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Bayern Munich and Rwanda: Sponsorship causes criticism

Jens Krepela | Alex Ngarambe
September 5, 2023

The Bundesliga record titleholders' new advertising partner is Rwanda, where the latest sponsorship has been met with a mixture of pride and skepticism.

Bayern against Augsburg
Mbappe and Neymar have already served as advertising space for Visit Rwanda now Bayern Munich will tooImage: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

There are almost 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) between Munich and the Rwandan capital Kigali. They are different worlds in many respects, but a new sponsorship deal should bring them closer together.

The state tourism campaign Visit Rwanda wants to attract more tourists to the East African country by advertising with Bayern Munich, as it has done before with Arsenal FC and Paris Saint-Germain. How many millions will flow from Africa to Germany for this purpose by 2028 is unknown. However, the premium partnerships tend to cost in the ballpark of €5 million ($5.3 million) per year.

Jan-Christian Dreesen, Bayern's CEO, defended the partnership at the European Club Association (ECA) meeting in Berlin on September 7. 

"Yes, we take money from Rwanda, but we also do something for it; by being open about it, by sending coaches there, by building a youth academy together, and so on," he told DW. "We want to be part of the development of Rwanda and also champion Africa as a continent of opportunity."

However, human rights campaigners see it rather differently.

"A very, very bad choice," said Wenzel Michalski of the NGO Human Rights Watch, referring to the human rights situation in Rwanda. Critics, including journalists, are threatened and silenced, he said. Furthermore, there have been reports of arbitrary abductions, torture and unexplained deaths.

The politically active Munich fan scene, in which Christian Nandelstädt is well connected as a club member and blogger, have been similarly shocked by the German record champion's new deal. "We reject this," he told DW in no uncertain terms. 

Accusation: Sportswashing of an autocracy

In Kigali, opinions differ about the multi-million dollar image-building campaign. The accusation is that the regime of ruler Paul Kagame is engaged in sportswashing and wants to use the campaign to divert attention from the abuses of freedom of the press, democracy and the fight against poverty.

For journalist Gonza Mugangwa, former secretary general of the Rwandan Journalists' Association, this aspect is obvious but not at all decisive. "What really worries most Rwandans is whether it's worth investing these sums," he told DW.

Of course, people are proud when their country is so prominently represented, he said. However, he is skeptical whether the income from these deals also helps the average citizen to improve their financial situation.

"That would be the case if income came from tourism and could be directly linked to these sponsorships," he said. In practice, however, this is difficult, which is why he "does not yet see any dividends in direct sponsorship relationships with the clubs."

Bayern fan Charles Ndushabandi from Kigali, on the other hand, tells DW he is optimistic: "I'm sure that Rwanda as a brand has gained more recognition since these contracts were signed. Not only in Africa, but also in Europe and Latin America because these football clubs are big and watched by millions."

City centre in Downtown Kigali, with builings and cars on the left
Poverty remains in Rwanda, especially in areas away from the capital Kigali which has seen an influx of foreign investmentImage: Michael Runkel/robertharding/IMAGO

After Qatar now Rwanda: Criticism at home

Many in the Bayern fan scene aren't impressed by the decision. After the end of the much-criticized partnership with Qatar Airways, there had been "a few weeks of bliss," Christian Nandelstädt said, "and now this!" Once again, he said, business is being done with an autocratic state, once again a contract has been signed for five years.

"It's hard to understand why. The club is swimming in money," he said. According to him, protests in the Munich Südkurve [where the most loyal fans gather to watch the games - the ed.] are to be expected again. He's dismissive of the argument of promoting talent used by the club to justify its commitment. "For that, they would have had to get involved in another, more democratic country in Africa."

Close ties to Qatar

It is probably no coincidence that Rwanda, of all places, is now being considered in Munich. President Kagame maintains close contacts with Qatar, right into the circles of the ruling house. Moreover, Qatar Airways, the former sponsor of Bayern, is one of the biggest players in the African country. The Qatari airline holds almost half of the shares in the state-owned airline RwandAir and has a 60% stake in Bugesera International Airport, which is currently under construction.

Talking to foreign observers in Kigali, it also becomes clear who is most likely to reap the rewards from the international money flows and the fairly high rates for tourists. The economy is largely in the hands of the ruling party, the RPF. Moreover, the much-vaunted economic upswing is concentrated only in the capital. Clean streets, glittering glass facades and other amenities, such as a golf course designed by PGA legend Gary Player, await visitors there.

An Arsenal coach speaks to a group of Rwandan football coaches during a week long mentoring program
Visit Rwanda sponsored English Premier League side Arsenal with coaches from the EPL team providing Rwandan coaches advice in returnImage: Lyu Tianran/Xinhua/picture alliance

In less urban areas though, poverty still reigns, while floods in May exacerbated the hardship. The millions that are now flowing into the Bundesliga could also be put to good use here.

Glimmer of hope for talents?

The road to the top European leagues is long, even for youngsters who go through the extremely performance-oriented system of youth academies in France or Germany. In this respect, the new deal does not tear down any walls.

At best, it slightly opens the door for Rwandan football talent.

That's echoed by sports journalist Jah d'Eau Dukuze, who produces one of the leading sports programs in Rwanda.

"The sponsorships already have an effect. For example, the cooperation with PSG was important for the development of young players who would like to become professionals." Young footballers between the ages of 12 and 15 have been to France twice to compete with their peers, he told DW. "It's a rare opportunity."

Creating such opportunities — away from the million-dollar deals — is now Bayern Munich's job.

This article was translated from German.

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Jens Krepela
Jens Krepela Editor, reporter and author