Kenya’s annulled 2017 presidential elections were perhaps Africa’s most expensive in recent history, with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main challenger Raila Odinga spending millions of dollars on their respective campaigns. Both men contracted internationally respected public relations firms which, through forward facing broadcast media, data mining and the manipulation of once-thought sacrosanct public bodies, aimed to change opinions and turn the tide in the favour of their candidate.
This is a trend now common worldwide and not limited only to the electoral process. For instance, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) is purported to be a ‘non government organisation’, but is widely believed to have deep ties to Russian influence. The Committee betrays Armenia’s post-Soviet nation’s longstanding tradition as a proxy to its former motherland.
In Latin America, the hit documentary ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ exposed the intricate detail involved in public perception and the manipulation of public opinion in Bolivia. North American contractors allegedly held focus groups, involving interviewees who faked tears in a deliberate attempt to pervert the minds of the people.
Ultimately, the art of ‘influence’ is an evolving one, in which longstanding institutions have had their mission statements rewritten to either the highest bidder or the opaque ‘powers that be’, those that host the ability to cut off funding if their respective wishes are not adhered to, both in the public eye and behind the scenes.
I recently had a conversation with James Wilson, an advisor to several African leaders and the Founding Director of the International Foundation of Better Governance regarding the state of influence of geopolitics to date.
What are your opinions regarding public relations or public affairs practitioners operating with relative impunity in the narratives of foreign countries?
There’s no denying it; public relations companies must be more responsible and transparent in the way they operate; look at the fallout of Bell Pottinger, which originally stemmed from South African provocations of ‘Economic Apartheid’, undertaken by undercover operatives from Britain portraying themselves to be aggrieved, black South African nationals.
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Such cases of ‘smoke and mirrors’ stoke deeply ingrained cultural tensions which could lead to physical turmoil and violence, albeit originally commissioned to pivot attention in this case from the Gupta family’s indoctrination of public bodies into a climate of ‘State Capture’.
We see Public Affairs Associations now popping up out of the woodwork to aim to check these imbalances. But only through public sector support can we achieve lasting change.
Russia has been alleged to be responsible for ‘election meddling’ during the 2016 Presidential race between now-U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton. We see RT registering as a foreign agent and bear witness as perhaps a knee-jerk reaction, to NGOs from once proxy-client States to Russia pursuing the Kremlin’s interests in the United States. How does one not only take seriously the motivations of NGOs such as ANCA, but also decipher fact from fiction, as they continue to successfully influence the halls of Congress?
When you talk about ‘Russian collusion’, I think we need to analyse the terminology. Look at Tulsi Gabbard, for example; for many Democrats, a leader in the making. She has made clear her controversial stance on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, where she does not assign blame to him for the chemical attacks that have devastated his own country. She lambasted President Trump for his missile strikes in the victims’ defence, warning of a possible nuclear war between the United States and Russia. She has also taken an aggressive stance in support of Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. What are her motivations, specifically? Does she only like people whom Vladimir Putin approves of?
Then you look at newly filed court documents confirming that Fusion GPS, the company mostly responsible for the controversial “Trump dossier”, made payments to three journalists between 2016 and 2017. At least two people have accused Fusion GPS of running smear campaigns by planting stories in the media via friendly journalists. Bill Browder, who was instrumental in initiating and promoting the Magnitsky Act through Congress, has made that accusation directly.
Adam Schiff, a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, tasked with investigating Russian influence in the U.S., a vocal supporter of Armenia, is well aware that Armenia is squarely within Russia’s sphere of influence, and is “a striking modern-day paradigm, similar to the former Soviet Union’s Cold War satellites”, capable of shaping influence.
Congressional influence by NGOs-turned-lobbying shops such as the ANCA is confusing. There have been controversially funded trips to Armenia undertaken by diplomats from the Mayor of Los Angeles to Congressmen from Colorado and it is difficult to distinguish fact from fabrication, when analysing allegations about Russian influence in Washington DC. It is essential to be vigilant and critical in looking at the facts.
Do you think the era of “Big Men” is coming to an end? Take Venezuela and Zimbabwe as examples. With these two dictators relegated to the annals of history, what does the future look like in terms of democracy in these emerging markets?
Venezuela is tragically on the brink of collapse under Maduro at present. There is en masse poverty and starvation, which begets the criminal element spreading across the country. There is mass exodus as a result; it’s a near ‘Failed State’. Only when those in ALBA who idolise the tenets of Chavez and the cronyism and false nationalism which came with it, which not only allowed the man to climb the rungs of power but stay there until his death, re-think their positions for the greater good and for their territorial integrity themselves, will this endemic state of affairs change.
In Zimbabwe, we see more of the same. President Mnangagwa has nowassumed power and the ‘Crocodile’ as he is sometimes referred to might just be as brutal as his predecessor.
While I doubt anyone will repeat the misguided behavior of the reviled former despot Robert Mugabe, I believe much pressure must be put on the powers that be within his ZANU PF, both at home and abroad to ensure future accountability, the strength of the democratic process and receptiveness to multilateral partnerships so as to refill the ‘Breadbasket of Africa’.
What are your thoughts or takeaways in order to ‘right the ship’ and force entities such as RT, ANCA, the Zimbabwe Herald, Swazi Observer, and those misguided bodies to make clear their intentions in the countries and regions in which they presently operate?
The United States, and in particular, the Trump Administration, needs to redefine ‘Collusion’ by foreign bodies and re-assess the extent the network that the Kremlin has been controlling from its halls on down via NGOs and broadcasting houses in Washington, those that have long operated unabated, have already permeated our daily news cycle and seek to check these imbalances from the truth.
‘Fake News’ thrives in post-colonial African states now dominated by Chinese MNCs who bring their own labour force or otherwise are purported to abuse corporate and human rights and our environment at large in their exploitative extraction processes. We must see the news in these countries for what it is and what it isn’t and understand this – that the art of manipulation is a descendant of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’.