How The US Accepted Joseph Kabila’s Rigged Congo Election
KINSHASA, Congo — An important client needed help, and it didn’t matter to Mer Security and Communication Systems that he was an authoritarian ruler who had crushed peaceful protests and enriched himself at the expense of his own citizens.
Joseph Kabila, then the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had already relied on Mer for monitoring technology and intelligence training to help him spy on his own people. Now he needed the company for services it didn’t advertise — and he needed it to perform those services on American soil.
Kabila wanted Mer to win over the Trump administration.
It was a tall order. The US government had recently frozen the bank accounts of senior Congolese security officials who had overseen the crackdowns against protesters, and had threatened to reduce economic aid to the country if Kabila didn’t step down at the end of his term limit in December 2016. In order to prevent international intervention against his plans to keep power, Kabila needed Mer to sell the idea that an election would happen soon, that it would be credible, and that the US should soften its hardline stance against him.
Junior D.kannah / Getty Images
Then-president Joseph Kabila sits during a special joint session of the Congolese Parliament in Kinshasa in November 2016.
Lobbying was new territory for Mer, but the $9.5 million effort it launched in late 2016 and continued for more than two years was one of the biggest political consulting contracts by any single government during the Trump era. Mer would eventually assemble a team of 27 American consultants, including a former Trump adviser, a campaign staffer, and two former members of Congress who were early endorsers of the president’s campaign.
Seven of Mer’s American consultants who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they hadn’t even heard of the firm until its representatives reached out to them, offering well-paid work. Officials, longtime lobbyists, and advocates at nonprofit organizations who have worked on Congolese issues told BuzzFeed News that Mer was unknown to them too.
Mer’s team directed its efforts toward officials in the State Department and the National Security Council, as well as members of Congress involved in foreign policy. But a primary target, according to multiple sources, was a member of Trump’s inner circle: the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
One American consultant hired by the firm said that if they had known of its ties to Kabila’s surveillance state, “I absolutely would not have said yes.”
Even by the standards of Washington lobbying, this double act — promising a free and fair election in Congo while selling the very tools that could undermine the country’s democracy — was audacious and unheard of.
One American consultant hired by the firm said that if they had known of its ties to Kabila’s surveillance state, “I absolutely would not have said yes.”
A BuzzFeed News investigation, based on thousands of pages of documents and more than 100 interviews in the US, Congo, and Europe, provides a first-ever look inside Mer’s aggressive campaign to influence the Trump administration and serve Kabila’s interests. It shows how such efforts can shape foreign policy in ways unbeknownst to both the public and senior government officials, through meetings and phone calls that leave few witnesses and little trace of the private influences involved.
In this case, the most powerful nation in the world swept aside authoritarian abuses — even when many of its own top diplomats thought such a decision flew in the face of US interests.
Despite all the promises that Kabila’s proxies made in Washington that year, Congo’s election, ultimately held in December 2018, was neither free nor fair. Citing voting data that leaked after the election, international observers said that it was brazenly rigged in favor of a candidate with whom Kabila had struck a secret power-sharing deal. Kabila would officially step down, but he would still command Congo’s security forces, his allies would still hold top Cabinet positions, and his party would still wield a legislative majority.
Within days of the election, the leaked voting data sparked protests across Congo. Heads of state in Europe and Africa called for an international investigation. The US echoed the denunciation.
Mer’s efforts in Washington looked doomed.
But a month after the election, in January 2019, the Trump administration suddenly dropped its objections and instead praised “Kabila’s commitment to becoming the first president in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.” The decision to reverse course came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, BuzzFeed News has learned. But it shocked veteran diplomats and rank-and-file State Department officials who had crafted the initial policy. And it put an end to the international coalition that was forming to examine the election.
Omer Laviv, former CEO of Mer Security Omer Laviv via LinkedIn
Omer Laviv via LinkedIn
Omer Laviv, a top Mer executive
The State Department declined to answer questions for this story. But the Mer executive who oversaw the lobbying campaign, Omer Laviv, was happy to accept credit for the US’s policy change.
“The fact is that the US accepted the results of the election,” Laviv, an executive vice president for Mer Security’s parent company, Mer Group, told BuzzFeed News. “So I would say we succeeded.”
