Arsenal’s biggest fan is a brutal dictator
Paul Kagame's partnership with Arsenal helps distract from human rights abuses while expanding Rwanda's influence and brand recognition.
In a showdown that set the stage for the upcoming English Premier League season, Arsenal triumphed over Manchester City with a 4-1 victory in a penalty shootout following a hard-fought 1-1 tie in regulation, securing the first silverware of the season: the Football Association’s Community Shield.
Among the fans celebrating Arsenal’s win against the treble-winners was Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s longstanding president and one of the world’s most brutal dictators.
“Congrats Arsenal,” Kagame wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Shows what's to come!! You can only LUV it!!”
Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since 2000 and was re-elected in 2017 with a 99 percent of the vote, is a ardent supporter of the north London club and gained a degree of notoriety after a series of angry tweets following Arsenal’s loss at Brentford on the opening day of the 2021-22 Premier League season, where he claimed that fans of the club “do not deserve” this and blasted the side’s “mediocrity”.
Arsenal also has a lucrative sponsorship deal as Rwanda’s official tourism partner that involves a “Visit Rwanda” logo emblazoned on the team’s shirt sleeves. The deal, which began in 2018, is worth more than $40 million—an expensive deal that Kagame claims has paid for itself in tourism revenue.
“The partnership we have with Arsenal has actually attracted more people who have brought to the country more money than we have given Arsenal,” Kagame said during an investment conference in September 2021. “You don’t have to be a very sharp businessman—I am not one myself—but I think this one we got it right.”
While Kagame claims that his government’s partnership with Arsenal boosts Rwanda’s tourism drive, the deal is yet another example of an authoritarian leader weaponizing sports for political gain, whether to distract from ongoing human rights abuses or to expand his country’s influence and brand recognition.
Dating back to 1994 when he was first appointed to political office, Kagame has been accused of widespread human rights atrocities. The alleged abuses include forced disappearances, assassinations of political opponents, torture and state-imposed censorship. His regime helped launch two wars in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which led to the deaths of more than five million people.
Despite his violent history and repressive actions, Kagame is viewed by many in his country as a national hero and a global darling for commanding the rebel force that ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
In the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame gained influence before being elected president in 2000 and has remained in power ever since. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented at least 10 cases involving attacks or threats against his critics outside Rwanda since the late 1990s, all of which were tied to Kagame or his party.
As criticism of Kagame’s regime mounted in the late 2000s, especially following the HRW report, Kagame attempted to further his image as a magnanimous leader by attaching his name to sports.
In 2002, Kagame began sponsoring the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations football tournament, which was then renamed the Kagame Interclub Cup. He turned to basketball in 2018 when he helped Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver open the Giants of Africa camp in Kigali. The following year, Kagame made an appearance at the Oracle Arena to watch a playoff game between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. Kagame was given the tickets by the NBA and arrived with a sizeable entourage. Silver later called Kagame and his family “very knowledgeable NBA fans” and thanked the leader for his support.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s Visit Rwanda deal continues to pay dividends for Kagame. Several Arsenal legends, including Robert Pires and Ray Parlour, visited Rwandan capital Kigali last year as part of the partnership and pledged to help boost Rwandan tourism.
“Tourism in Rwanda matters much and has potential to help the country prosper and I wish to spread the word and recommend everybody to Rwanda as their tourism destination,” Parlour said. “It’s very important to tell people who have never been here and say ‘Look I have been to this country and had an amazing experience and I wish you could one day visit it too’.”
As part of the deal, Arsenal players will visit Rwanda to hold training camps, while the country’s logo will appear at the side of the pitch at the Emirates stadium and on the backdrops for post-match interviews. In the meantime, Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) continues to stifle dissent and target those perceived as a threat to the government. Rwandan officials have even exerted pressure on dissidents as far as Canada and Australia.
Rwanda also continues to back the M23 rebel group, a Tutsi rebel group which has captured swaths of territory in North Kivu province in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The rebel group is reportedly sowing chaos in DRC and is pillaging the country’s natural resources.
As Arsenal basks in the glory of their recent Community Shield triumph, the eager gaze of Kagame remains fixed on the future, anticipating a continued display of excellence from his team, for their victories reverberate far beyond the pitch.
Speaking during Arsenal’s impressive premier league title run last season, Kagame reiterated the benefits that Rwanda stands to gain from Arsenal’s success: “The better we—I mean Arsenal—perform towards getting the ultimate prize, the more dividends it will bring.”
As Arsenal continues to expand its partnership with Kagame, the trajectory of the club’s triumphs has becomes inexorably intertwined with the aspirations of a brutal dictator.
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