In November, a small army of earnest-looking Americans and Britons clutching an array of mobile phones and tablets will invade Abuja, Nigeria's capital. They are the rockstars of political spin, and they will earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for their services over the next few months.
The mission is to ensure that their candidate wins a decisive victory in what is set to be Nigeria's closest presidential elections next February.
US President Barack Obama's former campaign adviser, David Axelrod, has signed with the opposition All Progressives Congress. Likely to work alongside him are BTP Advisers, an up-and-coming British outfit that advised Uhuru Kenyatta in his successful election battle against Raila Odinga in Kenya last year.
On incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's team is veteran strategist Joe Trippi, who pioneered mass fundraising on the internet.
Trippi worked with Atiku Abubakar on a presidential bid in 2007 and then with Jonathan on his successful 2011 election campaign.
Alongside Trippi and well placed for another contract with Jonathan is Bell Pottinger, a British company whose founder Tim Bell helped Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher win three consecutive elections in Britain.
Nigeria is, just ahead of Egypt and Morocco, Africa's biggest spender on image-making.
Each year it spends tens of millions of dollars on registered lobbyists, law firms and public relations companies to get its case across to foreign governments and media.
Egypt and Morocco hire lobbyists in Washington DC with specific goals: Cairo wants to protect its billions of dollars of US military aid, and Rabat wants to build US support for its claims on Western Sahara.
Beyond state spending, Africa's political parties and companies are fuelling a massive expansion in the communications business, in and about the continent.
Foreign campaign advisers are a feature of almost every African election, from Angola to Zimbabwe.
African companies are raising capital and their profiles across the world, and hiring image-makers to help them. This is by far the biggest growth sector.
Back in Nigeria, the gloves are off ahead of the 2015 election. A colleague of Trippi's tells The Africa Report that Jonathan is clearly headed for victory as the opposition politicians struggle to pick a presidential candidate.
In contrast, he says: "Jonathan would win the candidacy for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) by acclamation."
Trippi nearly launched a revolution in Zimbabwe when he worked with Australian strategist Lynton Crosby for oppositionist Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe's 2008 elections.
They set up a parallel vote tabulation to detect rigging.
Tsvangirai supporters simply photographed the results, which under a new law had to be shown outside each polling station, and texted them to the Movement for Democratic Change party headquarters.
To help, Trippi and Crosby smuggled in hundreds of mobile camera phones hidden in consignments of breakfast cereal trucked into the capital.
Unsurprisingly, Mark Pursey of BTP Advisers does not share the Trippi camp's optimism about the incumbent's prospects in Nigeria: "If Jonathan is to win this election, he will have to do some nasty things [...] such as divide the country on religious grounds and stop the north from voting."
Elections in Nigeria are the most expensive in Africa. But there is less hostility to foreign advisers than there used to be, according to Jonathan Lehrle, a partner at Bell Pottinger: "US or British companies used to carry a stigma in Africa. It suggested that parties were out of touch, but with leaders like Obama and [David] Cameron hiring international advisers, there is less resistance."
Foreigners have a clearly defined role "on polling, strategy and messaging", according to Lehrle, who has worked in Zambia, Kenya and Madagascar. He added that independent and professional polling is critical: "One company produced a poll in Zambia which claimed to be accurate within a range of plus or minus 10%. That means it could be 20% off the mark, so effectively useless."
Informally, the campaign in Nigeria started a year ago when opposition parties got state governors from the ruling PDP to defect.
This explains the spike in Nigerian spending on lobbyists. US Justice Department records show that in June, Levick, a communications firm based on K Street in Washington DC, won a $1.2m contract with the state-owned News Agency of Nigeria to help tell the government's story about Boko Haram.
Levick's contract came less than a year after Nigeria agreed a four-month contract worth $300,000 with another DC company, Mercury Public Affairs.
And in September 2013, Nigeria's national security adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki, signed a $3m contract with Patton Boggs for security advice.
Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa programme at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, is sceptical about this proliferation of contracts: "There are so many competing messages for Nigeria, I'm not sure it has been effective at all. Jonathan has retained so many lobby firms but this has failed to stem an unrelenting critical narrative."
According to Robert Watkinson of London-based Portland Communications, the growth of social media has made the influence business more com- plex and demanding in Africa: "With the recent advances in connectivity, not- ably the growth of digital media, Africa has entered a new era in which Africans, rather than outsiders, are shaping the narrative about their continent."
Its top clients, such as philanthropist Mo Ibrahim and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, are changing Africa's standing, says Watkinson: "The 'Africa rising' mantra is a Western narrative. Mo Ibrahim is challenging that binary view that it's either Afro-pessimism or Afro-optimism. Instead, he calls for Afro-realism," which means understanding the complexity of fast economic growth in some areas but continuing problems of governance.
Portland's survey of Tweets over the past two years shows the rise of social media in Africa.
In last year's Kenyan elections, US-based cable news network CNN carried a story about a gang organising political violence. "But it turned out to be a hoax," says Watkinson, "that became clear because Kenyans responded to it on Twitter and shot it down."
Threats of violence haunted those elections, the first since clashes broke out after the 2007 post-election crisis in which more than 1,200 people were killed and 300,000 were chased from their homes. Two British political consultants – BTP Advisers and Bell Pottinger – advised Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, respectively.
The flag vs the court
Kenyatta currently faces charges of crimes against humanity at the Inter- national Criminal Court for his role in those events.
Mark Pursey of BTP worked on Kenyatta's nationalist stance: that the charges were a Western campaign against him and deputy president William Ruto.
When hardliners accused the British High Commission of planning a coup against Kenyatta if he won, Pursey was caught in the middle but had little sympathy for the diplomats: "I think they [British diplomats] were biased and trying to be clever, actually. Some of the things that were said by the high commissioner [Christian Turner] on camera and on the record were crazy."
Under US law, lobbyists have to file reports with the Justice Department every six months.
But like C. Gregory Turner, a community activist in Chicago, some do not. On 10 October, Turner was convicted by a court in Illinois for illegally lobbying on behalf of top Zimbabwean officials in contravention of US sanctions on the country.
US prosecutors said the Zimbabwean officials had promised to pay $3.4m to Turner and his associate, Prince Asiel Ben Israel, after they had claimed they were close to President Obama.
Ben Israel pleaded guilty and was given a seven-month jail term.
In Europe, lobbying companies are barely regulated. In a particularly messy case last year, Israeli diamond tycoon Beny Steinmetz sued Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British minister for Africa and the chairman of FTI Consulting in Europe, for breach of contract.
Steinmetz, who is the subject of anti-corruption investigations in Guinea, hired FTI to represent him. He claims that Malloch Brown and FTI came under pressure from George Soros, the billionaire who campaigns against corruption, to drop him as a client in November 2012. Finally, Malloch-Brown and FTI settled by paying Steinmetz €90,000 ($114,000) in June 2013 but would not admit wrongdoing.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's edifice of companies regularly faces claims of conflict of interest. Blair insists the model is simple: the only purpose for his complex web of companies subsumed under a private trust is to stop vindictive journalists from prying into his affairs. He also has a financial consulting company, Tony Blair Associates, which has earned more than $70m since he left power in 2007. He insists that he pays all his taxes in Britain.
The Blair ethical compass
This work finances all his pro bono activities, such as the African Governance Initiative, which operates in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Rwanda, Liberia, Malawi. Other pro bono work includes a religious faith foundation and a sports charity.
But there are grey areas. Does his pro bono work in Guinea, for example, give him influence to push through deals in the interests of his commercial associates, such as the bank JPMorgan Chase or Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska?
In Britain, it is an ethical not a legal question, unless someone can prove the charitable tax-exempt status of the pro bono entities is being abused.
Other countries such as Morocco and Mauritius stay more or less below the radar but can work the international lobbying system.
In the past seven years, Morocco has discreetly spent some $20m lobbying Congress and the State Department, and trying to influence the media through two related entities, The Gabriel Company and the Moroccan American Center for Policy.
