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”?

Malawi 2019 Election – with Court annulment, a look back at USAID’s version of post election “Lessons Learned”

Update: the latest on the annulment of the election from Quartz Africa. And from The Guardian: “Malawi court annuls 2019 election results and calls for new vote.”

Here is what USAID has had to say as of June 27, 2019 on “Lessons From Malawi’s 2019 Elections”:

. . . .

In part due to considerable programmatic support – including USAID assistance – monitors observed commendable improvements in the MEC’s electoral preparation, voting process and results transmission system compared to previous elections.  Notably, as shown above, the MEC’s final result closely tracked with the USAID-supported non-partisan parallel vote tabulation, implemented by the Malawi Election Support Network (MESN) and National Democratic Institute (NDI).  

In addition, despite pre-electoral intimidation and violence against female candidates, 44 of Malawi’s 193 new parliamentarians are women, up from just 32 in 2014. 

Nevertheless, many voters have raised questions about the integrity of the process and Malawian opposition parties have petitioned to the courts to annul the results. While USAID/Malawi’s Democracy, Rights and Governance (DRG) team played a significant role in supporting the MEC to deliver a credible election, as well as civil society’s oversight of the process, more work remains to be done. USAID will continue to provide post election support, through NDI and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), to build confidence in Malawi’s political processes and improve citizen-state relations.

 

USAID Supported a Stronger Electoral Process…

 

In 2018, USAID joined DFID, European Union, Norway, Irish Aid, and UNDP by investing $1 million in the UNDP’s “Election Basket Fund,” which was established to pool international donor resources in support of the MEC’s election strategy, preparation, management, and tabulation. UNDP led the donor community in helping the MEC with critical institutional reforms and electoral preparations, registered 6.8 million voters through newly-issued biometric ID cards, engaged with political parties in preparation for the elections, supported women’s participation in the electoral process, strengthened the capacity of the Malawi Police Services to mitigate electoral violence, and supported election-day logistics and results transmission.

To complement the UNDP Basket Fund efforts, USAID and DFID jointly provided $4 million to the National Democratic Institute(link is external) (NDI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems(link is external)(IFES) to improve civil society and political party oversight and engagement. NDI and its partner MESN coordinated with the MEC on civic and voter education initiatives and mobilized long term observers.  Working with with Democracy Works Foundation, MISA Malawi and broad group of local actors, NDI produced three televised presidential debates and trained political party monitors for election day oversight.

Given the highly competitive race for president, strengthening citizen confidence in the results management process was critical.  On election day, MESN and NDI deployed over 900 observers to monitor all day and conduct a parallel vote tabulation to try to give Malawians greater confidence that the tally of ballots was transparent and accurate. NDI’s partner Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi tracked and reported on media bias and established a fact-checker to combat fake news(link is external) on social media.

IFES helped the MEC to train judges on electoral dispute resolution, established an online election Early Warning/Early Response (EWER)(link is external) system to track and mitigate electoral violence, and  provided technical assistance on strategic communications in the lead-up to the elections, and throughout the voting and tabulation processes. 

In addition to these measures, USAID’s DRG team coordinated the US Government observer effort on election day. More than 80 observers from the US, UK, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Canada travelled together to visit polling and tabulation stations in 13 of Malawi’s 28 districts and submitted 240 observer reports.

But Challenges Remain …

. . . .

Through these and other efforts, the MEC and electoral stakeholders addressed many critical challenges from the 2014 election.  While observers noted a few logistical and organizational problems in some of the more than 5000 polling stations throughout Malawi, the consensus of the observer missions are reflected in the African Union’s Election Observer Mission preliminary statement, which concludes that:

 …the 2019 Tripartite Elections have provided Malawians with the opportunity to choose their leaders at various layers of government in accordance with the legal framework for elections in Malawi, and in accordance with the principles espoused in the various instruments of the AU. The elections took place in a peaceful environment and at the time of this statement, the mission had not notes any serious concerns with the process, either witnessed or observed.

