Kenya turns to K Street to help reshape image

Kenya’s government has spent almost $1 million in the past year to polish its image in Washington in the wake of a tumultuous election marred by violence.

Lobbyists for the Kenyan government have focused on strengthening security ties, as well as increasing trade, between the two countries. They have also worked to secure a direct flight route between Atlanta and Nairobi. 

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In the fight against global terrorism, Kenya is pressing Congress and the Obama administration to give more attention to the threat from groups in Somalia, which shares a border with Kenya. 

The spending on K Street lobbyists and public-relations firms follows a long absence for Kenya in the Washington influence industry. The African country hasn’t had Washington representation since 2004. 

That changed shortly after the election of President Obama, whose father was Kenyan. Obama, who wrote of his visit to that country in the book Dreams From My Father, has brought some new attention to his father’s homeland. 

Groups representing Kenya argued that the country needed to “seize the moment” to improve its image, which had suffered in Washington. 

“For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with negative publicity on the political situation in Kenya since the last general election, there appears to be an impression among many key policymakers in Washington that Kenya is ‘not what it used to be’ in terms of being a leading democratic African country,” stated a contract between public-relations firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates (CLS) and Kenya that is on file with the Department of Justice. 

Kenya’s standing in the United States, however, could improve if “it seizes this moment” and hires representation that will “strengthen Kenya’s diplomatic efforts in enhancing Kenya’s image through direct advocacy in the U.S. capital,” the contract reads.

In mid-2009, Kenya hired CLS to handle public relations and the Moffett Group to provide lobbying services. So far the nation has spent more than $875,000 on the firms, according to Justice Department records. 

Most of the lobbyists’ work has been targeted at countering the negative attention Kenya received during and after the country’s 2007 elections, which saw dozens of people killed.

Former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) said his firm was hired to help CLS because of its experience with U.S.-Africa policy. 

“We do significant work on African issues and we have good relationships with elected officials, mostly members of Congress, who have both important jurisdiction over issues of importance to Kenya and an interest in Kenya,” Moffett told The Hill. 

Those working with Moffett include Mickey Leibner, a former aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a Democratic political operative. 

To secure direct flights between Atlanta and Nairobi, lobbyists for Kenya have been in talks with lawmakers to win approval from the Transportation Security Administration for security clearance for a possible Delta Airlines flight route. 

Moffett said he expects the flight route to be initiated soon and that his firm is working with Kenya’s new ambassador to the United States to remove the remaining security concerns. Kenya hopes the route would boost tourism and increase Kenya’s exports to the U.S. 

On security issues, the Moffett Group asked Capitol Hill aides to attend a Washington briefing by Kenya’s director of intelligence in order to increase awareness of Kenya’s position in the fight against global terrorism. The director of intelligence also visited the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, and met with lawmakers on the House and Senate Intelligence committees. 

“There is not nearly enough attention in the Congress — and, probably, within the administration — to the nature and scope of the threat from Somalia,” Moffett wrote in a letter to lawmakers in February. 

He cited the terrorist group al Shabaab, which is based in Somalia and has ties to al Qaeda. The group claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on World Cup viewers in Uganda in July. Those attacks killed more than 70 people and earned condemnation from Obama. 

Lobbyists for Kenya have also helped form the Somalia Working Group, an informal collection of members and congressional aides who have received advice from “high-level Kenyan officials” worried about “this looming, menacing crisis,” according to Moffett. 

Lobbyists for Kenya have been in talks with aides to Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), among others, about the working group, according to Justice records. 

Part of Kenya’s lobbying effort has been to show that the country has turned the corner since the 2007 election.

Public-relations representatives have circulated newspaper clips and press releases trumpeting Kenya’s new constitution and its cooperation with the International Criminal Court to prosecute those responsible for the post-election violence. 


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