Laviv said that the election results were valid, that Mer’s surveillance products were used not for repression but for law and order, and that Kabila’s reputation as an autocrat is unfair. “I have only good things to say about President Kabila,” he said. “The results of the election in the DRC were widely accepted in the DRC and in the rest of the world, including by the US government.”
“The fact is that the US accepted the results of the election. So I would say we succeeded.”
The goal of Mer’s lobbying campaign, Laviv said, “was to make people in Washington understand that the Congolese are serious about a peaceful transfer of power. The opinions in the State Department are so biased against the DRC and the Kabila regime, and we brought an argument showing them the process of how the election was being done.”
Kabila, who remains head of his political party, could not be reached for comment.
When the history of the Trump administration is written, much will be made of the president undermining democracy at home. But as the Congo episode shows, he also did so abroad.
“The confluence of lobbying work and security experts is really concerning but not surprising,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit that supports democracy movements on the continent. “For so long US foreign policy has been based around this notion of stability and security, oftentimes at the expense of human rights and democracy. But when you deny a free and fair vote, you’re planting the seeds of instability in the long term. It’s reinforcing this notion that leaders who steal elections are somehow good or somehow provide stability and security.”
Mer says it is no longer doing lobbying in Washington. But it has left its mark, there and in Congo.
Though the vast majority of voters cast their ballots for a regime change, the fate of their country was decided by powerful interests negotiating behind closed doors. The US gave its blessing and millions in foreign aid, Kabila kept a large share of his power, and the company at the center of the arrangement walked away richer.
John Wessels / AFP via Getty Images
Kabila at his personal ranch in Kinshasa in 2018
SPYING ON HIS OWN PEOPLE
As Kabila knew all too well, since Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, every head of state before him had met an ignominious end, either driven into exile or killed. He had become president in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in the presidential palace.
Taking over at age 29, Kabila opened up Congo to the West and cultivated alliances with European powers and the US. He declared his country “open for business,” enacting new mining laws allowing foreign citizens to purchase rights to Congo’s minerals — reserves of copper, coltan, cobalt, diamond, and lithium.
These changes benefited Kabila and his allies immensely. Kickbacks were standard, according to international observers and businesspeople who have worked in Congo. One mining consultancy firm warned that some foreign businesses illegally received “preferential treatment by government at all levels.” Over the course of Kabila’s rule, his wealth mushroomed. By 2016, he and his siblings owned shares in at least 70 companies that collectively brought them hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to a Bloomberg investigation.
Among the entrepreneurs who thrived was Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining baron who had befriended Kabila years before he took office and secured a series of favorable deals from the government, including access to Congo’s diamond reserves — an estimated market value of $600 million — for $20 million a year. In all, Gertler “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals,” US Treasury officials later found. During a single three-year span, Gertler reportedly made $1.36 billion in revenue that should have gone to Congo’s taxpayers, Treasury stated.
Through his lawyer, Gertler declined to comment but said his business dealings were always above board.
By contrast, most of Congo’s people continued to live amid some of the most difficult conditions worldwide, lacking access to electricity and clean drinking water. On most health metrics, from infant mortality to malnutrition, Congo languished near the bottom of global rankings. As Kabila’s regime wore on, a protest movement emerged.
When Kinshasa, Congo’s bustling riverfront capital, was selected to host the 2012 Francophonie summit — a gathering of dozens of world leaders — Kabila anticipated that protesters would use the global spotlight to draw attention to his regime’s failures.
Kabila’s security forces had already managed to assemble plenty of on-the-ground spies. But it lacked the technology to intercept phone calls, track the movement of protesters, and remotely monitor opposition leaders.
Congo’s intelligence agency, known as the ANR, sought help from private contractors and other governments. For some potential vendors, the nation’s record of human rights abuses, including imprisoning dissidents and using violence against peaceful protesters, was a deal killer. “It was difficult to support ANR because they were participating in oppression,” a Belgian official based in Kinshasa told BuzzFeed News.
Mer signed a $17.75 million contract to install surveillance cameras and build a command center in the capital city for intelligence and police agencies, according to the company’s financial statements. Its work in Congo was part of an ambitious expansion by a company that began as an Israeli metal shop shortly after World War II. Chaim Mer, a retired military intelligence officer who is a son of Mer’s founder and now chairs the company’s board, hired a roster of other ex–intelligence agents and invested heavily in new technology for its security branch.
By 2012, Mer was a conglomerate with offices in 30 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa. It managed event security for the Olympics in Athens, installed citywide surveillance cameras in Buenos Aires, sold data mining software to local law enforcement agencies across Mexico, and built the emergency radio network for One World Trade Center in New York City.
Many of Mer’s security contracts are kept under wraps. Financial reports to shareholders from 2011 through 2017 make no mention of any work in Congo, instead only referring to the country as an unspecified “State of Central Africa.”
In 2013, the Kabila regime paid Mer an additional $8.5 million for more security cameras as well as technical maintenance and spycraft training programs — and for its proprietary algorithmic tracking software, according to the company’s financial documents, a Congolese ex–military official, and a Congolese security technician who helped install the tools.
“Everything they knew in advance. Everywhere we are going, everything we are planning.”
Mer’s services constituted the “biggest upgrade” in surveillance capabilities that Congo had seen, according to the security technician, and the government soon expanded its arsenal through other companies. In 2015, the Chinese telecom giant Huawei donated a cellular network — along with an interception system able to eavesdrop on nearly any mobile phone call made within the country, according to the security technician and an agent with the Republican Guard, the presidential security service. Huawei didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Dissidents in Congo began noticing that the government’s surveillance state was targeting them more effectively.
In March 2015, after escaping a police raid at a meeting with other anti-Kabila activists, Sylvain Saluseke was spending a cold, damp night at a safe house in Kinshasa when his cellphone rang. The man on the line identified himself as an agent with the ANR, Saluseke said.
“We know where you are,” Saluseke recalled the man saying.
Saluseke decided to turn himself in to protect those who were with him. He walked to the ANR headquarters, an eight-story red-and-yellow stone fortress flanked by a row of palm trees and a steel antenna that rises more than 200 feet. There, he said, he was shown a thick stack of papers — call logs and text message transcripts spanning at least a month.
After 38 days in an overcrowded cinderblock cell, Saluseke said, he was released without charges but given an order to check in at the ANR headquarters three times a week.
“Everything they knew in advance,” said another activist, Felly Kongavi. “Everywhere we are going, everything we are planning.”
Eduardo Soteras / AFP via Getty Images
A portrait of longtime opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, marked the front of his residence, in October 2016. Félix, his son, would later be elected president.
MER BUILDS A TRUMP STRATEGY
By the rules of his country’s constitution, Kabila’s reign was supposed to end after a December 2016 election.
But throughout that year, it became clear that he had other ideas. In April, authorities jailed 21 friends and relatives of opposition leaders, and fires broke out at the headquarters of two opposition parties. The next month, prosecutors indicted Kabila’s biggest rival on treason charges.
Then, in September, the government said it was indefinitely postponing the election. Demonstrators filled the streets of Kinshasa as security forces moved in. Police opened fire and distributed machetes to about 100 plainclothes mercenaries paid to disrupt the gatherings, according to findings from the United Nations. Some protesters lit fires in an attempt to block police attacks; in the chaos of the clashes, witnesses said they saw officers throw people into the flames.
When protesters tried to regroup, authorities were always one step ahead, thanks to surveillance cameras and on-the-ground spies, activists told BuzzFeed News. The unrest persisted for four days. During that time, Congo security forces shot, hacked, beat, and burned to death at least 54 civilians, and detained or injured around 400 more, UN investigators later found.
Eduardo Soteras / Getty Images
Congolese police arrest a demonstrator in 2016.
Kabila was considering altering the constitution to run for another term, according to two consultants who worked on the lobbying campaign and a Congolese official familiar with the regime’s internal discussions. On Dec. 19 — what was supposed to be the last day of Kabila’s term — the government ordered telecom companies to block access to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, and YouTube.
When midnight struck, the sounds of horns, whistles, shouts, and banging pots echoed across Kinshasa. People poured into the streets in cities around the country. Security forces opened fire. Forty civilians were killed, the UN reported; more than 100 people were injured, and at least 460 were arrested.
The Obama administration denounced a “growing pattern of intimidation, harassment, and detention of members of the opposition” and issued US travel and banking bans against Kinshasa’s police commissioner, the ANR chief, and other high-ranking security officers.
Senior officials in the State Department had “sent a strong message” that Kabila had to step down, Congo’s ambassador in Washington, François Balumuene, told BuzzFeed News. “They were very strict.”
The US, of course, had its own election in 2016. Kabila and his foreign policy advisers assumed their backs would be against the wall with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office and were bracing for new sanctions and further cuts to aid programs.
Trump’s victory presented Kabila with a lifeline — one that Mer was primed to exploit.
“In the annals of bizarre African leader lobbying contracts, that’s right at the top.”
Mer signed its lobbying contract with Congo in December 2016, during the Trump transition. “In the annals of bizarre African leader lobbying contracts, that’s right at the top,” said Roger Murry, a consultant who has previously worked with clients from the DRC and other African nations but was not recruited for the Mer campaign. “What was weird wasn’t just the sheer size of the contract, but that it was going to some random company.”
Mer got the consulting gig because it was “in a position of trust with the DRC government,” said Laviv, the executive who was CEO of Mer’s security division during the contract. “They believed that Americans and Israelis have good relations. This was a one-time opportunity helping the DRC.”
There had been virtually no overlap between the consultants who assist foreign governments on political matters and those who provide them with security services — until recently. In the Trump years, security specialists began to emerge as go-betweens who advocate for policies that benefit the foreign nations employing them, blurring the line separating those paid to supply access from those paid to supply weapons and intelligence. Michael Flynn, a security consultant and former general who served on Trump’s presidential campaign, was convicted of violating federal disclosure laws for failing to register his work helping Turkey’s president try to extradite a dissident exiled in the US. Elliott Broidy, a security consultant who raised money for Trump’s 2016 campaign, is under investigation for allegedly lobbying on behalf of the United Arab Emirates after signing $200 million worth of security contracts with the country.
The Congolese government forked over $4.5 million during the first few months of Trump’s presidency as it built up its team of consultants in Washington, according to public records. Since Mer had no lobbying bona fides to speak of, Laviv’s main task was to recruit Americans who did. He hired Moshe Theumim, the chair of an Israeli advertising agency, to manage the project with him.
Over the following months, Laviv and Theumim took prospective lobbyists to lunch to make their offer. Their pitch was vague, three consultants who met with them said. “They made no indication that the regime was trying to reform its anti-democratic ways,” recalled Barry Bennett, a political consultant who said he declined the opportunity.
Soon Laviv and Theumim had subcontracted a host of American lobbying firms to six-figure deals. Many were run by the political allies who had helped Trump’s campaign pull off its shocking win: Adnan Jalil, a congressional liaison for the campaign; Nancye Miller, whose husband, former CIA chief R. James Woolsey Jr., served as a campaign adviser; Bob Dole, the only former Republican presidential nominee to endorse Trump before the GOP convention; and Bob Livingston, a former member of Congress who had endorsed Trump early in his campaign.
Jalil, Woolsey, Dole, and Livingston declined to comment on the record for this article, and Miller has since died.
In emailed statements to public officials, the consultants pitched Congo’s “critical role on the front lines” of the fight against “the expansion of radical Islam,” as well as the government’s interest in economic cooperation.
It was a message that fit the new administration’s broad themes — but it didn’t immediately help Kabila and his allies. Foreign policy in Africa was an all-but-forgotten line item in Trump’s White House. The president didn’t appoint an assistant secretary of state for African affairs until July 2017, or an ambassador to Congo until September. In that vacuum, officials in the National Security Council had “more leeway to dictate policy,” according to a senior NSC official — and they kept a hard line in place. In October, Nikki Haley, then the US ambassador to the UN, visited Kabila in Kinshasa and delivered the message that officials had carried over from the Obama administration. According to a senior NSC official who spoke with her before and after the meeting, Haley threatened economic sanctions and told Kabila, “You’re not running.”
Afp Contributor / Getty Images
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, meets the president of Congo’s election commission, Corneille Nangaa, in Kinshasa in October 2017.
The next month, the Treasury Department banned Gertler, the mining baron, from accessing US banks, alleging that he had “used his close friendship” with Kabila to purchase mining rights from the government at steeply discounted prices. (Gertler has said he won his mining deals fairly.)