Despite these efforts and a generally well conducted election, the public reaction post-election has been largely negative highlighting remaining gaps as well as a concerning level of mistrust between the public towards its democratic institutions and political actors.  Neither improved electoral transparency and preparations, election-day operations nor an independent PVT has assuaged the public’s concerns over election rigging.  Since the results were announced, Malawi has seen continued protests – some marred by violence – calling for the annulment of the results and resignation of MEC Commissioners.  Once again Malawi’s electoral outcome is in the hands of the courts.  

Implications for Future

Clearly, we need to do additional work to support both Malawi’s election management and to increase the citizenry’s trust in democratic institutions.  The trust issue is critical.  Afrobarometer’s recent study(link is external) underscores these issues in its June 2019 paper that shows that in 2017 only 57% of Malawians “agree” or “agree very strongly” that leaders should be chosen through regular, open, and honest elections. This means out of 34 African countries surveyed, Malawi’s trust in democratic systems is 3rd from the bottom – a concerning position for a democracy that has just completed its sixth election.

 

I hope this can be an occasion for a deeper and more open discussion about the learning opportunities than has happened from the problems over the years in Kenya.

Challenging Nigeria International Election Observation may present tests of character (2nd update on lobbying/funding) #NigeriaDecides

International Election Observation Mission members, including those from IRI/NDI, are arriving in Nigeria for the general election Saturday in a difficult environment.

Although invited by Nigeria’s government there has been at least one unwelcoming statement and no one could deny that this is a hard job simply from the stakes of the election, the instability in some areas, the poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure faced by large portions of the voting population and the simple relative newness of regular competitive elections.

International election observation, which focuses on civil and political rights, is part of international human rights monitoring and must be conducted on the basis of the highest standards for impartiality concerning national political competitors and must be free from any bilateral or multilateral considerations that could conflict with impartiality. It assesses election processes in accordance with international principles for genuine democratic elections and domestic law, while recognizing that it is the people of a country who ultimately determine credibility and legitimacy of an election process.

Quoted is the standard of independence and impartiality to which the USAID-funded NDI/IRI International Election Observation Mission is pledged under the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (Oct. 2005).

The IRI/NDI Nigeria 2015 Observation Mission was funded directly by the State Department so shifting back to USAID funding this time is one of the positive things that I see as having potential to help preserve independence and maintain clarity between an Assistance Observation and a Diplomatic Observation to the benefit of the process.

See my post “President Trump’s Asst. Sec. of State for Africa candidly explains why election observation and technical assistance have to be ‘fire-walled’ from diplomacy to have integrity” for a current discussion and further links.

The joint IRI/NDI EOM model has positives and negatives in terms of actual and perceived independence. In Nigeria where democracy assistance is confronted by “resource curse” funded problems and lobbyists working “both sides of aisle” in Washington at a unusual level for an “African election”, along with prominent American campaign consultants usually involved, the joint model seems to me to have some important advantages over IRI or NDI doing a nonpartisan mission on its own, in-spite of the tradeoffs (alternatively you could go with the Carter Center as an “outside the beltway” if politically connected choice, or Democracy International as a truly private entity).

IRI in Africa from my now distant view has come quite far from some of the vulnerabilities that we faced in the 2007 Kenya Election Observation–experience is the best “capacity builder” and institutional funding and attention are now much more appropriate to the scope of the job. Some of my old Kenyan friends and colleagues who did such a great job running things on the ground in 2007 have stayed on and climbed the ladder. And we can expect this election in Nigeria to be better than their 2007 election, observed by many involved this year, as well.

Since Nigerian elections are always high profile and “on the map” in Washington there is no danger of overlooking the situation from that front. This Observation is long-planned and expected and well-funded; there have been an ongoing series of pre-election missions with reports on preparations. Likewise these observations have been going on with regularity throughout this century–and we’ve even been through the scenario of an incumbent seeking re-election during the Boko Haram war.

At the same time, you need no expertise to know that national elections are always challenging in Nigeria and that while cumulative progress has been made in some areas there are some particular concerns that have been reported on and discussed by this Observation Mission and others in the donor governments and media.

