Last month, just two days after releasing his sixth studio album, J. Cole made his professional basketball debut in the NBA’s Basketball Africa League (BAL). The Grammy Award winner, regarded as one of the most influential rappers of his generation, played for the Rwanda Patriots Basketball Club, where he scored three points, secured several rebounds and a pair of assists en route to his team’s 83-60 win against Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers.
The match-up, which also happened to be the first-ever BAL game, was broadcast on national television in the United States and was met with widespread attention from international media outlets. The tournament’s inaugural season consisted of 12 teams from 12 African countries, including Rwanda, Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, and Egypt.
However, the league has also drawn criticism for its decision to host its debut season in Rwanda, as well as the league’s growing relationship with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
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 neighboring 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. Most recently, Paul Rusesabagina, who was played by Don Cheadle in the movie Hotel Rwanda, was forcibly taken from Dubai to Rwanda and accused of being a terrorist. Rusesabagina has since maintained his innocence.
According to Howard French, author of the forthcoming book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, Rusesabagina’s detention bears very strong parallels to the recent forced landing of an airplane by Belarus in order to arrest an opposition journalist. The difference lies in the west’s response to each incident.
“The west has expressed outrage toward Belarus and its leader, Lukashenko, but has said little about Rwanda’s behavior, and has not criticized Kagame over this at all, as far as I can tell,” French told the Guardian. “I think that western media has a very poor record of reporting on Rwanda. Too often, reporters give short shrift to understanding the country’s complicated history, and they are too ready to take the state’s narrative about its successes at face value. Because Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is such a smoothly ordered place, reporters feel comfortable there, and by the same token, don’t feel comfortable looking very deeply into anything potentially critical.”
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.
Given Kagame’s ties to several key figures within the NBA, it comes as little surprise that he was able to angle for the rights to host the debut BAL season in Kigali. Naturally, he wasted little time securing a photo-op with J. Cole.
The NBA’s decision to allow operations in Kagame’s Rwanda was met with staunch criticism, including from Rusesabagina’s wife, Taciana, who urged Silver to “reconsider your choice to host the BAL games in Rwanda.” The Guardian also obtained a letter from the Human Rights Foundation addressed to Silver, which called on him cut ties with the dictator.
“Like other dictators, Kagame is seeking to exploit the prestige of your brand to distract from his dreadful history of crimes and ongoing brutal repression. Given your stated values, we believe that you have the responsibility not to be in league with Kagame and his government,” read the letter signed by Thor Halvorssen, CEO of the Human Rights Foundation. “Basketball fans in Rwanda, Africa, and across the world look to the NBA for leadership and inspiration. We urge you to deny the Kagame regime the opportunity to use your global influence to whitewash its warmongering, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and illegal plunder of natural resources.”
Through his association with the NBA and its efforts in Africa, Kagame joins a long list of dictators and authoritarian leaders who manipulate sports in an attempt to whitewash their reputations abroad, as well as to further their political agendas – a process known as sportswashing. Considering that the NBA has promoted itself as a sports league that values social justice and human rights, its decision to partner with Kagame and his regime is both tone-deaf and hypocritical. When asked for comment, NBA Africa CEO Victor Williams avoided any specific remarks on Kagame but stated that the BAL is part of the league’s apolitical effort to further basketball in Africa.
“The two-week tournament is taking place at a single site in Kigali, Rwanda in a bubble environment similar to other NBA, WNBA and NBA G League events conducted during the pandemic. Future BAL seasons will be played in a more traditional format in cities and countries across the continent,” Williams told the Guardian. “The BAL is part of the NBA’s broader efforts to grow basketball in Africa, use sports as an economic growth engine across the continent and provide a platform to improve the health and wellness of one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing populations.”
The NBA’s goals, as ever, remain lofty. Fans will hope the BAL’s second season is played under less controversial circumstances.