Rwanda spends money on sports despite criticism

First, it was a multi-million dollar sponsorship of English Premier League club Arsenal in 2018, followed a year later by a spectacular deal to back French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

Now, according to President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has a “prominent” third club in the pipeline that has spent a small fortune on sports investments that it says will improve the international image and diversify the tiny Central African country’s economy.

But the bust, which includes club sponsorship and responsibilities for hosting events ranging from the 2021 African Basketball League tournament to the 2025 Road Cycling World Championships, has sparked accusations of “sport laundering” or using sports to cover up the country’s dark history. with human rights.

Activists accuse Kagame of stifling political dissent and suppressing free speech during his more than 22 years in office.

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“These investments do not meet the immediate needs of the vast majority of Rwandans,” said opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, who has been a vocal critic of Kagame.

“I don’t believe his investment will pay off,” she told AFP, saying the sponsorship did little to help rural Rwandans.

“It’s money thrown away.”

The impoverished country, which has a per capita income of just $822 according to World Bank data for 2021, has spent millions of dollars expanding its sports infrastructure and building new buildings.

It is currently refurbishing the 25,000-capacity national stadium to add another 20,000 seats in an approximately $165 million project that is expected to be completed by next year.

A $16 million 18-hole golf course designed by South African golfer Gary Player opened in the capital city of Kigali in 2021.

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In 2017, Rwanda opened a $1.3 million cricket stadium on the outskirts of Kigali, and a year later built a $104 million 10,000-seat basketball arena.

– Rwanda “improves people’s lives” –

Government officials have defended the projects, arguing that they serve to bolster the country’s reputation as a safe venue for high-profile events.

Rwanda, whose turbulent history is indelibly marked by the 1994 genocide, last year hosted a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government attended by about 30 leaders, including King Charles III, then a prince.

And world football’s governing body FIFA will come to its 73rd congress this week to re-elect its leader, Gianni Infantino, who is running unopposed.

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Authorities say such events bring in much-needed foreign exchange and provide an economic boost to the landlocked country that depends on tourism.

Pre-pandemic tourism revenue jumped 17 percent to $498 million in 2019, according to the Rwanda Development Board.

Board CEO Claire Akamanzi said over the weekend that sponsorship deals with Arsenal and PSG alone generated more than $160 million in media value. This in turn brought one million visitors to Rwanda, generating $445 million in tourism revenue, she added.

“These guests not only left Rwanda with positive memories; they also played a direct role in improving people’s lives,” she wrote in an article published on Saturday in an East African newspaper.

“One may disagree with Rwanda’s governance model, but a campaign to undermine investment in a developing country’s economy, which has a real impact on people’s lives, is counterproductive and cynical.”

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Jon Ruku Rwabioma, an MP from the ruling party, echoed her sentiment in an interview with AFP, saying critics of the deal were “ignorant” and that the government acted in the best interests of its people.

“We are not here to satisfy the critics based on their agenda. Where were all those critics when Rwanda was suffering?”

– Kagame “will not intimidate” –

For Kagame – a staunch Arsenal supporter – the deals “far exceeded what we invested,” he said this month, adding that the government was on the verge of sponsoring a third team.

The 65-year-old man became president in April 2000, although since 1994 he has been considered the de facto leader of a country of nearly 13 million people.

“I am someone who knows what we are investing; I know how much we get out, ”he said, without going into details.

A foreign diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP he was skeptical of the claims.

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“I don’t know if it’s cost-effective … if it pays off in the long run, maybe then, but I don’t think so now,” he said, adding that he didn’t see the numbers to support the government’s version.

However, according to RDB’s Akamanzi, doubts raised by “experts who mostly know next to nothing about Rwanda and rely on hackneyed stereotypes” will do little to stop the initiatives.

“We will not be forced to give up a seat at the table,” she said.