Rwanda is investing heavily in sports through partnerships with clubs such as Arsenal and PSG and the organization of the World Road Cycling Championships in 2025. However this strategy has drawn criticism from the opposition, which doubts it is usefull for the economy of the 73rd FIFA Congress host 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. The "Visit Rwanda" can now be seen on Premier League and Ligue 1 pitches.
The vision of Rwandan authorities takes shape with club sponsorships and hosting duties for events ranging from 2021’s Basketball Africa league tournament to cycling’s Road World Championships in 2025.
It has required extensive work to provide the country with new sports infrastructure: $104 million for a 10,000-seat basketball hall, $16 million for a golf course inaugurated in 2021 in Kigali, and $165 million budgeted for the ongoing construction of the National Stadium, which is expected to expand from 25,000 to 45,000 seats by 2024.
President Paul Kagame has spent a small fortune on sports investments that he says will burnish the international image and diversify the economy of the tiny eastern African country.
But the splurge has drawn accusations of “sports-washing”. Campaigners accuse Kagame of crushing political dissent and stifling free speech during his more than 22 years in power.
Improve standard of living
"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."
In the eastern African ccountry, per capita income is estimated at just $822 according to 2021 World Bank figures.
Government officials have defended the projects, arguing that they serve to bolster the country’s reputation as a safe destination for high-profile events.
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," she adde.
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.
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.
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?"
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 Clare Akamanzi.
"We will not be bullied into ceding our place at the table," she said.