Mer needed to aim higher — at the small group of people who held real sway in the administration.
This was becoming a common strategy, said Thomas Shannon, who served as acting secretary of state and undersecretary of state for political affairs under Trump.
Foreign governments “determined there was a backdoor to the White House, and you could get to that backdoor through family and friends,” he told BuzzFeed News. “There was a focus on people who could influence the president one way or another.”
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Congo President Félix Tshisekedi ahead of a bilateral meeting at the State Department in 2020
FACE TIME AND COCKTAILS
What Mer’s lobbyists needed above all was face time, something they found at the Opportunity Africa Summit in Washington in July 2018. As the purple and orange sky darkened over the Hay-Adams hotel, attendees ate crab cakes and sipped cocktails on a wraparound balcony overlooking the White House and the Washington Monument. The night’s featured speaker was Raymond Tshibanda, foreign minister of Congo, who pitched the country’s mineral reserves and potential as a “strategic partner.”
The summit was the brainchild of Robert Stryk, a former Trump adviser whose firm Mer paid $1.5 million. He had a growing reputation for having access to the president’s inner circle.
Stryk, who declined to comment for this story, and his team invited dozens of investors, government officials, and associates of the administration to the Congo summit, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“We pinpointed a few high-level influential Americans,” Laviv said. “Three or four of them said they would come, but at the end of the day only one did.”
That was Rudy Giuliani.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
The event came to light in a New York Times article a few months later, with the Congolese ambassador, François Balumuene, indicating that Giuliani might participate in diplomatic affairs between the two countries. “What I know is that it is possible that Giuliani will let us know how to go ahead,” he told the Times.
Balumuene walked back that statement in a 2019 interview with BuzzFeed News. He said that he has never met or spoken with Giuliani and claimed that his quote in the Times was “wrong” and the result of “some confusion.” Giuliani told the Times his only interest in Congo was for “security consulting.”
Laviv spoke to Giuliani at the event. Even though the purpose of the reception was to promote Congo, Laviv told BuzzFeed News that he and Giuliani didn’t discuss any matters related to the country. Laviv said the former New York City mayor wasn’t involved in any Congo lobbying efforts, adding that he only went up to Giuliani so he could shake his hand and ask for a photo.
“He’s a personal hero of mine since 9/11,” Laviv said.
A Congolese official and two consultants on Mer’s team provided a different perspective on Giuliani, saying he was one of the lobbying campaign’s primary targets.
That meshed with Mer’s larger goal to get a “back channel” conversation going with the White House to discuss Kabila’s plans for an election, according to a high-level Mer operative involved in the project. Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Through that back channel, the Trump administration made clear it still wanted Kabila to step down, the operative said. So Mer helped Kabila come up with a “creative solution,” the operative said.
With a few months to go before the new December 2018 election date, Kabila announced he would not be running. But that didn’t mean he’d be going away. Behind the scenes, he negotiated a secret power-sharing arrangement with one of the candidates, Félix Tshisekedi, according to five people: the Mer operative, the Congolese official, a Kabila administration official, an adviser to Tshisekedi, and the ex–military official in touch with current security agents. Laviv said no such agreement existed.
Tshisekedi’s father, who ran against Kabila in 2011 and lost, had been the leader of the opposition coalition until his death in 2017. Tshisekedi wasn’t as popular as his father, but he was a credible opposition figure, making him an ideal choice for such a deal.
Unlike his father, Tshisekedi was willing to compromise with Kabila. “The son learned from the father and his mistakes,” the Congolese official, a member of Tshisekedi’s administration, told BuzzFeed News.
In exchange for delivering the election to Tshisekedi, Kabila would get to appoint certain Cabinet ministers, as Reuters first reported, and keep his coalition’s legislative majority.
The plan would help Kabila’s wealthy allies in the mining industry, too. The most popular opposition leader in the race, Martin Fayulu, was promising to crack down on mining deals that siphoned off the country’s natural riches; he proposed revising the mining code and prosecuting government officials implicated in kickbacks. Tshisekedi had made no such promise.
American civil servants in the State Department were unaware of the scheme, instead expecting Kabila to back his own party’s candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, four US officials said.
