In April, one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s most powerful opposition leaders requested Secretary Rex Tillerson’s support for his return from exile in a letter sent through a prominent Washington lobbying firm.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld submitted the letter on behalf of Moise Katumbi, the leading opposition candidate in the Congo’s long-delayed presidential election. Katumbi fled the country last year to escape criminal charges that he claims were politically motivated and orchestrated by his rival, longtime president Joseph Kabila.
Kabila has held office since 2001, surpassing the two-term limit he is subject to under the constitution. The Congolese government had scheduled an election for November 2016, which was later delayed until 2019.
Since 2016, Kabila’s government and its opposition have shelled out roughly $9 million combined on US lobbying, according to contracts filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The Congolese government has spent about $7.4 million on US lobbying, in part for support in improving the country’s electoral infrastructure. Lobbyists paid to represent Congo’s interests include firms associated with former lawmakers Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA); the wife of former CIA director and Trump advisor James Woolsey; and former Donald Trump staffer Adnan Jalil.
Katumbi has spent almost $670,000 of the opposition’s roughly $1.8 million in lobbying expenses, with the biggest contract going to Akin Gump. In addition to coordinating the Tillerson letter, Akin Gump and a subcontractor lobbied the State Department, the United Nations and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Katumbi’s behalf, according to FARA filings.
It is unclear how effective the two factions’ lobbying will be in directing US policy toward the Congo, however, which appears to be a relatively low priority for the State Department, according to Jason Stearns, director of New York University’s Congo Research Group.
In an October visit to the Congo, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told Kabila that failure to hold elections in 2018 would cost him US support for the electoral process, without providing specifics.
What is clear, however, is the economic potential of Congo’s mineral-rich territory.
A civil war beginning in the 1990s has produced ongoing violence concentrated in the eastern Congo. Last month, Trump extended an executive order declaring a national emergency with respect to the Congo, which President George W. Bush had first signed in 2006.
Foreign interests in Congo have become increasingly corporate following the government’s privatization of its mining assets between 2004 and 2006.
In 2013, mining represented between 60 and 80 percent of the country’s foreign direct investment, which amounted to over $7 billion between 2005 and 2010, according to a report by Oxford Policy Management, an international research and consulting firm.
Included in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 was a rule intended to prevent Congolese armed groups from benefiting from mining sales by requiring American companies to disclose the origin of tantalum, tin, gold, and tungsten used in their products.
Business groups opposed the rule, arguing that it forced companies to disclose politically charged information and that the costs of compliance were too high.
In 2014, a lawsuit filed by US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which represent electronics producers like Dell, IBM and Verizon, resulted in the limitation of the rule’s disclosure demands.
The Congolese government warned that suspending the rule could escalate conflict among armed groups, which made an estimated $185 million annually from mineral mining prior to the rule and lost ownership of 67 percent of tantalum, tin and tungsten mines in the four years following it.
An amendment added to the House spending bill passed in September prohibited any funding to enforce the disclosure rule.
Congo’s mining sector had the potential to generate up to $2.7 billion annually through 2017, according to a 2008 World Bank estimate.
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