'Wasted money': Rwanda splurges on sports despite criticism

Rwanda President Paul Kagame. PHOTO/ AFP FILE

What you need to know:

  • A "famous" third club is on the cards for Rwanda, according to President Paul Kagame, who has spent a small fortune on sports investments that he says will burnish the international image and diversify the economy of the tiny central African country.

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

Now, a "famous" third club is on the cards for Rwanda, according to President Paul Kagame, who has spent a small fortune on sports investments that he says will burnish the international image and diversify the economy of the tiny central African country.

But the splurge, which includes club sponsorships and hosting duties for events ranging from 2021's Basketball Africa league tournament to cycling's Road World Championships in 2025, has drawn accusations of "sports-washing", or using sports to hide the country's grim human rights record.

Campaigners accuse Kagame of crushing political dissent and stifling free speech during his more than 22 years in power.

"These investments do not meet the immediate needs of the vast majority of Rwandans," said opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, a fierce critic of Kagame.

"I don't believe there is return for his investments," she told AFP, saying that the sponsorships did little to help rural Rwandans.

"It is wasted money."

The impoverished country, where per capita income is estimated at just $822 according to 2021 World Bank figures, has spent millions of dollars ramping up its sports infrastructure and erecting new buildings.

It is currently renovating the 25,000-capacity national stadium to add 20,000 more seats in a project billed at around $165 million and expected to be completed by next year.

An 18-hole golf course designed by South African golfer Gary Player and costing $16 million opened in the capital Kigali in 2021. 

In 2017, Rwanda unveiled a $1.3-million cricket stadium on the outskirts of Kigali, following it up a year later with a 10,000-seater basketball arena costing $104 million.

 'Improving people's lives' 
Government officials have defended the projects, arguing that they serve to bolster the country's reputation as a safe destination for high-profile events.

Rwanda, whose tumultuous history is indelibly marked by the 1994 genocide, hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last year, attended by some 30 leaders including King Charles III, then a prince. 

And world football's governing body FIFA will be in town this week for its 73rd congress to reelect its chief Gianni Infantino who is running unopposed. 

Authorities say such events bring in much-needed foreign exchange and provide an economic boost to the landlocked nation which is reliant on tourism. 

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

The board's CEO, Clare Akamanzi, said at the weekend that the Arsenal and PSG sponsorship deals alone had generated over $160 million in media value. This had in turn brought one million visitors to Rwanda, injecting $445 million in tourism revenues, she added. 

"These guests not only left Rwanda with positive memories; they also played a direct role in improving peoples' lives," she wrote in an opinion piece published Saturday in the East African newspaper.

"It's alright to disagree with Rwanda's governance model, but a campaign to undermine investment in a developing country's economy, which has a real impact on the lives (of) people, is counterproductive and cynical."

Ruling party MP John-Ruku Rwabyoma echoed her sentiments in an interview with AFP, charging that critics of the deal were "ignorant" and that the government was acting in the best interest of its people.

"We are not here to satisfy critics based on their agenda. Where were all these critics when Rwanda was suffering?"

 'Not be bullied' 
For Kagame -- an ardent Arsenal supporter -- the deals had surpassed "by far what we invested", he said this month, adding that the government was on the verge of sponsoring a third team. 

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

"I am the one who knows what we put in; I know how much we are getting out," he said, without offering any details. 

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

"I don't know whether it is cost-effective... whether it is paying off in the long run, maybe then, but now, I do not think so," he said, adding that he had not seen the numbers to support the government's narrative.

Nonetheless, doubts raised by "pundits who mostly know next to nothing about Rwanda, and draw upon tired tropes" will do little to stop the initiatives, according to the RDB's Akamanzi.

"We will not be bullied into ceding our place at the table," she said.