Then, a few weeks before the election, American officials made a startling discovery: evidence suggesting that the president of Congo’s election commission, Corneille Nangaa, had embezzled upward of $100 million from his budget. Nangaa could not be reached for comment.
John Wessels / AFP via Getty Images
Corneille Nangaa leaves a joint meeting with the main presidential candidates and the African Union on Jan. 2, 2019, in Kinshasa.
The Kabila regime had been trying to present Nangaa to Washington as an unbiased, independent official representing the country’s commitment to democracy — an idea that Mer had pitched to Kabila, according to the Mer operative. Mer and Kabila had hoped to introduce Nangaa to US officials to soothe their concerns about the election and “create an international umbrella for Kabila” that would protect him from potential allegations of manipulating the results, the operative said.
Months earlier, Mer had contacted Reset Public Affairs, an American firm, to inquire whether it was interested in representing Nangaa, a consultant from the company told BuzzFeed News. Reset agreed and brought a second firm, the Madison Group, into the project, consultants from both companies said. They signed contracts for a combined $75,000 with Congo’s election commission, according to federal disclosure documents.
The two consultants told BuzzFeed News they were in regular contact with Mer. “They were hands-on in the sense that they wanted to know constantly, ‘How’s it going? Are you having success?’” one of them said.
Mer is not listed on public filings for those contracts. And, the consultant said, the only check they had received was from Congo’s election commission — “not from Mer.”
If Nangaa had been revealed to be working with the same company that represented Kabila, it could have tarnished the election commissioner’s independent reputation and the prospects of a fair election.
Asked about Mer’s role in the Nangaa campaign, Laviv told BuzzFeed News that his company “certainly did not lobby for Congo’s election commission in the US.”
Without any knowledge that the lobbyists for Congo’s president were also in touch with the lobbyists for its supposedly independent election commissioner, American officials faced a quandary over how to handle the Nangaa embezzlement allegations. If they put a spotlight on Nangaa, they said, they feared that Kabila might use the scandal to delay the election even longer or attempt some other kind of last-minute power grab by claiming the government needed time to find a new election commissioner.
The American officials decided to put off sanctions until after the election.
Jerome Delay / AP
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi (left) and outgoing president Kabila during the inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa on Jan. 24, 2019.
A RIGGED ELECTION
On Election Day in Congo, lines at polling places began forming at 5 a.m. and stretched past nightfall, through a rainstorm that flooded some precincts in ankle-deep water. Across the country of 84 million, 18 million people voted.
The next day, the regime shut down the internet and news media, a blackout that would continue for 11 days as the country awaited word of the result. Finally, on Jan. 10, the election commission announced that Félix Tshisekedi had defeated Martin Fayulu by 3.7 percentage points.
Almost immediately, election observers from the Catholic Church announced that this didn’t match their extensive exit polls.
Fayulu’s supporters protested across the country over the next three days. Officers responded by clearing the streets with tear gas and gunfire, killing at least 10 people, including a 9-year-old boy, according to Human Rights Watch investigators. Fayulu demanded a manual recount and appealed the results to the Constitutional Court.
The debate might have faded from there — except somebody leaked voting data showing Fayulu had actually trounced Tshisekedi by 40 points. The church announced that this new result more accurately reflected its exit polling, and an analysis by the Financial Times deemed the leaked documents credible. But on Jan. 20, the Constitutional Court certified the official result anyway.
In a secure conference room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, US officials on the interagency committee in charge of DRC policy debated how to respond. Some State Department officials proposed accepting the result and initiating friendly ties with Tshisekedi. They argued that the fact Congo held an election at all was itself a significant victory, and that the moment required the US to “respect the rules of the game even if you have concerns,” a US diplomat involved in the discussions told BuzzFeed News.
As another official who participated recalled: “This is all happening in real time. There was no way of actually knowing what had transpired other than it was completely unexpected that Kabila would give power to a member of the opposition who represented change that was in the US interest.”
But officials from other departments — the National Security Council, the Treasury Department, and the US Agency for International Development — pushed for a statement expressing “serious doubts” about the result. This would be similar to the position taken by the African Union and the European Union, which were jointly proposing an independent investigation.
At first, the case for “serious doubts” won out. At the root of the apparent consensus was a simple conclusion. “We know the outcome,” the NSC official said, and it showed that Tshisekedi clearly had lost.