Thus, there may be hard calls ahead for the Observers, both on concerns they have already highlighted and from unexpected events as the voting, counting and disclosing play out.

American lobbyist and Ellen Johnston Sirleaf advisor Riva Levinson articulated part of the present challenge well in The Hill in Washington over the weekend: “At Risk: Credibility of U.S. democracy promotion in Africa“. Johnston Sirleaf is in Nigeria as lead observer for the ECOWAS intergovernmental Election Observation Mission and was co-lead for the most recent IRI-NDI Mission, “ZIEOM” in Zimbabwe.

UPDATE (Feb 12): Riva Levinson and her firm KRL are “registered foreign agents” in Washington for Retail Express Limited of Lagos, Nigeria. The Foreign Agent Registration Act filing from September 30, 2018 identifies this client as a “limited partnership which supports the goals of the Senate President of Nigeria, Dr. Aubakar Bukola Saraki, to engage international stakeholders in support of free and fair national elections in February, 2019, seek a level playing field for opposition parties, and convey the core tenants of the Senate President’s vision for the future of the country.” (She also currently lobbies for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Liberia and the Ministry of Finance of Ghana.)

Sakari lost the now-opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) nomination to Atiku Abubarka but stayed in PDP, having defected from the All Progressives Congress (APC) of Pres. Buhari in July. The PDP itself hired Ballard Partners as its Washington lobbyists for a year at $1,080,000 two days before Retail Express hired KRL.

Recent former diplomat and Council on Foreign Relations Africa lead Amb. Michelle Gavin had a notably hard-hitting CFR blog post last week headlined: “The Truth About United States Complicity in DRC’s Fraudulent Election” although in the text she just covers the macro level issue of diplomatically blessing an election whose official result was contrary to all available evidence.

We in the U.S. got partially off the hook in the DRC where the incumbent Kabila did not invite U.S.-funded or other international observers beyond the African diplomatic groupings (although I learned from Levinson’s piece that we provided funding for the Catholic Church run ‘Parallel Vote Count’, a fact I totally missed in the news reporting. USAID’s website indicates we were also providing “technical assistance” to the election management body CENI itself (!) which again I missed somehow in the news reports. These facts may have informed Gavin’s view even if the journalists that I read did not take notice.)

Update II (Feb 18): As it turns out, the U.S. not-for-profit IFES continued USAID-funded work with CENI, along with its partner IRI in the Coalition for Electoral Process and Party Strengthening (CEPPS) according to a brief overview on IFES’s website, and continues to work with CENI toward local elections. CENI hired its own Washington lobbying firm in 2018, Avenue Strategies, founded by former DJ Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (he left and set up a separate firm before the CENI contract). In January 2019 after CENI named Felix Tshisekedi as president-elect, Avenue Strategies also signed on to represent Tshisekedi as president-elect and now president.

Presumably, then, under the CEPPS mechanism USAID funded the third partner, NDI, for the work with the Catholic Church Parallel Vote Count. I will contact USAID to confirm the arrangement and see if they are willing to release any contractual details without a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

The Carter Center stood firm in calling out Kabila’s 2011″re-election” as failing to meet international standards. The State Department followed along in declining to bless the election and offering technical assistance to address irregularities back then, unlike the current situation which Levinson and Gavin question (although the diplomatic impetus for remediation at the presidential level in 2011 went away quickly).

See Dr. Carl LeVan’s Homepage “Development for Security” blog for an overview of the Nigeria election contest. Likewise, Amb. John Campbell’s “Nigeria’s Election: What to Know” at CFR.

Here is my piece from The Elephant in the wake of Kenya’s judicially annulled 2017 presidential election: “Free, Fair and Credible? Turning the Spotlight on Election Observers“.

[UPDATE III: here is the Preliminary Statement issued by the IRI/NDI Observation on February 25, after the delayed vote of February 23.]

International Election Observation Mission IRI Kenya Kibera Lavington Nairobi 2007