What does $13m lobbying in US buy for African nations?

President Barack Obama in Ghana, 2009.

When nearly 50 African leaders arrive in Washington next month for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, some may be eager to see results from the millions they have spent in the U.S. capital on lobbying and other representation.

Twenty-three African countries and territories spent $13.9 million dollars on communicating with the U.S. government and affiliated bodies in 2013, according to disclosures made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and analyzed through the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer tool

Many of these countries and territories are attending the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which begins on August 4 and is billed as the largest single engagement by any U.S. President with Africa.

Elected governments, opposition parties, liberation movements, tourism agencies, sovereign wealth funds, central banks, regional governors and a mining company all paid to push their agenda through media campaigns or correspondence with U.S. officials in the White House, State Department and other agencies.

By lobbying standards, Africa’s expenditure is small. Global mailing firm FedEx spent a similar amount ($12.2 million) in 2013. To add more perspective, Africa’s total is just one-fifth of that laid out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the USA’s most deep-pocketed lobbyist.

“I see a lot less [African lobbying] going on than 10 to 15 years ago,” says Dr. Witney Schneidman, nonresident fellow with the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings and African affairs expert under Presidents Clinton and Obama.

“They realized they didn’t get much bang for their buck”, said Schneidman.

But diminishing returns have not stopped some countries from seeking to influence U.S. policy or to improve their public image. Earlier this year, The Hill reported that Nigeria’s government signed a $1.2 million contract with a public relations firm in the wake of the Boko Haram kidnappings.

The lowest fee in 2013 was $2,407.67, spent by the rebel-affiliated group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which paid its representative for travel and office expenses as well as Facebook posts and tweets.

The biggest African spender was Morocco, which spent a combined total of $4.8 million. Over $913,000 of that was splashed out by the Morocco Tourist Office while another $800,000 came from an NGO backed by the country’s king, the Moroccan American Center for Policy, Inc. The Center reports that it notched up nearly 70 meetings, emails and phone calls with U.S. politicians from May through October 2013, including meetings with staff from the offices of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

While many governments seek face-to-face meetings with U.S. politicians, others are happy simply to tap into the U.S. media circuit. The tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea spent $216,000 throughout 2013, some of which paid for press releases on topics ranging from President Obama’s grandmother to business investment. Few appear to have addressed the State Department’s own concerns about the country’s alleged “police use of torture and excessive force; denial of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and widespread official corruption”.


Map via chartsbin.com

“Countries like Equatorial Guinea really stand out as some of the most egregious in terms of corruption,” said Corinna Gilfillan, head of Global Witness in Washington, D.C., which is organizing an event to coincide with the summit.

“We want to see the tough issues addressed, including tackling corruption, particularly in the natural resource sector,” said Gilfillan, whose organization has followed allegations that the president’s son illegally amassed over $100 million. 

Of the five countries excluded from the Leaders Summit, only Sudan appears in the 2013 FARA database. Its Washington embassy paid $239,000 for legal representation in an effort to have the country removed from the State Department List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The country is still on the list.

With trade and business ties expected to dominate talks at the summit, the countries to have invested in lobbying the U.S. government may be hoping to see their expense and effort paying off.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the overall amount on lobbying by 23 African nations spent as $12 million. The correct figure is $13.9 million. An editor made the mistake.


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