Africa, Corruption, Elections, Top Stories

Liberian opposition launches US lobbying campaign against President Weah

Critics of Liberian President George Weah have launched a $180,000 lobbying and public relations campaign to court US support for the opposition.

The Liberia Renaissance Office Inc. (LIROI), a newly formed outfit in Monrovia, has hired a longtime Africa lobbyist and an-ex war crimes prosecutor who helped put away former Liberian President Charles Taylor to head the effort. The Liberian office is led by Sylvester Grigsby, a Minister of State for Presidential Affairs under Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Washington advocacy firm the BW Global Group signed a six-month contract with Grigsby on Aug. 15, according to a new Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing with the US Department of Justice. BW partners Jeffrey Birrell, who lobbied for the Liberia government back in the early 1990s, and Alan White, a former Department of Defense employee and chief investigator for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, are registered as foreign agents on the account.

BW’s goal is to “promote good governance and rule of law in Liberia,” according to the contract with Grigsby, in particular through the US promotion of whichever candidate the Liberia Renaissance Office ends up endorsing for the 2023 presidential election. Grigsby’s group supports the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), a coalition of four political parties that have agreed to get behind a single candidate to be selected in December. They are:

  • The Unity Party led by Johnson Sirleaf’s former Vice President and 2017 presidential candidate Joseph Boakai;
  • The Alternative National Congress, led by former Coca-Cola executive and fellow 2017 presidential candidate Alexander Cummings;
  • The All Liberian Party of Wilfred Benoni Urey, a former Commissioner of Maritime Affairs under Charles Taylor who was under US sanctions for his alleged role in the 1999-2003 civil war until President Barack Obama lifted them; and
  • The Liberty Party led by Senator Nyonblee Karngar-Lawrence, the only woman in the CPP leadership.

Birrell told Foreign Lobby Report that the Liberia Renaissance Office has a US presence and is expected to host Cummings, who resides in the United States, for a visit to Washington next month. The LIROI is also in touch with the other parties and may try to arrange Washington visits for their leaders ahead of the December selection of a unity candidate as well.

BW will also be lobbying for the US to get behind the establishment of a War Crimes and Economic Crimes Court to hold accountable those responsible for the civil wars of 1989-1997 and 1999-2003, as recommended by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission back in 2010. The congressional Tom Lantos Commission held a hearing in support of the court in June (the State Department did not immediately respond to a query about where the Joe Biden administration stands on the issue).

Birrell said Cummings has a leg up with the LIROI because of his support for the court, but a final determination as to which candidate to support has yet to be made. Boakai and Cummings, who came in second and fifth in the 2017 primary, are widely considered the two top contenders to take on President Weah, a former soccer star that critics accuse of failing to tackle entrenched corruption in the West African nation founded by freed US slaves and free-born blacks.

“We represent that group as it goes through the process of deciding which of the four current candidates to back,” Birrell said. “While I’d say that Cummings is somewhat of a favorite due to his support for the war crimes tribunal, the LIROI is working to determine the best person to run against Weah.”

Weah’s government has also been courting Washington. Monrovia has hired three US lobbying and PR firms in recent weeks, including one run by CNN analyst Bakari Sellers, for a total of $660,000 per year to help deepen relations with the US government and African-Americans ahead of the bicentenary of the arrival of the first freed slaves who would eventually declare the independent nation of Liberia in 1847.

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President Weah’s office hires 3 US firms to boost Liberia’s profile

They join KRL International, a consulting firm led by former Johnson Sirleaf campaign adviser Riva Levinson who is now lobbying for Weah’s government although the two political leaders are from rival factions. Meanwhile Brownstein Hyatt this spring signed a $25,000-per-month contract with the Liberia Maritime Authority, the public corporation that manages all commercial activities within the West African nation’s maritime domain, with former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) notably working on the account.

Royce also lobbies for the Liberian International Ship & Corporate Registry (LISCR), a US company that manages Liberia’s ship registry, a major source of revenue for the cash-strapped country. DLA Piper also signed up as a foreign agent for the registry last month, registering two former US sanctions officials for help with “sanctions, compliance, international trade, and strategic business growth advice.”

Liberia is the world’s second most popular “flag of convenience”, behind only Panama, allowing more than 3,700 foreign-owned ships to register under its flag. The country has long battled what it calls the “outdated” reputation for poor safety records and tax dodging associated with the flag of convenience term.

Finally, Cummings’ Alternative National Congress registered a branch in Atlanta, ANC-Global, Inc.., back in October 2019 to “promote the democratic ideas of The Alternative National Congress of Liberia (ANC Liberia), and to seek support from Liberians, to help ANC Liberia.” Cummings himself previously paid $425,000 in fees and expenses to New Jersey public relations firm the MWW Group for help with his 2017 bid.