Africa’s dictators and their image cleaners in Washington

WASHINGTON (Africa Insight) — The Kenyan government has reportedly retained a top Washington public relations firm to improve its image in the United States at a reported cost of Sh129 million ($1.7 million) over the next two years. According to the Paris-based Indian Ocean Newsletter, CLS & Associates have added the Kenyan Government to their list of clients.

By retaining the firm, Kenya has joined a growing list of countries including some in Africa that rely on lobbyists to protect and promote their interests in Washington. This subculture reflects a steady decline and privatisation of diplomacy and has an impact on growth of democracy in Africa.

Power and influence are the trademarks of Washington D.C.’s K Street, a major thoroughfare that is known as a hotbed for over 14,000 lobbyists, advocacy groups and think tanks who, in 2008, cumulatively made an estimated $3.30 billion (Sh251 billion). Lobbying, a multi-billion dollar profession, involves all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.

The strongest lobbies promoting foreign interests are driven by cohesive ethnic population groups in the United States such as Armenians, Greeks, Taiwanese and Irish. Arguably, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the most influential and well connected lobby in America whose work is to defend Israel’s hard line stand on the Palestinians at the same time deflecting criticism of its military operations in the Palestinian territory especially when dealing with Hezbollah.

For Africa, there exists the Africa Action group, which is the oldest organisation in the US working for Africa affairs, lobbying on issues that fit into the broad goal of political, economic and social justice in Africa. The fifty-year old African Studies Association – a vocal conglomerate of people with a scholarly and professional interest in Africa is yet another African lobby. Lastly is the Trans Africa Forum which advocates human rights and social justice in the continent.

John Newhouse in the article ‘Diplomacy Inc’ (Foreign Affairs May/June 2009) argues that advantages of using lobbyists emanate from the fact that they operate within the system in ways that experienced diplomats cannot. This is not to negate the work of foreign embassies, but lobbyists can identify with a domestic ethnic bloc even though the bloc is paid by a foreign government.

Ethnic politics can hence trump corporate interests and, more important, influence what agencies within the US government may see as the national interest. Lobbying firms are also able to put forward arguments in ways that Ambassadors cannot, in part due to the diplomacy rules they operate under.

Compiled fact sheets on Kenya

It has also been argued that even the US government has become so complex that only insiders, such as former members of Congress or congressional staff members turned lobbyists, can navigate its confusing structure. In addition, foreign missions, including those representing African countries, have limited resources and hence are spread thin, with limited access to the people and offices that matter. Thus, it becomes necessary to engage lobbyists who will cover much of the legwork in Congress for the client country.

Nations retain a specific lobbying firm with an eye to extracting maximum advantage in areas such as foreign aid, investments and trade matters. Whatever it is they want, the lobbying firms in Washington help them get it.

In the initial phase of its work, CLS is said to have compiled a series of eight fact sheets on Kenya for distribution to the US media, government officials in Washington and American corporate executives.

These brief releases attempt to put a positive spin on Kenya’s efforts at national reconciliation, its fight against corruption and the country’s security ties with the United States. The strategy appears to be designed to highlight considerations that are already at the forefront of President Barrack Obama administration’s relations with the Kenya’s coalition government.

Lobbying firms are also expected to deflect criticism against their client country, when the US Congress takes note, concerning violations of human rights. Congressional indignation, after all, may lead to partial or total economic and financial sanctions. However, it is this capability of lobbyists to shield its client country from human rights accountability and scrutiny that posses a challenge to Africa’s democracy.

Flipping through the US State Department annual global survey of human rights for the past four years, it is noticeable that many of the African countries known as human rights violators have got significant support from the American government whether military assistance (Egypt), development aid (Nigeria), or expanded trade opportunities (Angola, Cameroon).

It is also worth noting that most of these countries have natural resources that they could have appropriated for American support. Nevertheless, even the best natural resource-endowed regimes need help navigating the bureaucratic seas of Washington, and it is their great fortune that, for the right price, countless lobbyists are willing to captain even the foulest of ships.

During the 2008 US Presidential campaigns, the top adviser to US Senator John McCain, then prospective Republican Party nominee for president, was heavily criticised for his work on behalf of former President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and other past African leaders accused of human rights abuses.

Repackaged Savimbi

Charles Black Jnr, a longtime Washington power broker, was a well-paid lobbyist for Kenya’s government in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. A report by the non-governmental Centre for Public Integrity documented that Black’s firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Co., was paid about $1.5 million (Sh114 million) by the Kenyan government from 1990 to 1993. The money was intended to win influence for Kenya with the US Congress, the White House, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and an array of Washington-based NGOs.

