Arsenal’s iconic red-and-white shirt inspires all sorts of different memories and emotions in football fans around the world.
But for the last three seasons at least, because of two words on the sleeve, seeing an Arsenal shirt has filled Carine Kanimba with despair.
The north London club has had a partnership with the African country’s tourism board since 2018 and last year signed a £10 million-per-year sleeve sponsorship contract lasting four years. Visit Rwanda also has a bumper deal with Paris Saint-Germain.
Kanimba is the daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, depicted by Don Cheadle in the film Hotel Rwanda. Last year he was sentenced to 25 years for terrorism. The US Department of State released a statement in September that questioned the conviction, saying “the reported lack of fair trial guarantees calls into question the fairness of the verdict”.
“The club is complicit in the crimes that are being committed,” Kanimba tells The Athletic by phone from Belgium. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Rusesabagina is an enemy of Paul Kagame’s government which at the weekend hosted the likes of Boris Johnson and Prince Charles for the Commonwealth Head of Governments (CHOGM) meeting in capital Kigali.
Kagame himself is an Arsenal fan and regularly tweets his support — and criticism — of the team.
What?? It’s football,it’s a loss of Arsenal at/to Brentford. Brentford deserved to win and they did. The game itself aside Arsenal and the fans don’t deserve to kind of get used to this….NO !!! I say this as one of the big fans of Arsenal. The change has taken to long to come!
— Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame) August 13, 2021
The United Nations says Rusesabagina was “abducted by agents of the Rwandan government in Dubai” two years ago and is now “arbitrarily detained” in the country, a position affirmed by the European Parliament.
And more generally, the Rwandan government stands accused of serial abuses by multiple human rights groups, with Human Rights Watch alleging torture is commonplace alongside a failure to conduct investigations into “suspicious deaths”, while Amnesty International says “disappearances from previous years remained unresolved”.
In the UK, Rwanda has been catapulted from relative obscurity to headline news because of a controversial policy to send asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel to Rwanda in the hope of deterring others. Opposition politicians and human rights groups have fiercely criticised the plan.
Arsenal’s deal is now in the headlights.
“It absolutely cannot be defended,” says Zoe Gardner, an Arsenal fan and policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “We have Visit Rwanda on our team’s shirts when we’re talking about sending refugees there for life. It’s just sickening.”
But The Athletic has also spoken to Rwandan Arsenal fans thrilled at the deal which, they feel, promotes their landlocked country — with a population of 13 million and located just south of the equator — to the world. Since the dark days of the 1994 genocide, the country has had a strong economic recovery.
“It’s one of the best thing that ever happened to our country,” says Khassim Bizimungu of the Rwanda Arsenal Fans Community.
Arsenal believes it has carried out adequate due diligence on the deal and is broadly happy with a partnership which brings in a huge amount of money.
The club say the partnership is intended to help build a profitable tourism industry for a developing country with a low-income economy.
An Arsenal spokesperson tells The Athletic: “As with all our partnerships, we conducted extensive research before concluding the deal four years ago.
“Prior to the pandemic, visitor numbers from key countries including the UK and across Europe had shown significant increases which coincide with the start of our partnership. In 2019, Rwanda experienced 30 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors for tourism and MICE tourism (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) from across Europe, and 18 per cent year-on-year increase from the UK.
“Our partnership is focussed on promoting the country and helping the tourism sector recover from the pandemic.”
Arsenal maintain the partnership is effectively with the Rwandan tourist board, rather than the national leadership. Kagame’s willingness to publicly criticise Arsenal’s owners is cited as evidence that the club and the Rwandan government are not always aligned.
Arsenal staff speak of a positive, productive partnership — one that has benefited all parties.
There’s also the caveat that Arsenal ostensibly do not seek to involve themselves in political matters. When Mesut Ozil spoke out in support of the Uighur Muslims in China, the club publicly distanced themselves from his stance.
“Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics,” read their statement. The line is blurred, however. Arsenal do involve themselves in social and ethical matters — they have posted on social media about Ukraine, Black Lives Matter, LGBT+ issues, for example — which quickly become intertwined with politics.
There is an acknowledgement that the Rwanda partnership has become more “uncomfortable” in light of the UK asylum deal, as British fans become more and more aware of the human rights issues in the country that will adorn the club’s shirts for the foreseeable future.
The awkward truth is that to compete on the pitch with clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool, Arsenal need cash from somewhere. The club fell just short of Champions League qualification last season and continually needs new investment to kick on.
When the Premier League permitted additional sleeve sponsors, it was a chance for Arsenal to make ground on some of their rivals. Arsenal spoke to a wide number of potential candidates, but being from the tourism sector and with the link to Africa, Visit Rwanda were chosen above all others. It helped, of course, that they made a financially compelling offer.
Premier League football is locked in a relentlessly inflationary spiral where transfer fees and wages constantly cost more and more. Some clubs have the luxury of backing from a state or oligarch, whereas the Kroenke family attempt to run Arsenal in a more sustainable way.
While many Arsenal fans are upset at a morally questionable sponsor, the club feels it is between a rock and a hard place, and would attract even more anger if it did not produce new signings or improve on last season’s fifth place in the Premier League.
From cryptocurrency to online gambling, fans of all clubs are increasingly being forced into thorny moral dilemmas when they pull on a replica kit.
Michela Wrong is a British journalist who spent many years working in Africa for the BBC, Reuters and Financial Times. Last year she published Do Not Disturb, a highly critical account of Kagame’s regime focusing on the 2014 murder of defector Patrick Karegeya.
For her there are two main criticisms to level at the Arsenal deal.
First, Rwanda is heavily dependent on foreign aid as one of the poorest countries in the world, yet somehow has the resources to pay a billionaire-owned football club in one of the world’s richest cities.
“It’s completely inappropriate,” she told The Athletic. “In a way western taxpayers are paying for that; they’re covering the costs of schools and hospitals, freeing up money for this.”
While the Commonwealth visitors will see an immaculate city in Kigali, outside that it’s one of the world’s poorest countries with extreme rural poverty, she says.
Visit Rwanda maintains the sponsorship deal pays for itself in increased revenue, though Wrong says figures coming from the Rwandan government cannot be trusted.
The second criticism is that this is “sportswashing”, the use of football to put a glamorous sheen on a highly contentious regime.
This term has been used a lot in Premier League football in recent years, from the Saudi takeover of Newcastle to Abu Dhabi’s involvement at Manchester City.
While a club like Arsenal worries about being able to compete with these state-backed juggernauts — even if Newcastle may take a while — it is notable two of the club’s three main partners, alongside Adidas, are directly linked to states. Visit Rwanda is joined by Fly Emirates which appears on the front of the shirts and gives its name to the stadium in north London.
Michela Wrong says Kagame “is very skilled at public relations”, making extensive use of companies in the US and the UK.
“They give him excellent advice on how to project a glossy, friendly, eco-friendly, progressive image to the world,” she says, highlighting the fact Rwanda routinely touts the surprising fact it has more women MPs than any other country in the world, yet parliament has virtually no power.
“I think Arsenal fans should worry about their football club supporting one of the most repressive regimes in Africa,” says Wrong. “Given what is going on in his country, the president has blood on his hands.”
An alternative perspective comes from two different Rwandan Arsenal fans.
Leonard Julien works as a taxi driver in Coventry, moving north a few years ago having lived in London for many years after arriving from Rwanda in 2001.
He came to the UK when Arsenal were in their pomp under Arsene Wenger, winning three titles in seven years with players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, going unbeaten in the league for the entire 2003-04 season — a feat no other side has achieved in the Premier League.
It makes “everyone proud” back home to see their country’s name on Arsenal shirts, he tells The Athletic.
“When people think of Rwanda they think of a failed state like 1994, but since then Rwanda has rebuilt itself again.”
Arsenal has a big supporter base across Africa. This is partly because they are a club with a history of iconic black players. They have celebrated club legends such as Ian Wright and David Rocastle in eras when English football was far less diverse.
The club never had a prominent far-right hooligan presence like London rivals Chelsea and West Ham, and more recently has had countless African stars like Nwankwo Kanu, Lauren, Kolo Toure and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. That has led to Arsenal support all across the continent.