On Jan. 22, 2019, the group drafted a statement calling the election “deeply flawed and troubling” and concluding that Congo’s election commission had “failed” in its responsibility, according to three US officials at the meeting and reporting by the news outlet Foreign Policy. All that was left was for the State Department to send out the statement.
But what came out hours later was a complete reversal: “The United States welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court’s certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President,” the statement read.
While encouraging the government to “address reports of electoral irregularities,” the statement accepted the result and praised Kabila’s “commitment to becoming the first President in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.”
Most of the officials who worked on Congo policy found out about the shocking reversal only after the statement was issued.
According to two officials involved in the interagency process, the change had been ordered by Pompeo. The State Department declined to answer questions for this story or allow any officials to speak on the record.
It remains unclear exactly what Mer’s role was in the turnaround. Laviv said his lobbying team had “succeeded,” but he declined to give specifics, saying he only found out the US had accepted the results when the statement came out.
“Both sides have compromised on something,” the Mer operative said. “The United States compromised on the process; Kabila compromised on the end result.”
The Mer operative who described the back channel Mer set up between the Trump administration and the Kabila regime declined to say how the firm had deployed it during the election dispute, or whether it had any effect.
But he did say that the result was something that Mer had been pushing for, that it worked for everyone involved, and that the negotiations continued past the election, up to the day of Tshisekedi’s inauguration. “Both sides have compromised on something,” the Mer operative said. “The United States compromised on the process; Kabila compromised on the end result.”
The US’s reversal had an immediate impact: The budding coalition of African and European nations willing to challenge the election fell apart, as did the plan for an independent investigation. “Our statement stopped all that,” said a State Department official.
With the international community now at bay, Kabila reestablished his hold on the government. His political party took two-thirds of the seats in Congo’s legislature and then dominated Tshisekedi’s Cabinet when it was named after months of negotiations. Of the 65 Cabinet ministers, 42 were members of Kabila’s coalition. The former president’s wealthy ally, Dan Gertler, remains in firm control of his mines and his land, even though he is under sanctions from the US and an investigation by the FBI.
Tshisekedi brought in new security contractors without ties to his predecessor, ending Mer’s official business in Congo. In a recent interview, one US official involved in Congo policy praised his “slow but steady breaking of his alliance with Kabila.” Upon taking office, Tshisekedi released the remaining political prisoners, allowed Fayulu to freely protest the election, and welcomed exiled dissidents back into the country.
Alexis Huguet / Getty Images
Martin Fayulu, a member of the political opposition, greets a crowd of supporters while his convoy is stopped by the police during a protest march in 2019.
But Kabila loyalists continue to run Congo’s military, intelligence agency (the ANR), and presidential security service (the Republican Guard).
“We don’t have the apparatus of control over security and armed forces,” said the Tshisekedi administration official who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Kabila “has people in charge in those places.”
Two foreign consultants who met with government officials in Kinshasa after the election said Tshisekedi hosted his most sensitive meetings outside of the presidential palace out of fear that Kabila had bugged the building.
The Tshisekedi official dismissed those claims as rumors, explaining that the president held meetings outside the palace because he preferred having discussions over meals. There is little doubt, though, that Kabila’s surveillance capabilities continue beyond his presidency.
“He disabled the whole system after the election so that the new administration couldn’t use it,” the technician said.
In his final weeks as president, Kabila transferred Mer software, Huawei interception programs, monitors, cables, and other gear to his private residence on the highlands outside Kinshasa, where “a small team of trusted men” reinstalled the equipment, according to the security technician who worked for him.
“He disabled the whole system after the election so that the new administration couldn’t use it,” the technician said.
A Western intelligence agent confirmed the equipment transfer. A small team of CIA officers and European intelligence agents visited the ANR headquarters in late 2018 while investigating a possible ISIS threat against the US Embassy in Kinshasa, the agent said.
They had used the system before, the agent said. But this time an ANR official informed them that all the agency’s monitoring hardware was gone. Kabila was still the president then, but he would soon be stepping down.
On the top floor of the ANR headquarters, the visitors saw for themselves a clear sign of change: rows of barren desks and loose wires.
“Where did it all go?” the agent recalled asking.
The ANR official replied, “All the systems were sent to the president.” ●