Analysis | How the Rwandan regime uses sports diplomacy to move beyond its negative history

Lindsay Krasnoff

As the second season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) nears its halfways point, all eyes will soon be upon Kigali, where the league will hold its culminating playoffs in May. The league’s return to Rwanda’s 10,000-seat Kigali Arena is significant; it is where this historic initiative– the first professional pan-African sports league– got its start last May in the midst of the global pandemic.

The BAL’s return marks another triumph for Rwanda’s sports diplomacy strategy. But while basketball is currently in the limelight, it is not the only tool in President Paul Kagame’s sports diplomacy toolbox. Indeed, a broader, innovative sports diplomacy policy has successfully helped the country navigate a new twenty-first century narrative that moves beyond the atrocities of its recent history.

International public perceptions of Rwanda long focused on its gruesome 1994 genocide and civil war, which is honored this month. The 100 days in which the country’s ethnic Hutus slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors seared bloody images into worldwide memory, casting a long shadow over the country’s subsequent labored efforts for justice, reconciliation, and reconstruction. Since then, Rwanda has rebuilt across different economic sectors, worked to promote gender equality (61% of parliamentary seats are held by women), and generally raised living standards. Critics, however, note that political stability has come at a high cost: the Kagame regime has become known for its media censorship, stifling of the opposition, and other restrictions on freedom of expression. Within this context, strategic use of sports diplomacy has helped the regime up its soft power game, start to change international perceptions, and become an unlikely player in the global sports realm.

Sports diplomacy is a newer termconcept for an ages-old concept. The acts of diplomacy — communication, negotiation, and representation — occur daily within the sporting realm. Moreover, as J. Simon Rofe notes, the notion of diplomatic engagement in an Internet-connected, globalizing twenty-first century has become more diffuse. While these evolutions have empowered citizens to increasingly engage in different forms of sports diplomacy, governments too have begun to more intentionally craft policies that use the sports diplomacy tool to work towards various foreign policy objectives.

Rwanda has created a model of sports diplomacy that plays to its strengths. For example, the country has not (yet) produced an elite global sports star like Sadio Mané (Senegal), Mo Salah (Egypt), Luol Deng (South Sudan), or Dikembe Mutombo (Democratic Republic of Congo) who can lead the country in major international competitions or represent it informally in the world’s top professional leagues. Thus, Rwanda cannot use its elite athletes to cultivate soft power in the same way as other African nations. Instead, its focus is elevating its profile and changing international public perceptions by encouraging sports tourism.

The more innovative prong of this effort is through its high-profile sports sponsorship deals with two global football teams, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The 2018 deal with Arsenal, reportedly worth $41.4million over three years, made Rwanda the official tourism partner and first sleeve sponsor of the 136-year old English club. In December 2019, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) signed a three-year deal worth $9-$11million with the world’s largest Francophone club, again designed to promote tourism through high-level visibility branding on PSG’s shirts and around their stadium.

Despite criticism of a spending largesse by a country that still has not yet attained Middle Income Country status, the RDB insisted it was money well spent. It attributed the Arsenal ROI after just one year to a five percent increase in tourist visitorsm that generated some $41million for its economy. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted itsruptured original plans, the RDB has committed to cultivating its existing partnerships with Arsenal and PSG. It recently renewed its partnership with Arsenal through 2025, albeit for less than the original amount, and late last year, RDB and PSG teamed up on a new campaign to promote tourism to Rwanda. In turn, PSG opened a youth academy in Huye that is currently training 172 Rwandan boys and girls.

The other tine of Rwanda’s sports diplomacy strategy is driving sports tourism through hosting sporting mega events (SMEs). In 2021, Rwanda hosted several major international sports competitions. In addition to the BAL, it welcomed the African Women’s Volleyball Championships, the FIBA AfroBasket championship, FIBA women’s AfroBasket qualifiers, and the ICC cricket World Cup Africa qualifiers.

The country’s burgeoning role as the premier host of international sports competitions in Africa shows no sign of slowing. In July 2022, Rwanda will host the second window of FIBA World Cup qualifiers, and the following month, a 70.3-mile Ironman triathlon. But the big triumph will come in 2025 when Rwanda will welcome the first UCI Road World Championships. It will be a major accolade for a country that used cycling to rebuild and return to the global sports stage, as chronicled in the documentary “Rising from the Ashes,” and boasts one of Africa’s best teams. According to Sylvère-Henry Cissé, a longtime sports journalist and consultant, the UCI 2025 event is a vital “win” for Rwanda and its efforts to use sport to rebuild from its recent past.

“[Cycling] and the Rwandan cycling team are very popular, more popular than even soccer. Rwanda has beautifully used the image of its national inter-ethnic team, made up of survivors of the 1994 genocide to show post-genocide Rwanda.”

It isn’t just the country’s image that can be refreshed thanks to sports. As Minister of Sports Aurore Mimosa Munyangaju noted to African Business last year,

“The sport industry is one that can play a significant role in the country’s economic development. Hosting this kind of event is proof we’re moving in the right direction. It brings attention to the country and promotes the visibility of Rwanda and the good image of our country.”

Less than 30 years after genocide and civil war, Rwanda has used sports to move beyond its recent past, illustrating how history informs sports diplomacy and how this framework fits squarely within the international affairs arena. Not convinced? Keep an eye on the BAL playoffs when they tip off in Rwanda on May 21 and observe how much communication, representation, and negotiation occurs in and around the event. Last year, Kagame hosted French President Emmanuel Macron during the BAL’s final matches when attendance and travel more widely was still restricted due to the pandemic. This year, who will join Kagame in the stands?

Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, consultant, and writer expert in sports diplomacy. Author of “The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958–2010” and “Views from the Embassy: The Role of the U.S. Diplomatic Community in France, 1914,” her work appears with CNN International, The Washington Post, Just Women’s Sports, The Athletic, and other outlets. She serves as a Research Associate with the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (SOAS, University of London) and lectures on sports diplomacy at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. Follower her on Twitter @Lempika.

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