Julien says it is always a huge event in Rwanda when Arsenal are playing on TV. He dismisses the concerns about human rights and sportswashing, saying people are trying to “politicise” a deal which is good for Rwandans.
“We can’t say everything is rosy, but day by day we are getting there,” he says.
Bizimungu of the Rwanda Arsenal Fans Community came to the club through a more unorthodox route. In the mid-1990s he was working in Ugandan capital Kampala, and had a relative working at the UK’s High Commission there, who brought home an Arsenal magazine.
It featured Chris Kiwomya, an English striker of Ugandan heritage who signed for Arsenal from Ipswich Town in 1995.
He played just 14 games for the club before moving out on loan and then to Queens Park Rangers, but Bizimungu, who works as a consultant in the tourism sector, was hooked on Arsenal.
“Africans love football,” he says, citing his favourite player as Bukayo Saka, a Londoner with Nigerian parents.
“Whenever you go to Google and type in Rwanda, all you see is war, genocide, stuff like that,” he says.
“People are no longer seeing our country through its dark past.”
To critics including the United Nations, the European Parliament, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Rwanda’s dark past has simply turned into a dark present, with Arsenal and PSG playing a role in sanitising it.
“This is sportswashing,” says Kanimba. “Dictators and governments use sport to cover up their crimes and make them look better, to clean up their image on the international stage.”
As well as Arsenal and PSG, she cites cycling’s Road World Championships which are taking place in Kigali in 2025.
“If you see ‘Visit Rwanda’, you know people will only see the shiny parts, the clean bits, the coffee shop down the street,” she says. “The real Rwanda is people are poor, they are starving, they are being silenced.”
She says many Hollywood stars, including the cast of Hotel Rwanda, have supported her father’s campaign, but European football seems to be pulling in the opposite direction.
Last week French-Congolese singer Dadju performed at the Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain. Ahead of the concert he chose to remove all mentions of Visit Rwanda.
— DADJU (@Dadju) June 21, 2022
“If I were to make one request of Arsenal, it would be to use their platform like these other stars to speak out on behalf of justice, on behalf of human dignity, to call for my father’s immediate release,” says Kanimba.
“Arsenal is in a position to do so,” she says. “If they are not going to end the partnership with Rwanda, they should at least do that.”
Tim Payton is a director of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust and liaises frequently with the club about fan issues including the Visit Rwanda deal.
“We have raised concerns with Arsenal and ask that they should consider the reputational effect of issues like this, which should be under regular review,” he tells The Athletic, while not calling for a ban or suspension of the sponsorship.
“Arsenal’s deal is to promote Rwanda. We have also asked the club if they can promote human rights and development in Rwanda.”
It is a bizarre aspect of modern football that people like Payton, used to campaigning on issues like ticket prices and away trip seat allocations, are forced to grapple with thorny and complex issues involving a country thousands of miles away.
Given the huge money on offer from Visit Rwanda, fans can feel forced into choosing between money for new players and taking a stand on a political issue.
Fellow Arsenal fan Gardner goes a step further in calling for an end to a partnership she sees as “immoral” in the light of the UK government’s deal to pay Rwanda to take asylum seekers.
She has worked with refugees and asylum seekers who may be sent to Rwanda under the new plans, some of whom include Syrians escaping war with family members in the UK, and Afghans who fought alongside the UK, she says, adding that some have been tortured.
Gardner also emphasises the lack of protection for LGBT+ rights in the country, which jars with a club that has a long established Gay Gooners group and based in one of the world’s most LGBT-friendly big cities.
🗣 “Being able to say ‘this is me’ was truly liberating.”
🗣 “Sometimes we could feel like we were alone.”
🗣 “We’re making Arsenal for Everyone, every day.”
This June marks the 10th year of @GayGooners proudly supporting Pride month 👇
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) June 13, 2022
“The club I love should represent better values, and has the opportunity to take a stand and make a difference here,” she says, believing Kagame may reconsider his country’s deal with the UK, if Arsenal were to make a statement by ending the sponsorship deal.
“There’s a significant amount of leverage the club holds,” she says.
“Arsenal has such a responsibility to act.”
(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)