Rabat's lobbying gets results, notes former assistant secretary of state for Africa Chester Crocker: "Morocco has had a large and consistent presence in Washington. They are a close partner of the US government and have been for decades. They hire lobbyists, and they coordinate very effectively with like-minded countries. But they also assign first-rate hitters to Washington. They know how to work Washington and are well-connected back home. They can effectively partner with a lobby in DC."
That translates into policy and access. In 2013 when the US proposed adding a human rights mandate to the UN peacekeeping force based in Western Sahara, the sovereignty of which is disputed between Morocco and the Polisario Front, Rabat mobilised support and op- posed the plan.
The US quickly dropped it. In November 2013, President Obama welcomed King Mohammed VI to the White House for a convivial meeting.
The client-lobbyist relationship is a two-way street, says Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center: "Even the best, most capable lobbies can't spin something that doesn't exist. If there's nothing to highlight, there's nothing to work with. Countries must know what they want."
When there are no clear goals for the contractor, governments cannot hold the firms accountable, he adds.
One of the more effective partner- ships is between Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and K. Riva Levinson, a long-standing lobbyist on K Street. Levinson has known Johnson Sirleaf since 1997 at the height of Liberia's civil war.
They worked closely together since Johnson Sirleaf's election as president in 2006. But the Ebola crisis in West Africa this year pushed Levinson into overdrive.
Using congressional contacts, such as senators Chris Coons of Delaware and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Levinson got out the message about the fast-growing Ebola threat ahead of a special congressional hearing in August.
That triggered a mission to Liberia headed by Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Then Sirleaf Johnson wrote an open letter to President Obama, warning that her country's healthcare services had collapsed under the weight of Ebola and called for the US to help build field hospitals.
Asked if she was involved in that letter, Levinson just smiles and says: "We just amplified the message."
Such mercy errands are a far cry from Levinson's role as the steely lobbyist for Jonas Savimbi's União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola rebels in the 1980s, or more recently as the corporate hitwoman backing US oil company Kosmos in its dispute with the Ghana government.
"The action is on the continent, it's a move away from traditional advocacy. It's about business, the dynamic of the conversation has changed," Levinson explains to The Africa Report.
That is a message that Aubrey Hruby, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, amplifies: "It's the commercial mandate, working with African and foreign companies, finding out what they need."
Hruby is setting up a new outfit called the Africa Experts Network, which will aim to use its extensive commercial contacts across Africa to respond to demands for detailed information about market size and conditions.
From his vantage point travelling between Africa and Europe, Marcus Courage, the chief executive of Africa Practice – which has six offices on the continent – says the traffic is now two-way and mostly in Africa: "Big foundations and institutions want to know how to communicate with Africa.
Its business leaders are promoting their companies, sometimes themselves. African markets have gone global, [they are] no longer just dependent on investment from the US and Europe."
Civilians caught in middle
At the other end of the economic spectrum, activists are demanding more help for civilians in Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Two former US assistant secretaries of state for Africa, Crocker and Hank Cohen, are highly critical of the result of the lobbying on Sudan.
"We saw a very coherent effort on South Sudan and Darfur, which dominated our policy," explains Crocker.
"People in Congress were falling over themselves to show how angry they were with the government of Sudan. This was very bipartisan – the Congressional Black Caucus, all of God's children. Obviously, with what is going on in South Sudan, this is all quite embarrassing now."
Cohen, who argues that South Sudan should be under a UN mandate, is still more direct: "I think the policy on South Sudan is out to lunch."
South Africa is determinedly sceptical towards the lobbying business, partly because the apartheid regime spent tens of millions of dollars trying to influence governments.
As South Africa's ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, argues: "South Africa has a constituency of Americans who marched for our freedom, who took inspiration from leaders like [Nelson] Mandela. Between our history and our American constituency, lobbying has never been on the agenda."
But in South Africa, like so many other African countries, political parties bring in foreign advisers while state and private companies are spending millions on promotion overseas.
Those businesses are booming more than ever and changing Africa's image in the process. ●