Somewhere in Africa, a dictator sits in his presidential
palace, alone and forlorn. Just recently, he deployed troops to quell an
opposition rally and a few unarmed civilians were killed. Nothing out of the
ordinary, really; but this time the international press have descended on his
capital. Foreign governments are calling for democratic reforms. And embarrassed
international financial institutions, which have long subsidized the corrupt
regime, are openly discussing a loan cutoff.
As he ponders the gross unfairness of his current predicament, the dictator is
momentarily despondent. Abruptly, though, a smile comes to his face. There is
still plenty of money in his personal checking account--the state treasury--so
all is not lost. Far from it. The dictator flips through his Rolodex and reaches
for the telephone.
Who's he gonna call? In all likelihood, lobbyist Herman Cohen in Arlington,
Virginia. In recent years, Cohen has emerged as the influence peddler of choice
for African despots in need of a public relations buff-up. His access and client
list are both sure to grow even more now that George W. Bush--under whose father
Cohen served as assistant secretary of state for Africa--occupies the White
Lobbying for foreign governments almost always poses ethical dilemmas. Adwoa
Dunn-Mouton, a former staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations
Subcommittee on Africa, worked as a lobbyist for several African governments
after leaving Capitol Hill. She says that she tried to prod clients to take
concrete steps toward democracy that would change international perceptions about
their governments. "They didn't want to hear it," recalls Dunn-Mouton, who
resigned after a brief career at the Washington Strategic Group, a Beltway
lobbying firm. "The whole point of hiring a lobbyist was to have someone spin the
situation so they wouldn't have to make real changes."
"Putting a happy face on murder and mayhem" is how Charles Lewis, executive
director of the Center for Public Integrity, describes the role of lobbyists like
Cohen who represent foreign dictators. "Most of the countries who hire them have
virtually no money, but they need professional schmoozers to promote their
regimes," he says. "They're paying for respectability and stature in Washington
and, they hope, foreign aid and access to American markets."
Though a relative newcomer to the profession, Cohen has quickly become one of
Washington's best-known lobbyists for foreign nations. A key to his success is
the contacts he formed, at home and abroad, during a 38-year career in the State
Department (where he served as ambassador to Senegal, then to Gambia, before he
became assistant secretary of state for Africa). Cohen cultivated close relations
with Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
In 1992 Mobutu's power was eroding and there was a strong internal push for a
transition to civilian rule. Pro-democracy forces hoped Cohen, who went to Zaire,
would press the tyrant to step down. Instead, he appeared on government-run
television and announced that the aging kleptocrat was "enthusiastic for
democracy." In South Africa, Cohen and George H.W. Bush's administration lifted
all sanctions on the apartheid regime in July 1991--a step opposed by Nelson
Mandela, who didn't become president of the country until three years later.
After checking out of government service, Cohen became head of the Global
Coalition for Africa, a World Bank-affiliated organization that preaches orthodox
pro-business recipes for the continent. In 1994 he and James Woods, deputy
assistant secretary of defense for African affairs under Ronald Reagan and George
Bush the elder, formed the lobby shop of Cohen and Woods International (CWI).
Cohen boasted to Legal Times about the wide range of contacts--from heads
of state to Central Bank governors--that he and his partner enjoyed in Africa.
"You can count on one hand the number of [top leaders] we don't know," he said.
Randall Robinson, president of the TransAfrica Forum, asserts in Defending the
Spirit: A Black Life in America that Cohen failed to promote democracy while
in office--something he could have done "with any competence and half a
heart"--and that he seeks to collect "representation fees from the very African
countries whose interests he formerly held in callous disregard."
In addition to offering clients strategic advice and chasing up foreign
investment and aid, CWI staffers write speeches, arrange official visits to the
United States, prepare briefing papers, testify before Congress, and spin the
media. Disclosure reports reveal regular contact between firm employees and a
host of Washington power centers--including the White House, the Pentagon,
international lending agencies, and think tanks. CWI folks also serve as bigwig
escorts: They may accompany, say, Mozambique's commercial attaché to a
meeting with Edwin Barber of the Treasury Department's Office of African Nations;
or they may introduce a top economic adviser of the Ivory Coast's president to
Michael Newell, the country manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at the U.S. Trade and
Development Agency (to discuss "grant criteria").
Cohen has an especially easy time getting doors to open in the capital. During
a four-month stretch in 1999, he attended a breakfast fundraiser for
Representative Edward Royce, a California Republican who chairs the House
International Relations Subcommittee on Africa; he lunched with Gayle Smith of
the National Security Council; and he had dinner at his home with William Swing,
U.S. ambassador to Congo. He's a regular on the Hill, where he meets with members
of Congress and key aides. "His name carries a lot of weight, with Democrats and
Republicans," says Charisse Glassman, a staffer for Democratic Representative
Donald Payne of New Jersey, who also sits on the Africa subcommittee.
One of CWI's first big lobbying contracts came in 1995, when the firm agreed,
in exchange for $300,000, to coordinate media relations for Omar Bongo, president
of Gabon. The firm's stated mission was to present Gabon as a "politically stable
and economically successful country" and to "generate awareness of President
Bongo and his national and international accomplishments." Among those
accomplishments was establishing the "very concrete process of democratization
and democratic reforms."
As the ink dried on the contract, the State Department released its annual
report on human rights around the globe. This report found that Bongo's security
forces were responsible for "many confirmed extra-judicial killings" and that
government-sanctioned torture in Gabon was routine. ("Eyewitnesses reported
seeing prisoners tied to chairs, doused with ice water, or made to crawl on their
stomachs over gravel or sun-baked asphalt.") As to "the very concrete process of
democratization" that had supposedly taken place under Cohen's client--who has
been in power since 1967--the State Department said that the previous election in
which Bongo allegedly won 51 percent of the vote was "marred by serious
irregularities, including a secret vote count that excluded all but government
observers. In Bongo's home region of Haut Ogoue, the number of votes cast for
Bongo was greater than the population reported in the 1993 census."
Bongo is not only a thug but a crook as well. It's impossible to know exactly
how much money he has stolen from the national treasury, but a 1999 Senate report
on money laundering indicates that he deposited $130 million with Citibank's
private banking department. The report includes a memo that Citibank's Alain
Ober, a private banking officer who handled the account, sent to several
colleagues, which reads: "[I] never asked our client where his money came from.
My guess ... is that in view of the importance of our client's country as a
provider of cheap oil to France, it was (and still is) important that our client
stayed in power and thus the French government/French oil companies (Elf) made
'donations' to him (very much like we give to PACs in the U.S.!)."
CWI's contract with Gabon lasted only a year, but there's been no
shortage of business since. The firm's clients have included Tunisia, the Ivory
Coast, Mozambique, and even Angola--despite the Bush administration's strong
support for Jonas Savimbi, the guerrilla leader who has waged war on the country.
Angola is stronger than Savimbi.
Perhaps the most notorious CWI client was Charles Taylor of Liberia. He took
power following a seven-year civil war that Kenneth Cain describes in a Human
Rights Quarterly article as "a relentless campaign of sadistic, wanton
violence unimaginable to those unfamiliar with the details of man's capacity to
visit the abyss." According to Cain, Taylor "inaugurated the use of grade
school-age children as scouts, spies, and cannon fodder [and] explicitly employed
terror tactics, ethnic cleansing, and political assassinations."
Taylor brought this charming style of rule to the presidency, which he assumed
in July of 1997. Four months later, security forces kidnapped prominent
oppositionist Samuel Dokie, his wife, a niece, and a cousin as the family was
traveling to a wedding. A week later, the four were found dead. All of them had
been tortured; Dokie's eyes had been gouged out before he'd been burned and
beheaded. In foreign policy, Taylor is chiefly known for his support of the
Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone that
routinely amputates the hands, legs, ears, and lips of anyone who opposes it.
A contract signed in 1999 by the two parties provided that CWI would be paid
$300,000 to assist Taylor in "overcoming obstacles to a constructive
relationship" between Liberia and the U.S. government and otherwise help to ease
the country's international isolation. Targets of CWI's lobbying included
government officials plus "the business community, the press, non-governmental
organizations, and the academic world."
A Capitol Hill staffer who asked not to be identified said that CWI
adapted--understandably, under the circumstances--a low-key approach on behalf of
Liberia. "They never tried to say that Taylor was a good guy--they knew they
couldn't get away with that," he says. "They'd talk about how cutting off Liberia
would be counterproductive and would result in a lessening of U.S. influence."
