Rwanda has defended its Sh4.6 billion (£30 million, $40 million) Arsenal sponsorship deal that will see the top-flight English club’s players sport ‘Visit Rwanda’ on their shirt sleeves for the next three years.
Kigali says the money is part of its marketing budget and was sourced from funds earned from tourism.
The deal, which was announced last week, has attracted criticism mainly from the UK and The Netherlands.
Critics question why Rwanda, a donor-dependent country and one still grappling with high levels of poverty, would spend such a huge sum of money.
In an article titled “Shirt of shame” in the British newspaper Daily Mail, the writer accuses the UK government of giving Sh8.4 billion (£62 million) in foreign aid to Rwanda each year, only for half the amount to be used by President Paul Kagame, an ardent Arsenal fan, to sponsor “his favourite club”.
The paper quotes Mr Ian Birrel, a known President Kagame critic, who said the deal makes a mockery of British fair play, as well as a lawmaker, Mr Andrew Bridgen, who described the sponsorship as “an own goal of foreign aid”.
Legislators in the UK and The Netherlands have demanded that their respective governments revisit their development support to Rwanda.
But the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the agency that oversees the tourism industry, has rebuffed the criticism saying the deal is part of its marketing drive to grow tourism numbers and revenues.
“Anyone who criticises 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,” Ms Clare Akamanzi, the RDB chief executive said in a tweet.
“The Rwanda Development Board generates revenues from sale of tourism products, from which it uses a portion to market its products for further growth. The Arsenal deal falls within this arrangement, just like our tourism exhibitions, sales consultancies,” she added.
“Our national goal is to double tourism revenues to $800m by 2024, from $404 million currently. This won’t happen by sitting and waiting, but by being proactive, and marketing Rwanda as a tourist destination in innovative ways. Now – Relax and let the world Visit Rwanda,” she added defiantly.
Meanwhile, the UK aid agency Department for International Development (DfID) termed the Mail article as misleading for implying that its donor support to Rwanda was being used to fund the Arsenal deal.
“UK aid to Rwanda has been carefully and specifically earmarked for programmes that will support the country’s most vulnerable people and help it stand on its own two feet.
“UK aid is not used for sponsorship deals with Arsenal FC and DfID is not giving any money to Visit Rwanda or the Rwanda Development Board,” DfID said in a statement.
The agency said it supports education and agricultural programmes and tracks “results to ensure value for money for UK taxpayers.”
Rwanda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe, responding to criticism from The Netherlands, told Dutch MPs that the sponsorship deal was none of their business.
Dutch newspapers quoted MPs as saying “it is disheartening to see such payments being made, while the international community is trying to tackle the poverty” in Rwanda.
“Dear MPs from The Netherlands. This is NONE of your business. Rwanda uses revenues from National Parks to promote investment & tourism, aiming [at] self-reliance,” Mr Nduhungirehe retorted.
He added that the day Dutch football clubs such Ajax and Feyenoord become as popular as Arsenal, Rwanda “will talk business!”
His comments attracted a cheeky response from the Rotterdam-based club, Feyenoord, which sought to be left out of the debate.
“We would like to stay out of this or any political discussion but would like to let you know we have at least one fan in Rwanda,” the club tweeted, sharing a photo of President Kagame receiving the red and white Feyenoord jersey from Gido Vader, a club official in October 2015.
Rwanda plans to increase its budgetary spending to $2.81 billion in the 2018/19 financial year up from $2.58 billion for the 2017/18 fiscal year. 16 per cent of the money is expected to come from donors.
Tourism is the country’s largest foreign exchange earner.