DRC: US lobbyists enlisted to rescue Tshisekedi

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 1 April 2022 13:17, updated on Monday, 18 April 2022 09:13

US President Joe Biden, with DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, during the G20 summit in Rome on 30 October 2021.© Ludovic Marin/Pool AFP via REUTERS

While his rivals are trying to plead their case to the White House, the Congolese government is expanding its network of US lobbyists. With less than two years to go before the elections, a tug-of-war is already underway across the Atlantic.

It has almost become a ritual. Just like they did in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, Congolese politicians are expanding their network of US lobbyists in Washington.

The Tshisekedi administration started fighting back after oppositionist Martin Fayulu offered the services of the firm Future Pact LLC for $17,500 per month last January. Furthermore, since June 2021, Moïse Katumbi has signed with three firms (King & Spalding, the DCI Group and Brownstein Hyatt), making a total of $80,000 per month.

A $900,000 contract

On 11 March, the Ministry of Communication, headed by Patrick Muyaya, signed a one-year contract with Ballard Partners, a powerful firm founded in Florida in 1998, worth $900,000. The objective is to “improve bilateral relations between the US and the DRC; strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law; and advance the DRC’s economic growth.” The contract also states that Ballard Partners will “help ensure that [the DRC] is recognised as a leading country in the fight against climate change and promote its actions in this area.”

On 14 March, the same ministry also concluded an agreement with Scribe Strategies and Advisors, a company founded by Joseph Szlavik. Among the clauses of this contract are “improving the DRC’s image in the US” and “increasing US investment” in the DRC.

Szlavik, who has worked with Gécamines, is familiar with Congolese political and economic circles.

According to our information, discussions on this last contract began in September 2021, when Félix Tshisekedi came to New York to participate in the annual session of the UN General Assembly. The Congolese President took advantage of being there to make contact with Szlavik, whom he had met through Gilbert Mundela.

Mundela, who died in 2019, was a distant cousin of the head of state and one of his main points of contact with the Americans. He had worked with Pamoja USA, the lobbying firm that candidate Tshisekedi hired for the 2018 presidential campaign.

This is not the first time that Kinshasa has used US lobbyists, as the Ministry of Finance had previously hired the services of the law firm Baker & McKenzie, as well as those of Ensight Consulting.

Tshisekedi under pressure

Although he has been on good terms with Washington since the beginning of his term in office, Tshisekedi is nevertheless under pressure to ensure that the next elections take place under good conditions and within the planned time frame, in other words, in December 2023. Denis Kadima, president of the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (Ceni), has mentioned on several occasions that the timetable might not end up being respected, which worries some of the DRC’s partners.

The Congolese National Assembly is due to rule in the coming weeks on the revision of the electoral law. In the meantime, lobbyists hired by Katumbi are working hard across the Atlantic to promote the principle of “free and fair” elections.

We are engaged in a process to position the DRC as a solution country.

The latest example of this is that the Democratic elected official Gregory W. Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and his Republican colleague Michael T. McCaul, have sent a letter to Antony Blinken, the secretary of state.

READ MORE Africa’s Top 10 lobbying operations in Washington, D.C

In this letter, dated 16 March, the two parliamentarians reiterate that “the 2018 [Congolese] elections were neither free nor fair, and were marred by the corrupt and undemocratic actions of former president Joseph Kabila […]. While we recognise that [his] successor, Felix Tshisekedi, has taken steps towards opening up the political space, fighting corruption and reforming the state, further steps must now be taken to pave the way for free and fair elections in 2023.”

Documents on the US Department of Justice website show that a member of the King & Spalding law firm, which works with the former Katanga governor, exchanged with Michael T. McCaul’s team just before the letter was published.

Is it possible that Tshisekedi is doing more and more business in the US in an effort to counter the repeated initiatives of Katumbi, who is still his ally within the Union Sacrée? “We are engaged in a process to position the DRC as a solution country,” says a Congolese government source. “The objective is to make a plea in this sense. But this has nothing to do with what Moïse Katumbi and Martin Fayulu are doing.”

The Trump circle

In any case, the firms Ballard Partners and Scribe Strategies and Advisors are firmly established in Washington, where the DRC no longer has an ambassador. François Balumuene has been appointed in China and Marie-Hélène Mathey Boo, who was designated in January to succeed him, has not yet taken up her post.

Ballard Partners is headed by Brian Ballard, who is one of the most influential lobbyists within the Trump circle. He has also worked with many Republican politicians, such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. Since Joe Biden took office, he has recruited several figures from within the Democratic party.

After proving to be a driving force in raising funds for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, he took advantage of his privileged relationship with the US President to develop his firm’s activities with foreign clients.

In March 2019, Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa had used his services to improve relations with the US. According to an internal source at Ballard Partners, the firm refused to sign a contract with Kabila before the 2018 presidential election, when he was under pressure from the international community, and in particular the US.

At the time, Ballard was in discussions with people close to Katumbi, gathered in the G7. A contract was finally signed in September 2017. Olivier Kamitatu, now Katumbi’s cabinet director, had initialled it for the Congolese side. Ballard Partners committed to obtaining “the US government’s support so that a fair and equitable election could be held in the DRC” and to “help the former Congolese governor return to his country.”

Published in partnership with The China Africa Project

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