Despite its best efforts, CWI had only mixed results for Taylor. Bill Clinton's
administration never imposed the broad sanctions sought by human rights groups,
but it did shun the regime and bar all Liberian officials from entering the
Among CWI's most recent clients--until he was murdered in January--was the
president of Congo, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who drove Mobutu from power. He was
paying the lobby shop $250,000 to build "a more constructive relationship"
between Congo and the United States. Cohen was working on the project with Edward
van Kloberg, who stands out, even within the amoral world of Washington lobbying,
for handling accounts that few will touch. His clients have included Saddam
Hussein of Iraq, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, and Samuel Doe of Liberia. (Van
Kloberg's exertions on behalf of the last two came to a sudden halt when they
were murdered in office following years of brutal rule.)
One of Cohen's specific tasks for Congo--and for another client, Burkina
Faso--is to water down legislation that would bar U.S. imports of "blood
diamonds," whose sale allows African governments and rebel groups to finance
their wars. Industry officials say that blood diamonds account for about 4
percent of the world's $6-billion-a-year trade, while human rights groups argue
that 15 percent is a more accurate estimate.
Last year Democratic Representative Tony Hall of Ohio introduced legislation
that would require that diamonds sold in the United States--where two-thirds of
all diamond sales take place--be accompanied by a certificate of origin, to
ensure that no blood diamonds would be allowed in the country. Deborah DeYoung, a
Hall staffer, recalls that Cohen came by the office to voice his opposition to
the bill. "He said that our proposal wasn't workable and that we should look at
other types of control measures, like monitoring ports," she says. "He was
advocating an approach that wouldn't shut down an industry that's important to
his clients." In addition to African nations involved in the trade, the diamond
industry fiercely lobbied against the legislation. So Hall and other supporters
have altered the bill in hopes of getting it through Congress.
CWI's most recent contract--a five-year deal at $600,000 per annum--was signed
last September with the government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. At the time,
Mugabe was in desperate need of a PR face-lift. His nation's economy was in
shambles; and 32 people, mostly opposition supporters, had been killed during
parliamentary elections held three months earlier. Meanwhile, Mugabe's land
reform plan--which would seize 3,000 properties without compensation and give
them to landless blacks--was generating criticism, partly at home but mostly
The contract calls for CWI to take the "necessary steps to overcome recent
negative publicity, and to restore enduring trust, confidence and mutual respect
between Zimbabwe and the international community." Firm lobbyists are
specifically asked to smooth relations between Zimbabwe and the International
Monetary Fund, and to "counter anti-Zimbabwe content in the international media."
As part of the latter effort, CWI is to establish a Web site that will provide
news from Zimbabwe as well as information about business and tourism
CWI has been working especially hard to head off congressional passage of the
Zimbabwe Democracy Act, which sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee last June but stalled on the House side. The bill would cut off
American aid to Zimbabwe and require the U.S. government to oppose any loans to
Mugabe's government by international lenders. Last September, to oppose the bill,
Cohen personally met with Republican Representative Amo Houghton of New York.
According to disclosure forms, Cohen "expressed the view that, while the
objectives of promoting democracy and respect for the rule of law were certainly
laudable, Zimbabwe should be given a few months to resolve its political crisis
rather than rushing to impose external sanctions." Houghton's office refused to
comment on the meeting with Cohen.
In an interview with TAP, Cohen defended the role of the lobbyist in
general and his firm's work in particular: "We advise clients on their situation
in the U.S. and tell them that if they really want to improve relations, here are
some things you have to do. We aren't able to get them any privileges that they
don't deserve." He said that CWI has turned down clients--for example, the former
dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, which he called "beyond the
pale"--and that the firm resigned from the Liberia account after three months.
"We saw there was nothing to be done, that the government just wanted us to wave
a magic wand [to make its problems go away]." At the same time, Cohen said he'd be
happy to renew his firm's contract with Congo if the new government there so
desired, and he acknowledged that CWI hasn't been able to convince the government
of Zimbabwe to improve its record on civil and human rights. "That's beyond our
influence," he said.
Given the scope of Africa's troubles, particularly armed conflicts and human
rights-abusing governments, Herman Cohen's future prospects are rosy. After all,
murder and mayhem are good for business. So, too, is a lack of conscience.