African Governments Rush to Hire Trump-Linked Lobbyists
Accused of atrocities, Cameroon is only the latest to jump in, employing a firm that just brought on Donald Trump’s former acting attorney general.
The lobbying firm that represents an African government accused of atrocities has hired U.S. President Donald Trump’s former acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker—the latest in a recent surge of contracts with African countries seeking to improve their image in Washington.
Whitaker, who is joining Clout Public Affairs as managing director, will not be working directly on the contract with the government of Cameroon and will not be filing as a lobbyist, a Clout Public Affairs spokesperson told Foreign Policy. Clout finalized the contract well before Whitaker joined the firm. But human rights activists say Whitaker’s hiring will bring outsized influence to a firm looking to burnish Cameroon’s image in Washington as its government faces accusations of widespread human rights abuses against civilians.
Clout Public Affairs, a firm organized by former aides to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, last month signed on to lobby for Cameroon for $55,000 a month in four-month increments until the contract is canceled, according to public disclosure filings with the U.S. Justice Department. The firm, according to the contract, will provide public relations services to help cultivate a “favorable image” for Cameroon’s government, to include “placing targeted op eds in conservative-oriented outlets in order to foster a robust and growing partnership narrative into the future.”
The Clout spokesperson said it is an important time to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cameroonian governments as the country faces growing instability and threats from terrorism. The lobbying contract does not mention work beyond PR and communications. But it has drawn sharp criticism from human rights activists.
“Cameroonian security forces and authorities have a very poor track record when it comes to human rights,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior researcher on Central Africa at Human Rights Watch, who said torture “is systematically practiced in legal and illegal detention facilities.”
The contract also represents the latest in a growing list of African governments pouring money into lobbying firms to carve out more influence in Washington under Trump, whose surrogates and campaign affiliates have cashed in on lobbying for foreign governments, catching the attention of human rights advocates and public transparency watchdogs.
“Over the past several years, there has been a hugely significant increase in the number of U.S. lobbyists representing foreign nationals, many of them connected to the Trump administration,” said Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, which supports democracy movements in the region. “Many of Trump’s fundraisers and supporters have struck it rich in this sector, often working on behalf of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” said Smith, who has done work on behalf of Cameroonian opposition figures. He cited Zimbabwe, which hired the Trump-linked lobbying group Ballard Partners in a bid to scrap long-standing U.S. sanctions, as well as Clout’s work for Cameroon.
“In Washington, this sort of access to Trump, whether perceived or real, is a hugely lucrative endeavor,” Smith said. It’s difficult to say how such lobbying efforts have yielded results yet in Zimbabwe’s case, as it is still under U.S. sanctions.
Cameroon’s government has spent at least $940,027 on lobbying and PR work in the United States since the start of 2017, according to Anna Massoglia, a researcher who works on the Foreign Lobby Watch project at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). (Cameroon also maintains a lobbying agreement with the global law firm Squire Patton Boggs.) Tracking public disclosure filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Massoglia estimates that this puts Cameroon 10th among African countries when it comes to expenditures to U.S. PR firms during that window.
“The variety across the region is huge,” Massoglia said. For example, Liberia outspent its next closest rival more than seven times over, with FARA records indicating that the country has spent more than $72 million in foreign influence work. Niger’s spending in the same period totaled just $6,000, according to CRP data. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has funneled more than $10 million into lobbyists, while a powerful military figure in Sudan’s ruling military junta, Gen. Mohamed “Hemeti” Hamdan Dagalo, hired a Canadian lobbying firm for $6 million to promote his interests with the U.S., Russian, and wealthy Persian Gulf governments. South Sudan’s government, also implicated in war crimes and widespread corruption, has drawn criticism for hiring former U.S. diplomats to lobby on its behalf for $3.7 million to boost ties with the Trump administration.
Smith said Whitaker joining Clout gives a boost to the Cameroonian government even if he isn’t directly working on the project “due to his connections with the Trump Administration, having been one of the president’s most enthusiastic defenders, on cable television and elsewhere.”
“In many cases, the firm itself can be advantageous, not just the individuals that are hired. Even the name of a firm can have a certain connotation, as well as the ties that firm comes with,” Massoglia said.
Under President Paul Biya, one of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state, Cameroon has orchestrated a violent crackdown on the marginalized English-speaking regions of the Francophone country, amid a separatist Anglophone push. The Cameroonian government is also grappling with spillover violence from conflict in neighboring Central African Republic and a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Experts say the Cameroonian government’s failure to respond adequately to grievances about the status of its English-speaking regions in a majority French-speaking country—an enduring legacy of its dual experiences under colonial rule by different powers— has resulted in a major crisis. Accounts of widespread violence against civilians by Cameroonian government forces are widespread and have resulted in the U.S. government restricting funds to Cameroon’s military outside the scope of fighting Boko Haram. But while Boko Haram insurgents and rebels from the Central African Republic may not be threats of the government’s creation, experts say deepening instability in the country’s Anglophone regions largely is.
“What really escalated the crisis was the ruthless response from government forces,” said Allegrozzi of Human Rights Watch. “It was ruthless. It was brutal. It was counterproductive,” she added. “It contributed to the creation of numerous armed separatist groups that are now operating in Cameroon.”
That Biya’s government hired lobbyists to polish its image in the face of such accusations doesn’t surprise some experts. “It’s the typical routine that we see in Washington when autocrats kill their own citizens and pay a lobbying firm to clean up their image,” said Christopher Fomunyoh, the regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute, citing other examples including those of Congo’s former authoritarian leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the current president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. “It happened with Mobutu, it happened with Obiang, and now it’s happening with Biya,” said Fomunyoh, who is from Cameroon.
Clout Public Affairs is a division of Axiom Strategies, a political consulting firm. Clout President David Polyansky and Catherine Frazier, both former aides to Cruz, as well as Jimmy Soni, a former HuffPost editor, have registered to work for Cameroon.
A spokesperson for Clout said “allegations of human rights abuses are serious” but stressed the importance of forging closer ties between the United States and Cameroon, particularly given the threat from Boko Haram and China’s growing influence in Central Africa at the expense of America’s.
Cameroon hosts a U.S. military outpost focused on counterterrorism initiatives, though in February the U.S. Defense Department announced it was cutting some U.S. military aid to the Cameroonian government over allegations its security forces carried out atrocities and war crimes, including killing and raping civilians.
Cameroon’s government in June agreed to participate in peace talks over the crisis in its English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, mediated by Switzerland.
“Critics … say the U.S. needs to throw stones at Cameroon’s leaders. We disagree, and we think there’s a great deal that we can do to work with the government toward peace,” the Clout spokesperson said.
“[T]he way to achieve peace and advance human rights is to increase bilateral connections and partnerships between the U.S. and Cameroon, in both the public and private sectors,” the Clout spokesperson wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, including connecting them with U.S.-based resources that can help.”
Sylvie Bello, a Cameroonian diaspora activist who is pushing the United States to hold Biya’s government accountable for the alleged atrocities, said she recognized the need to engage with the Biya government in a dialogue but doesn’t have much faith in the Swiss- or African Union-led process. She also expressed concerns that high-paying lobbyists working for Biya could become a challenge for the Cameroonian diaspora’s push for accountability.
But she remains undeterred. “The difference between all these lobbyists and the diaspora is that the diaspora has skin in the game. … When you have skin in the game, you stay in the game.”
Update, Aug. 7, 2019: This article was updated to clarify timing of when the lobbying contract was signed.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer