Last week, Rwanda made official one of its biggest publicity deals so far to promote tourism: the small East-African country sponsors from now on for the following three years the English football club Arsenal and therefore spends almost 40 million USD.
While the sleeve-deal with a ‘Visit Rwanda’-print on every tricot of all Arsenal players has been celebrated across Rwanda and other African states, in the West – unsurprisingly – a shitstorm went down on the Kagame-leaded country of a thousand hills. It is not the needed critical discussion of big economic deals between states and football clubs that made me write this article, but it is the terrible image about ‘Africa’ that is still to be found behind almost every Western reaction that was published. One could get the impression that the West just waited for an opportunity like this one to prove the world, that colonial and white supremacy ideas are still alive.
This is a personal reply to the article ‘What it means when the poor sponsor the rich: Rwanda and Arsenal soccer club’ by openly anti-Kagame professor Filip Reyntjens, Belgium, published in The Conversation (May 28, 2018) and Quartz Africa (May 29, 2018) (this still makes me sad as I really loved Quartz Africa…).
Paul Kagame, the Arsenal fan
Indeed, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is an Arsenal fan. As every private and public person, this is nothing he must hide. Being a fan is a personal feeling and decision, free to be expressed e.g. on twitter. Tweets like
My take on my beloved Club Arsenal- a very good one at the game and a very good coach […]
(May 3, 2018, @PaulKagame)
are not surprising but go along with many other of his personal tweets, e.g. about basketball – his favourite team is Golden States Warriors – (June 20, 2016, @PaulKagame) or about his working habits (“Reminded this is a Saturday, let me take a little break!!! 🙂 🙂 )”, February 20, 2016, @PaulKagame). Kagame’s tweets are part of his direct and close-to-the-people communication strategy. And to make this clear, every public person has a communication strategy, this is not especially authoritarian nor only used by Kagame.
Trying to intentionally misinterpret Kagame’s tweet about Aresene Wenger, as Reyntjens is doing it, is the real surprise here – that a committed fan, whether called Kagame, Müller or Smith, wishes for a change e.g. in the coaching of a team when they lose isn’t surprising. But linking the president’s private preference with a political and economic decision by a sovereign country is not only naïve and unprofessional, rather it demonstrates a huge ignorance of how decisions in different political systems are taken and belittles African states as a whole.
The indirect allegation that the retirement of former Arsenal coach Wenger could be linked with the Rwanda-Arsenal-deal is a clear expression of Western hubris. Internal decisions of a football club such as of a whole country are complex processes. I am not sure if Reyntjens has any information about the exact courses of those processes that could support his assumptions. Anyway, without displaying facts of this kind, such allegations erode the capacity of both, English and Rwandan (football or administration) officials respectively and are proof of the total ignorance towards the world’s reality.
It’s not about Kagame
Rwanda has a legitimate political system that firstly deserves to be respected by the internationality and then can be criticized, as it is the case for every other country. It is however not a regime – though I know Western media like to talk about ‘regimes’ when it comes to African countries – nor a one-man-state as one could get the impression when reading Reyntjens’ narrative:
Is Kagame entering into a deal with his favourite club to promote tourism […]?
(Filip Reyntjens in his article)
The simple answer is: No. Kagame is not doing anything on his own, I am sorry it is not that easy. The sponsoring deal was a joint decision by different legal institutions such as the Rwanda Development Board. It goes along with a strategy that Reyntjens, as in the case of Kagame’s way of using twitter, strictly ignores in its totality: I am talking about Rwanda’s strategy of growing through tourism and becoming independent of foreign aid. Indeed, this strategy has been implemented under Kagame’s presidency, but it would be shortsighted to define it as a one-man-show, consindering that until today over 20 thousand Rwandans work in this sector and the incoming money is used for widespread development, also in rural areas (e.g. 10 percent of the nationalparc’s earnings go into infrastructure for neighboring poor areas).
Thus, Rwanda’s developing tourism economy and the Arsenal-deal are not about Kagame – they are about a country without natural resources finding own ways against poverty and dependency, even if this might surprise – or alarm? – many Western people.
Rwanda’s tourism strategy
Around 13 percent of Rwanda’s GNP were gained by the tourism sector in 2017, the aim is to double this number by 2024. Infrastructure, high-end hotels, national parcs, conference venues as the Convention Centre have been built in an impressive speed over the last years in Rwanda and the new international airport at Bugesera, currently under construction, aims to be the most modern one on the African continent. Reyntjens mentions those aspects in his article – just to come up with doubts on the profitability of these ventures made up of thin air.
