Political Handlers With Trump Ties Take Their Election Playbooks to Africa
By Dionne Searcey
ABUJA, Nigeria — When a Nigerian presidential candidate landed in the United States in January after years of being subject to a visa ban because of corruption allegations, he had a team of Western consultants and lobbyists to thank for the warm American welcome.
One of those who helped was Riva Levinson, who was mentored in the art of political consulting by Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Trump’s presidential campaign, sentenced this month to more than seven years in prison for a host of crimes.
Ms. Levinson, who now has her own firm, KRL International, is among the many American political consultants with ties to President Trump who have become regular fixtures in African political campaigns, seizing on the region’s turn toward democracy.
For decades, countries in sub-Saharan Africa changed governments through coups that left military juntas in charge. But increasingly, in places like Nigeria, elections are supposed to determine the will of the people, though sometimes they are not fully free and fair.
Yet as elections become more common and competitive — complete with polling and social media campaigns — African candidates are hiring Western firms to sway voters and influence the media coverage of their candidacies.
Consultants with perceived ties to Mr. Trump are especially valued by their political clients, even in countries that he disparaged with a vulgar phrase, and which are largely off his administration’s foreign policy radar.
From the sidelines at a recent election event in Nigeria, Ms. Levinson reminisced about the old days when Mr. Manafort would dispatch her across the globe to enlist unsavory leaders and help them clean up their international reputations, for a hefty fee.
“Paul was a master strategist. He could hover above at 30,000 feet and see how all of the moving parts fit together, and then move each one with precision,” she recalled. “I learned that from him, and he gave me a front-row seat to watch history. I’m grateful to him for this.”
Ms. Levinson was in Nigeria to help the opposition party in the country’s recent election. The party’s presidential candidate was Atiku Abubakar, and her client was a powerful Nigerian senator who was managing Mr. Abubakar’s campaign.
Mr. Abubakar lost. But during the campaign, Ms. Levinson and a team of other American lobbyists and consultants with ties to Mr. Trump helped their client secure meetings with legislators and with powerful American lobbying groups. He stayed at the Trump International Hotel, a five-star hotel near the White House.
Those small victories, in which Mr. Abubakar won access to Washington power centers, were impressive for a candidate who was named as a prime example of overseas corruption by a United States Senate subcommittee in 2010. Its report said that he had funneled tens of millions of dollars worth of Nigerian oil revenues into foreign shell accounts. Mr. Abubakar has never been prosecuted, but for years he was prevented from traveling to the United States.
“These firms help candidates launder their image in Washington, London and New York, shifting outside attention away from the bare-knuckle reality of their election campaigns,” said Matthew T. Page, a former State Department official who is now an associate fellow in the Africa program of Chatham House, a British research group.
“They also seek to manipulate the election narrative by planting press stories or neutralizing negative narratives on social media,” Mr. Page said.
In Nigeria, the opposition party also tapped another consulting firm, Ballard Partners, to help facilitate meetings for Mr. Abubakar on Capitol Hill as part of a $90,000 a month contract. Brian D. Ballard, the firm’s owner, was a top fund-raiser in the Trump campaign.
Ms. Levinson accompanied Mr. Abubakar to many of his meetings in Washington, and Holland & Knight, an American law firm, lobbied the State Department to secure his visa. Scott D. Mason, a former aid to Mr. Trump, led the law firm’s effort, according to filings.
Some Western firms are trying to exploit the Trump administration’s concerns that China is surpassing America’s influence on the continent, and are marketing their African clients as solutions.
Mr. Ballard’s firm says it is adding consultants with ties to Africa, betting that it will win more clients as the Trump administration tries to counteract China, which has offered billions of dollars in infrastructure gifts and loans to governments across the mineral-rich continent to gain a foothold.
“It is undeniably in America’s interest to combat China’s growing geopolitical influence in Africa,” said James Rubin, who is in charge of international affairs at Ballard Partners and was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
This month the government of Zimbabwe hired Ballard Partners on a contract worth $500,000 to improve relations with the United States, according to government filings.
Longtime African election observers say that in the region, opportunities abound for Western firms to take advantage of editorial standards at local newspapers that can be less rigorous than in other parts of the world. They also can manipulate social media in ways tested and refined in recent elections in the West.
The process of representing governments abroad can get messy. Regardless of firms’ ties to the White House, charges of fraud and violence around election time have cast a pall on the work of some consultants, jeopardizing their own image.
In 2016, the government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon hired Ogilvy, a global public relations firm, to bring international reporters to Gabon’s capital, Libreville, for one-on-one interviews with the president at his seaside palace. Mr. Bongo won re-election that year, though the opposition criticized the fairness of the vote and violence broke out.
Last year, Mercury Public Affairs announced it was working for the government of Cameroon ahead of its presidential election. But it quickly rescinded the deal amid charges of human rights violations by Cameroon’s military.
Not long after, Glover Park Group, an American firm, picked up a contract working for the Cameroonian Embassy in Washington. The firm’s representatives send regular dispatches to reporters with government-friendly spins on events in Cameroon, which is teetering on the brink of a civil war with separatists.
Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit consultancy, built a client base by working for the opposition for free in Gambia, where one of the region’s most brutal and longest-serving presidents was ousted in 2016.
For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the opinions of officials on the other side of the globe matter. Western governments can offer millions of dollars in aid to alleviate extreme poverty, and military training and weaponry to fight Islamist insurgencies.