Buzzfeed’s Albert Samaha reports that Trump Administration learned of staggering procurement corruption at top of DRC’s Election Commission “a few weeks before” 2018 election, stayed mum

In a must read story of “Africa in DC”, Buzzfeed’s Albert Samaha peels back several layers of the story of how DRC strongman Joseph Kabila managed his 2016-19 election problem with the new Trump Administration: “A Secretive Company Needed to Convince Washington That Congo’s Election Would Be “Free and Fair.” It Found A Friendly Ear Among Trump Allies.

Previous reporting disclosed internal dissent within the State Department, including an early 2019 story from Robbie Graemer and Jeffcoate O’Donnell I noted here: “Foreign Policy article gives insight on disagreements within Trump Administration on backing off on criticism of flawed DRC vote.”

Kabila’s innovation was to turn directly to his Israeli surveillance and security contractors to broker the hiring of lobbyists connected to the Trump Administration, such as Robert Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group who repped the Kenyatta-Ruto Administration in Washington during its 2017 re-election effort. Kenyatta hired Stryk through the Kenyan foreign ministry rather than through surveillance contractors. One could suggest that the use of outside-the-Beltway intermediaries raised eyebrows and ultimately loosened tongues.

Update: Here is a link to the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act filing of Mer Security and Communications, Ltd of Halon, Israel for the Government of the DRC for the 2018 election. And the filing of Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group for their subcontracted portion, including lobbying the National Security Council, and hosting “the Cobalt Reception”. (Further on Sonoran Group, see “Trump-linked lobbyist turns from Gulf Arabs to more toxic clients,” al-Monitor, Feb. 19, 2020.)

You owe it to yourself to read Samaha’s whole story, but the thing that is most profoundly disappointing to me is the report that my government learned about massive corruption at the CENI in time to say something before the vote but elected not to.

This casts new color to the internal debate within the U.S. government over what to say and do, and what to disclose, when CENI subsequently announced “results” that lacked credibility.

The excuse for not speaking to government-sponsored election fraud is supposedly the fear of instability from aggrieved voters faced with intransigent incumbents—a real concern—but how can we claim to be serious about democracy support when we chose to keep quite on obviously debilitating fraud before the vote? A key question for me about the Kenyan election disaster in 2007 has always been how much we knew about Kibaki’s intentions before the election, having documented through FOIA that Ambassador Ranneberger personally witnessed the wrongful changing of tallies at the Kenyan IEBC but still encouraged Kenyans to accept the vote without disclosure.

Update: Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy appears to have effectively announced the “climb down” by the State Department on supporting Tshisekedi as the de facto president at a CSIS dinner in Washington on January 30, 2019, while still asserting “In addition, we will continue to voice our disapproval of the poor implementation of a flawed electoral process, which was far below the standards of a fully democratic process. We will hold accountable those most responsible for undermining D.R.C.’s democratic processes and institutions.” Nagy celebrated a peaceful transition of power “that few thought possible”. “Ultimately, the Congolese people have the final word. After President Kabila left office, there have been no meaningful protests to the election outcome. Felix Tshisekedi has vowed to unite the country, reform the security forces and justice sector, fight corruption, and spur greater U.S. investment and it is in our interest to help him succeed.”

On March 21, 2019 the Treasury Department announced personal sanctions against the two top officials of CENI:

Under Nangaa’s leadership, CENI officials inflated by as much as $100 million the costs for the electronic voting machine contract with the intent to use surplus funds for personal enrichment, bribes, and campaign costs to fund the election campaign of Kabila’s candidate. Nangaa, with other CENI officials, awarded an election-related contract and doubled the award amount on the understanding that the winning company would award the extra funds to a DRC company controlled by CENI leadership. Nangaa approved the withdrawal of CENI operation funds for non-authorized budget items for personal use by DRC government employees. Nangaa ordered CENI employees to fabricate expense receipts to cover spending gaps resulting from CENI funds being used for personal gain. Nangaa delivered bribes to Constitutional Court justices to uphold a decision by the CENI to delay DRC’s 2016 elections.

Consider in light of the ultimately similar context from Kabila’s alleged 2011 “re-election” during Secretary Clinton’s State Department tenure as I warned about in a post here on August 8, 2018: “With DRC’s Kabila Backing a Substitute Candidate This Year, Time to Review the International Observation Experience from 2011 Vote”:

At the time of the last election in 2011, Africa democratizers were buoyed by an understood success story in Ghana, the hope of an “Arab Spring”, the lull of violence in Iraq and more generally encouraging environment. As explained in my posts from that time, the U.S.- funded International Observation Mission (conducted by the Carter Center) found the election to fall short of adequacy by the applicable international standards and said so explicitly.

Initially standing up to Kabila over the failures of his alleged re-election and pushing for them to be addressed appeared to be U.S. policy. If so, we apparently changed our mind for some reason. Tolerating a bad election then leaves us in a more difficult position with seven years of water under that bridge. The U.S. has stepped up recently to pressure Kabila to schedule the election, allow opposition and stand down himself.

In this vein, we need to be careful, and transparent, as things proceed to continue to evaluate realistically what is feasible and where we are really able and willing to assist.  In particular, the decision to initiate and fund one or more Election Observation Missions for a vote in these circumstances should involve serious soul-searching at the State Department (and/or USAID).

On the last election:

DRC: “We have to debunk the idea that it is peace versus transparent elections. The idea that lousy elections are going to bring piece is madness.”

Carter Center calls it as they see it in DRC

U.S. and other Western donors support review of election irregularities in DRC — offer technical assistance

State Department to Kabila on DRC Presidential Election: “Nevermind”?