Black’s firm also helped orchestrate the widely publicised 1989 burning of $3 million (Sh228 million) worth of poached elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park by the former President. Moi’s private visit to the United States in 1990 was in part organised by Mr Black’s firm and it also handled media relations during the visit, including a press briefing by Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Robert Ouko, who would be assassinated on returning to Kenya. Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Co. also represented DR Congo (then Zaire) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Nigerian military ruler Gen Ibrahim Babangida, Somalia strongman Mohamed Siad Barre, and Angola rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. It greatly helped repackage Savimbi as a valiant anti-communist “freedom fighter.”

In 2004, six former members of Congress served as “election observers” in Cameroon and offered positive assessment of President Paul Biya’s overwhelming reelection victory. However, it was later found out that the so called observers had been financed by the firm of Patton Boggs, which worked for and was paid by the Biya government.

Egypt, historically one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid, has also mounted a large effort to preserve American funding in a case that shows the power of well connected lobbyists. Nevertheless, critics have voiced that American aid has allowed Cairo’s political elite to put off much needed changes especially in democracy and governance that can spur growth.

Killed anti-Ethiopian bill

In June 2006, the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey) proposing to put limits on military aid to Ethiopia — with the exception of peacekeeping and anti-terrorism programs — until the government released all political prisoners and provided fair and speedy trials to other prisoners held without charges. Most of these political prisoners had been arrested during the 2005 post election protests following the re-election of vote stealing by Prime Minister tribal warlord Meles Zenawi, which also left more than 500 people dead.

The bill swiftly passed the House International Relations Committee with bipartisan support with the Ethiopian diaspora in America launching letter and e-mail campaigns to push the legislation in Congress. To counter this effort, the Ethiopian government hired a well-established law and lobbying firm, DLA Piper, to protect its interests in Washington at a cost of $2.3million.

The lobby shop in a memo argued that the bill compromised “the national security interests of both the United States and Ethiopia.” They also raised concerns about Somalia that Addis Ababa and the United States shared. Through numerous meetings and lobbying, eventually the bill never made it to the House floor. It has been argued that lobbying is undesirable because it allows people with particular interests and who represent a minority to gain special access to law-makers and through contributions and favours have controversial relationships with representatives. This is a danger to Africa’s democracy including settling its internal conflicts. A case in point is of Western Sahara which has been fighting for independence from Morocco — and has been the subject of over 34 UN Security Council resolutions since 1999.

In late 2007 and 2008, the desert region was a top priority for Morocco’s hired lobbyists who sought the support of the Congress in the territorial dispute. In 1991, the United Nations had brokered a cease-fire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a group fighting for Western Sahara’s independence. Part of the terms of that deal included holding a referendum to determine the territory’s final status.

In 2007, Morocco issued a proposal to grant Western Sahara autonomy within sovereign Morocco. The US initially welcomed the proposal, and direct talks began between Morocco and the Polisario with the involvement of Algeria, which supports self-determination for the Sahrawi tribes from the area.

Behind the scenes was the work of lobbyists for both parties. By the end of negotiations according to records released by Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the Algerian government’s lobbyists had 36 contacts with members of Congress and staff promoting self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

The Algerians paid a modest $416,000 (Sh31.6 million) in lobbying fees. By comparison, lobbyists for the government of Morocco had 305 contacts with members of Congress and their staff. Morocco paid $3.4 million (Sh258 million) in lobbying expenses — putting it among the top foreign government spenders for FARA filings in the period.

The intense campaign resulted in a bipartisan group of some 173 House members signing on to a statement supporting Morocco’s offer of autonomy for the region without formal independence. President Bush also expressed support for Morocco’s plan, a decision that has since been reversed by President Obama who backs a Western Sahara State.

Obama reining in lobbyists

It is due to this power to influence that President Obama made lobbying a key target of his ethics policies, sharply limiting their access to the administration and forbidding appointment of former lobbyists in the government without special waivers. The moves angered many lobbying groups but it is doubtful if it has made any impact on the booming business on K Street.

It is not only in America where the lobbyists are based. There are currently around 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels, the headquarters of European Union, seeking to influence its legislative process. In Britain, the lobbying industry has been steadily growing in recent years and was estimated by the Hansard Society in 2007 to be worth £1.9 billion (Sh234 billion) and employs 14,000 people. The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee held an investigation into lobbying, and its 2009 report called for “a statutory register of lobbying activity to bring greater transparency to the dealings between Whitehall decision makers and outside interests.”

It is thus clear that lobbyists have gained considerable influence in Washington and their work is affecting how different Africa countries run their affairs. Whereas there are some lobbyists who carry out harmless and good work, others continue to be used by African leaders to stifle the continent’s democracy.

For the growth of the continent and stronger foreign policy ties, Washington needs to assist fragile democracies reform and strengthen their institutions instead of bowing to pressure from lobbyists working for the interests of the political elite.

At the same time, Africans need to elect strong capable leaders who view success as delivering development and reducing poverty rather than siphoning public resources and buying support or rigging elections. This will be an easier route to take than the power of lobby groups which is a short term gain mostly for the minority.

(Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project)