His negative example of RwandAir for instance must be put in context: The national airline is among the first African ones flying not only to every big airport on the continent but also to Brussels, London and soon New York. Try it as you want, but this success can’t be ignored or belittled by numbers of annual grants. Because if you mention such things, please also think about the millions of dollars e.g. the German government put into AirBerlin who could not finance themselves after almost 40 years of operation while RwandAir operates for 14 years now.
The West and its colonial heritage
And now finally to my favorite part of Western reactions perfectly displayed in Reyntjens’ article: British and Dutch anger about how a – well noted – sovereign country is using its – again well noted – own money! Indeed, around 16 percent of the country’s GNP is still coming from development aid, a major part from The Netherlands and the UK. But: Money coming from development aid is project-bonded, the money paid for the Arsenal-sleeves-sponsoring is coming only from tourism income. This was for example confirmed by Rwanda’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe. It is also him who expresses very well my feelings in the German daily newspaper taz:
Those people still treat us as if we were a small poor African country that is not even allowed to have own ambitions, those critics follow the device ‘you live off our money’.
(Paraphrased from German translation, May 29, 2018, taz).
For me, it is unbelievable how, until today
- development aid is still seen as a generous gift from the West to the uncapable Africans – this image lies behind most of those reactions;
- the West can be persuaded that countries like Rwanda first have to ask for their permission to do major investments or to approve their strategies;
- apparently people do not know what development aid is, what the money is used for and why it has nothing to do with the country’s economic decisions – even if some wish it would –.
The Western denial of Africans’ capability of deciding on their own, knowing what they do, understanding economic processes and making correct calculations is that present in all the reactions that it hurts.
It follows century old ideas of white supremacy that found their expression e.g. in proselytization, colonialism and supressive development aid structures. The West does not show any effort of breaking with those structures, probably it feels better to define yourself as superior. But, even if it will surprise people like Reyntjens every single time again, Rwanda will keep making its own choices only
to be our best selves, fully responsible for our future & a burden to no one.
(January 15, 2016, @PaulKagame).
Because it is Rwanda’s right – and even its duty.
Keep complaining – or grow.
So keep complaining, keep being afraid of African countries finally taking their chance to enter the world market, to invest and develop how they think it is right for themselves. Because clearly it is fear that lies behind the Western attitude of badmouthing everything big coming from a country outside of the ignorant agglomeration of Western states that are afraid of losing their privileged status, what is well overdue.
But please do not complain when you finally realize that you missed to accept that the world finally got fairer because countries like Rwanda stood up for themselves and football clubs like Arsenal realized faster than whole national economies that it is more profitable – and more human by the way – to be on a par with countries also from the Global South. It is time to disrupt the ‘Save Africa’ narrative and to understand that also poor countries (why they’re poor is another topic) can invest and not only receive.
Also, you will probably keep complaining when you finally realize that an investment into Rwanda or any other country you’re still defining as a ‘third world country’ would have been right and when you start falling behind because you didn’t challenge your own stereotypes. I won’t be sorry.
And I nearly forgot (to stay in Reyntjens’ style): I honestly hope that your last argument against Rwanda’s sponsorship saying that Arsenal fans were not liking the design of the sleeve print was a joke. Cause this, as everything else in your reaction, is an own goal.
A few personal remarks:
1) I think it is important to controversially discuss political and economic decisions by every country in international media. I prefer this is done by non-biased journalists with journalistic skills and tools instead of by an openly biased professor who on top of his very subjective and negative opinion on Rwanda obviously does not know what the difference between an argument and a denunciation is. If such a subjective perspective on deals like the one between Rwanda and Arsenal FC seems necessary for your journal, then those thoughts should be clearly classified as an opinion in the media and as every opinion piece be opposed to the other side.
2) I don’t think we should give popularists and negatively driven people like Reyntjens or Revers a wider public by always reproducing their views, even if it is for deconstructing them. However, in this case I feel like answering because there is just too much wrong about his article that reached such a widespread audience. And as sad as it is, unfortunately Reyntjens’ article displays very well the Western ‘shitstorm’ on Rwanda’s deal which urgently needs a reply.
3) No, I have never been paid for writing about Rwanda, nor for this opinion piece – even if this might surprise some people. Yet, I am wondering what the little remark ‘sponsored narrative’ above Reyntjens’ article in Quartz Africa meant, it has been removed meanwhile and I never got an answer on this from Quartz.