Congo adds heavy hitters like Bob Dole to US lobbying campaign

Congo adds heavy hitters like Bob Dole to US lobbying campaign
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The Democratic Republic of the Congo is adding some heavy hitters to its growing influence campaign in the United States amid concerns from human rights groups that its president is trying to hold on to power. 

Joseph Kabila, the president of the DRC, refused to step down from power after his second five-year term ended in December.  

Earlier this month, the country’s government signed a $5.6 million contract with an Israel-based consulting firm known as Mer Security, primarily to advise leaders and plan a trip to Washington for the DRC's special envoy to the United States.  

“While operating for many years in the DRC, [a] personal relationship that [is] characterized by a high level of trust have been established between Mer and the leadership of the country. This level of trust led the Congolese government to appoint Mer to this assignment,” a spokeswoman for Mer Security told The Hill in an email.

Contract documents said that Mer would divvy up the large contract among U.S. firms, which would plan meetings with lawmakers and members of the Trump administration. That step is now being taken.

There are now three well-connected firms working under Mer Security, which feature two high-ranking former lawmakers and the Trump campaign's liaison with Capitol Hill. A fourth contract, independent of the others, has a former Bush administration official helping to shape the narrative around the troubled country and its leadership.

Alston & Bird received a $500,000 contract set to last three months, according to documents signed by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a lobbyist at Alston & Bird. The forms are not yet on the Justice Department's website, but the Center for Public Integrity obtained a copy of the forms. Dole had been the only former Republican presidential candidate to endorse Trump during the campaign.

Alston & Bird will be helping Mer Security coordinate the Washington visit of the Democratic Republic of Congo's special envoy, forms say, in addition to advising on "U.S. policy and political concerns regarding African security issues." Alston & Bird, which is both a law and lobbying firm, will also make sure that Mer Security's lobbying disclosures are in compliance.

Dole also represents Taiwan and, in 2016, worked for months to connect then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpManafort to share notes from Russian meeting with Senate probe: report Trump: European Union 'is very protectionist with the U.S.' GOP-controlled Congress nears legislative triumph — on Russia MORE and his team with Taiwan's foreign leaders. The work ultimately resulted in a phone call between Trump, who had been elected president a month earlier, and Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen — a break in four decades of political protocol. The call angered China, which does not consider Taiwan to be independent. 

Adnan Jalil, a former Trump campaign official who worked on the transition, has also registered as a foreign agent for the Congo, according to a Justice Department form that individual consultants must complete. Although he has his own firm, Aselus Strategies, there are no separate contract documents for him or that firm. But his individual filing shows he is working on behalf of Mer Security for a total of $225,000.

Trump came to Washington saying that he would "drain the swamp," and rid the capital of monied influence. Soon after taking office, he signed an executive order focused on ethics. Namely, political appointees who work in his administration are unable to register as lobbyists for five years after they leave government. They're banned from representing foreign governments for life.

Those policies, however, don't apply to individuals who worked on the campaign.

Two other firms — Southfive Strategies and Livingston Group — also registered with the Justice Department, disclosing contracts linked to the Israel-based firm.

Southfive Strategies inked a three-month, $138,000 deal with Mer Security. It's being tasked with “initiating a process in the United States that is intended to result in a better understanding of the complicated situation in the DRC, promote both the welfare and safety of the Congolese people, and strengthen US interests in the region,” documents say.

Livingston Group, a prominent lobbying firm founded by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), filed paperwork indicating the firm would be working as a sub-contractor for Southfive Strategies. Livingston is being paid $45,000 for three months of work, the contract says. 

The spokeswoman for Mer Security told The Hill that its primary objective with its work for the DRC is to “advise and to coordinate an international effort, focused in the U.S., to explore opportunities through which the U.S. government can support the DRC government in its efforts to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the Congolese people.” 

In what appears to be a separate contract, the DRC has also hired Courville Consultants, run by Cindy Courville, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to the African Union from 2006 to 2008.  

Courville worked as the senior director of African affairs for the White House’s National Security Council and as a senior intelligence agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency, both during the George W. Bush administration. 

Now she is coming up with talking points for the DRC government and finding ways to re-brand its leadership, according to contract forms. 

The one-year contract with Courville, which is worth $8,000 per month, lists four main priorities: 

• “develop briefings papers, talking points, strategic policy analysis studies for the ambassador of the [DRC] Embassy”

• “provide diplomatic professional development training for diplomatic staff”

• “develop branding and public relations strategy”

• “develop diplomatic strategic policy engagement strategy” 

The turmoil in the DRC centers on Kabila.

The country’s constitution does not allow presidents to serve for more than two terms, but a high court determined that he could stay in office until a new president was elected. 

The government, however, has repeatedly pushed back elections, citing incomplete voter rolls and high costs. Last year, the president’s allies and opposition forces signed an agreement that elections must be held by the end of 2017.  

That effort began to fall apart in March after the main opposition bloc decried Kabila's rejection of its pick for prime minister, instead installing a former leader of the country’s largest opposition party. 

While Kabila has managed to sway some from opposition parties, naming a handful to high-level posts, the coalition says that they do not represent their views.

On Tuesday, state television in the country announced the names of five-dozen senior government officials Kabila had appointed to top posts. Most were Kabila loyalists, the same that had been in charge in the previous government, according to Reuters.

This angered the main opposition coalition leaders, who said he violated the terms of the December agreement. 

“This government is illegitimate and we don't recognize it," Martin Fayulu, president of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development Party told Reuters earlier this week. “There is no other roadmap besides the accord," he said. "If the accord is dead, Kabila has to leave.”

Opposition protests — and crackdowns by the government — have all but paralyzed the capital city of Kinshasa, according to international reports. 

Protests against Kabila have ended with dozens dead, and new rules ban any groups larger than 10 people from congregating in one place. The skirmishes have turned Kinshasa into a “ghost town,” NPR reported

The United Nations reported earlier this week that thousands of people are leaving their homes every day in the DRC, and at the end of March, a total of 3.7 million had been displaced. 

The stakes are high for the DRC, as there has not been a peaceful transition of power in the country since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. 

Critics fear that Kabila is doing as leaders in some other African nations have done — delaying elections for long enough to put together a referendum allowing him to stay for a third term. He denies this charge.

The Obama administration passed several waves of targeted sanctions on the country, and the Trump administration appears to be taking a tough stance as well. 

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is calling for cuts to its peacekeeping budget due to Kabila’s actions.

"The U.N. peacekeeping mission is mandated to partner with the government," she told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “In other words, the U.N. is aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people. We should have the decency and common sense to end this.” 

Haley’s speech, at the end of March, came the day after the U.N. confirmed that two U.N. peacekeepers in the DRC had been found dead in shallow graves. One was American, the other from Sweden.   

“Obviously, all U.N. peacekeepers, everywhere they go, work with authorities on the ground. That does not mean that we support those figures or those parties,” said a U.N. spokeswoman.   

The DRC had most recently been represented by BGR Group, a primarily Republican firm. The contract, which lasted from September through January, was worth $875,000. 

— Updated at 1:07 p.m.