The lobbying firm that represents an African government accused of atrocities has hired U.S. President Donald Trump’s former acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker—the latest in a recent surge of contracts with African countries seeking to improve their image in Washington.
Whitaker, who is joining Clout Public Affairs as managing director, will not be working directly on the contract with the government of Cameroon and will not be filing as a lobbyist, a Clout Public Affairs spokesperson told Foreign Policy.
Clout finalized the contract well before Whitaker joined the firm. But human rights activists say Whitaker’s hiring will bring outsized influence to a firm looking to burnish Cameroon’s image in Washington as its government faces accusations of widespread human rights abuses against civilians.
Clout Public Affairs, a firm organized by former aides to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, last month signed on to lobby for Cameroon for $55,000 a month in four-month increments until the contract is canceled, according to public disclosure filings with the U.S. Justice Department. The firm, according to the contract, will provide public relations services to help cultivate a “favorable image” for Cameroon’s government, to include “placing targeted op eds in conservative-oriented outlets in order to foster a robust and growing partnership narrative into the future.”
The Clout spokesperson said it is an important time to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cameroonian governments as the country faces growing instability and threats from terrorism. The lobbying contract does not mention work beyond PR and communications. But it has drawn sharp criticism from human rights activists.
“Cameroonian security forces and authorities have a very poor track record when it comes to human rights,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior researcher on Central Africa at Human Rights Watch, who said torture “is systematically practiced in legal and illegal detention facilities.”
The contract also represents the latest in a growing list of African governments pouring money into lobbying firms to carve out more influence in Washington under Trump, whose surrogates and campaign affiliates have cashed in on lobbying for foreign governments, catching the attention of human rights advocates and public transparency watchdogs.
“Over the past several years, there has been a hugely significant increase in the number of U.S. lobbyists representing foreign nationals, many of them connected to the Trump administration,” said Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, which supports democracy movements in the region. “Many of Trump’s fundraisers and supporters have struck it rich in this sector, often working on behalf of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” said Smith, who has done work on behalf of Cameroonian opposition figures. He cited Zimbabwe, which hired the Trump-linked lobbying group Ballard Partners in a bid to scrap long-standing U.S. sanctions, as well as Clout’s work for Cameroon.
“In Washington, this sort of access to Trump, whether perceived or real, is a hugely lucrative endeavor,” Smith said. It’s difficult to say how such lobbying efforts have yielded results yet in Zimbabwe’s case, as it is still under U.S. sanctions.
Cameroon’s government has spent at least $940,027 on lobbying and PR work in the United States since the start of 2017, according to Anna Massoglia, a researcher who works on the Foreign Lobby Watch project at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). (Cameroon also maintains a lobbying agreement with the global law firm Squire Patton Boggs.) Tracking public disclosure filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Massoglia estimates that this puts Cameroon 10th among African countries when it comes to expenditures to U.S. PR firms during that window.
“The variety across the region is huge,” Massoglia said. For example, Liberia outspent its next closest rival more than seven times over, with FARA records indicating that the country has spent more than $72 million in foreign influence work. Niger’s spending in the same period totaled just $6,000, according to CRP data. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has funneled more than $10 million into lobbyists, while a powerful military figure in Sudan’s ruling military junta, Gen. Mohamed “Hemeti” Hamdan Dagalo, hired a Canadian lobbying firm for $6 million to promote his interests with the U.S., Russian, and wealthy Persian Gulf governments. South Sudan’s government, also implicated in war crimes and widespread corruption, has drawn criticism for hiring former U.S. diplomats to lobby on its behalf for $3.7 million to boost ties with the Trump administration.