entering into a deal with his favourite club to promote tourism or has he done it to enhance his image and shield him from criticism? He appears to have made the decision off his own bat: the contract appears not to have been discussed in the cabinet and the money does not figure in the budget approved by parliament.
For the Rwandan government, the deal is part of a broader strategy to develop tourism, which in 2017 accounted for about 12.7 per cent of GDP and $400 million of revenue. The country sees upmarket leisure and convention tourism as an important growth sector. It has a lot going for it: lush green landscapes, the mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanos, the Akagera wildlife park, the tropical Nyungwe forest, idyllic Lake Kivu, and even genocide memorials - all compressed into a space of just 26,000 sqkm.
This strategy is integrated and makes sense on paper. The state has invested heavily in its national airline RwandAir and built the Kigali Convention Centre and high-end hotels. And the development of the new Bugesera International Airport, designed to become a major regional hub, is underway.
But there are doubts about the profitability of these ventures. For instance, RwandAir has yet to break even 14 years after it was launched. The government keeps it afloat with an annual grant of $50 million.
Investments in a constantly expanding fleet to cater for an ever-growing network of continental and intercontinental destinations require considerable borrowing at a high cost. The fiscal risk involved in the government's strategy is high, and economists wonder how sustainable these outlays will be in the medium term.
Calculations like these are for the Rwandan government to consider. But has Arsenal considered the signal it's giving in light of Kagame's human rights and democracy records?
Canadian investigative journalist Judi Rever recently recorded in a book, In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that the Rwandan regime has massacred tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, particularly in the 1990s.
Kagame's grip on power is absolute and in August last year he was reelected with over 98 per cent of the vote. A referendum on a constitutional amendment in 2015 gave him the right to stay office until 2034.
Realising that battles are fought in the media as much, if not more than on the ground, Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front has developed a formidable information and communication strategy stretching back to the civil war it launched in October 1990.
And I nearly forgot: Many Arsenal fans were opposed to the deal, not because of Rwanda's human rights and democracy records, but because they didn't like the design of the sleeve print.
- The Conversation
Filip Reyntjens is Professor of Law and Politics, Institute of Development Policy and
Management (IOB), University of Antwerp

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