Rwanda’s economic refit gets net-positive free ads

LONDON, April 22 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Paul Kagame’s second attempt at a European PR blitz looks more astute than his first. In 2018, the uber-ambitious Rwandan president copped flak home and away over 30 million pounds of sponsorship for London soccer club Arsenal, the team he supports. His latest plan, to house refugees on behalf of Britain and Denmark, has generated even more controversy. But this time Kagame’s not the target, and Rwanda isn’t footing the bill.

Having seized power in the wake of the 1994 genocide, Kagame, a former rebel guerrilla, deserves credit for engineering an economic recovery in which Rwanda’s GDP has grown at a 9.5% annual clip in the last two decades to its current $12 billion. But the summary nature of his Arsenal support reflected authoritarian tendencies that have seen domestic opponents end up in prison, exile or the grave. With GDP per capita still only $900, donors financing over a quarter of the budget and the global pandemic upending tourism, foreign vanity projects are hard to justify.

Though at first glance even more controversial and as yet legally untested, Kagame’s refugee gambit may have firmer foundations. First, Britain would hand over $160 million up front. Given a budget deficit this year forecast at more than $800 million, that’s significant.

Second, the scheme bolsters Kagame’s vision of transforming Rwanda’s economy into an offshore services hub. “Africa’s Singapore” remains a stretch – but having 13 million people who are on average young, well-educated and English-speaking is a step in the right direction. Good communications infrastructure also helps. Rwanda has 95% 4G mobile and broadband coverage thanks to a generous 15% corporate tax rate that encouraged investment by foreign operators like South Africa’s MTN (MTNJ.J).

Last is an ingrained culture of efficiency and industry. At its most innocent, this means the spotless streets of its leafy capital, Kigali, which banned plastic bags as far back as 2008. At its more sinister is the speed with which 800,000 people were slaughtered in 1994, or with which Rwandan troops last year squashed an Islamist rebellion in northern Mozambique.

Kagame’s detractors would argue that processing northern Europe’s unwanted asylum seekers falls towards the latter end of that spectrum. But few other African nations would or could have presented themselves as credible locations for the job. However the refugee scheme actually pans out, Kagame is likely to see the free publicity handed out to his economic masterplan as a net positive.

Follow @edwardcropley on Twitter

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


- Denmark is in talks with Rwanda about transferring asylum seekers to the East African nation for processing, its immigration minister said on April 20.

- Britain could send tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, the government said on April 14, under a policy aimed at breaking people-smuggling networks operating across the Channel.

- Britain’s opposition Labour Party and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees both criticised the initiative. The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the policy as failing the “judgement of God”.

- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the arrangement was “fully compliant” with international legal obligations. Britain would contribute an initial 120 million pounds ($158 million) to the scheme.

Editing by George Hay and Oliver Taslic

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Ed is Associate Editor of Reuters Breakingviews, based in London. He joined the London Breakingviews team in 2018 as Africa columnist. Before that, he was Reuters sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief, based in Johannesburg. During two decades at Reuters, Ed has reported from three continents, with postings in London, Edinburgh, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Johannesburg. Along the way, he has covered everything from the dotcom bubble to the death of Nelson Mandela and fall of Robert Mugabe. He holds a degree in Classics from Cambridge University.