Rwanda has struck a sponsorship deal with English soccer club Arsenal for about €34.5 million — a deal that has rubbed many the wrong way since the country receives foreign aid.
It caused quite a stir when news broke that the Rwandan government had signed a $39 million (€34.5 million) sponsorship deal with London football club Arsenal.
The slogan "Visit Rwanda" will be emblazoned on the players' shirts for three years. Players from the men's and women's team will also visit the country for publicity stunts. Rwanda's government hopes to generate about €700 million through sponsoring Arsenal.
This sponsoring deal drew criticism at home and abroad for a number of reasons: First, there's Rwandan President Paul Kagame's love for Arsenal. Rwanda's long-term ruler has been governing the country with an iron fist — his support for the English Premier League club begs the question just how much of a personal interest was at play when that deal was made.
Then there's the fact that Rwanda — more than two decades after a devastating civil war and genocide — is still one of the world's poorest countries.
And then there are the millions of euros in development aid per year Rwanda gets from abroad. But the Rwandan government maintains the money being used for the sponsorship deal comes from tourism revenue and not from donors.
The sponsorship deal was massively criticized in the UK. British daily newspaper Daily Mail wrote about the "shirt of shame" in reference to the proposed slogan on the players' shirts.
"British taxpayers will be rightly shocked to learn that a country supported by huge handouts from the UK is in turn pumping millions into a fabulously rich football club in London. It's ludicrous," conservative British MP Andrew Bridgen was quoted by the paper.
London-based Rwandan human rights lawyer Rene Mugenzi told British media Arsenal should scrap the "obscene" deal.
Money for Premier League instead of utilities
The deal was also criticized in Africa. A Facebook user commenting on DW's Kiswahili Facebook page asked how the Rwandan government can sponsor Arsenal "when its citizens live in poverty and [are] not even having a meal?" He added it would have been better to redirect the money to solve economic challenges to its citizen and improve its infrastructure.
"It is sad that the money would have been used for other projects such as water, electricity, schools, education and other things," Tanzanian economist Gabriel Mwang'onda told DW.
But it was up to Rwanda to decide where to invest, he said. "Rwanda has no minerals nor many resources compared to Tanzania, so it has promoted itself as a country that is going be offering services for international conferences, tourism, IT."
Rwandan political analyst Robert Mugabe criticized the lack of transparency. "Many people in Rwanda are kept in the dark and don't know the actual money invested. Rwandans are learning this through foreign media," he was quoted as saying by news agency AP.
The Rwandan government is unfazed by the criticism. "Anyone who criticizes our deal with Arsenal on account of Rwanda being poor or an aid recipient, either wishes for Rwanda to be perpetually so, or doesn't understand that in any business, marketing costs are a key component of a company's expenditures," the CEO of Rwanda Development Board Claire Akamanzi tweeted.
"The more Rwanda earns from tourism, the more we can invest in our people," she wrote. "That's the connection."
'Tied to the president's preference'
Discussions over the sponsorship deal have since reached German politics. German opposition politician Christoph Hoffmann of business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the party's development policy spokesperson called on the German government to change its course. German development minister Gerd Müller should take a firm stance towards Rwanda. The Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development could not be reached for a statement ahead of the publication of this article.
About €103 million in German aid are slated to be transferred to Rwanda between 2017 and 2020.
Hoffmann is not convinced the sponsorship deal will help the small, densely populated country achieve the desired results. A deal that's "quite obviously tied to the president's personal preference for a soccer club" is not good advertisement for a country's tourism sector. The amount of the payment was unreasonably high and the strategy not productive.
"Visitors to Rwanda are not necessarily Arsenal fans. Because visitors to Rwanda are special-interest groups and you could reach them by, let's say, a social media campaign with three million, you could do much better," Hoffmann told DW.
"I think the amount of money spent is much too high for the goals which could be achieved by this kind of promotion," he added.
Rwanda set to profit, not just in tourism
Stephan Klingebiel of the German Development Institute sees things differently. Rwanda was increasingly able to attract upscale tourism, along with conference tourism, he told DW, adding that Rwanda had 1.3 million visitors in 2017, with 94,000 of them visiting national parks.
The deal was reaching much more than just the tens of thousands of Arsenal fans in the stadium — it would potentially help Rwanda on a "global level."
Klingebiel believes the deal could help the country to also profit in other ways than just tourism. "It will also shift the whole image of Rwanda, which was very much an image of a civil-war country in the past. And just thinking about private investors for example, this might have an impact also on them."
By closing the deal, the Rwandan government also complied with demands from Western donors to find their own solution when it comes to development cooperation. That's exactly what Rwanda was going for — the sponsorship deal was an attempt to invest in the future to eventually be able to go it alone, Klingebiel said.
Will the deal change development policies?
He doesn't believe the controversy surrounding the sponsorship deal will negatively affect development policies. "I think any kind of aid cut or aid suspension for Rwanda justified by this deal wouldn't make any sense."
"At the same time, just looking at some political discussions we have in the United Kingdom, quite often we have this kind of oversimplified political debate," he said, adding that this debate could affect the UK's development policy.
That would be detrimental since it would cement antiquated images of Africa and how Africa should behave, he added.
That view is echoed by FDP's development policy spokesperson Hoffmann. "I don't think cutting development aid is a good idea at this point because Africa has so many problems. We should not cut it down but we should divert it more into investment rather than aid," he said.
The next three years will show just how many jobs "Visit Rwanda" slogans printed on Arsenal jerseys helped create.