In January this year the Foreign Office urged the Rwandan government to look into allegations of “deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”. The logistics of this shouldn’t be too difficult. The allegations are against the Rwandan government itself.
Six months ago Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier whose peaceable role in the 1994 genocide was portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda, was bundled on to a plane in Dubai to face what his family have called a sham trial on terrorism charges.
And a year before that David Luiz travelled to Rwanda on a sensational luxury tourist holiday – all the better to illustrate what the then chief commercial officer, Vinai Venkatesham, called “the very compelling fit” between Arsenal football club and a country where public life is marked by “threats, intimidation [and] mysterious deaths”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Never mind that, though. Look away from the moral discomfort. Here’s David Luiz’s video diary. Here’s David Luiz stalking a gorilla, David Luiz nutmegging a laughing child, David Luiz walking through the forest in a soaking wet Arsenal tracksuit. David Luiz’s verdict? “I’m going to recommend all my friends to spend their holidays in Rwanda.”
Arsenal’s sponsorship by Visit Rwanda remains an oddity of the commercial-sporting nexus. There was a degree of surprise in May 2018 when the shirtsleeve deal was announced.
It has since puttered along in the peripheral vision, absorbed into the wider moral contortions of Premier League life. Football has spent the past decade being bought and sold by sovereign states, used to puff, gloss and scour international reputations. What’s another friendly despot?
The difference with Rwanda is that, while undoubtedly a beautiful place to visit, it is also one of the poorest nations on earth. This isn’t a mini-superpower with surplus GDP tumbling out of its trouser turn-ups. Rwanda is not much bigger than Wales. The majority of its people live in poverty. It relies massively on foreign aid. And yet here it is paying out £30m to one of the world’s richest sporting clubs.
Two things have brought this into starker relief in the past few weeks. That three-year contract is up for renewal in the summer. And as the UK government statement suggests, the situation in Rwanda has become a source of genuine international concern.
Michela Wrong is a writer and journalist who has been covering Rwanda since the genocide. Her book on president Paul Kagame’s 21-year regime – Do Not Disturb: The story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad – is published in April.
“On a human rights front things have definitely got worse since 2018,” Wrong says. “Rwanda is one of the most repressive countries in Africa. You’ve got real poverty. Every election in Rwanda is rigged, everyone knows that. Worse, there is an unrelenting desire to hunt down and silence critics of the government abroad.”
This process, known as “transnational repression”, is a key theme in Wrong’s book, with the suggestion the Rwandan government silences dissent abroad via a secret service she compares to Mossad and the East German Stasi.
The government is essentially an embodiment of its president. Re-elected in 2017 with a hugely impressive 99% majority, Kagame was a leader of the liberating armies after the genocide. He has been a darling of the world stage, cosying up to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and often tweeting about Arsenal in the final days of Arsène Wenger (Kagame was, reluctantly, #Wengerout).
“I think of [Kagame] as a very sinister figure now,” Wrong says. “He’s going to be there for life, he doesn’t have any successors, all his closest colleagues from when he rose to power have been killed or imprisoned.”
How does that fit with the branded gushing, with David Luiz’s trip to the presidential residence (the hand‑slaps, the “PK” replica shirt)? Or indeed the account on the Arsenal website that describes Rwanda as “a leading reformer in Africa”.
The club are not willing to shed any light on the renewal of the deal. A spokesperson told the Guardian: “We never discuss the commercial terms or renewals of our partnerships, but we and Visit Rwanda are delighted with how things have been working since we launched together in 2018. As well as raising awareness of the country as a luxury holiday destination, we have also worked together to challenge perceptions and tell Rwanda’s incredible story of culture, heritage and transition.”
The schmaltz may seem a little galling to some. But there is at least a bracingly bullish amorality to Arsenal’s position on this. These are, after all, questions football needs to confront and untangle with a degree of honesty as it struggles to navigate a path between unfettered growth and expansion (also known as greed), and any notion of being selective over who it deals with.
Arsenal are right, too. According to Rwandan figures the campaign has been a success, lifting overall tourism numbers by 8%. Whatever the regime might be up to, Rwanda has a functioning tourist industry –; hoteliers, taxi drivers and everyday people who will benefit hugely from economic activity.
Where do we draw the line? Who do we deem acceptable from our own rather wobbly throne of judgment? Can we fly Emirates but not Visit Rwanda? Can we sell Saudi Arabia instruments of death but not a football club? This is simply football’s global landscape, a ziggurat of conflicting interests and messages, a place where nobody is really out of the murk.
For Arsenal, the question of whether to renew the Rwanda deal remains open. Perhaps Rwanda’s presence on the Covid travel red list will play a part. Perhaps the concerns of the Foreign Office will carry some weight.
This was always an unexpected fit. Set against English football’s much-trumpeted moral rectitude of the past year, and couched as a simpering corporate partnership (David Luiz waving in a Jeep: meet the Gikondo street children’s transit centre), it looks increasingly strange.