Political Handlers With Trump Ties Take Their Election Playbooks to Africa

ABUJA, Nigeria — When a Nigerian presidential candidate landed in the United States in January after years of being subject to a visa ban because of corruption allegations, he had a team of Western consultants and lobbyists to thank for the warm American welcome.

One of those who helped was Riva Levinson, who was mentored in the art of political consulting by Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Trump’s presidential campaign, sentenced this month to more than seven years in prison for a host of crimes.

Ms. Levinson, who now has her own firm, KRL International, is among the many American political consultants with ties to President Trump who have become regular fixtures in African political campaigns, seizing on the region’s turn toward democracy.

For decades, countries in sub-Saharan Africa changed governments through coups that left military juntas in charge. But increasingly, in places like Nigeria, elections are supposed to determine the will of the people, though sometimes they are not fully free and fair.

Yet as elections become more common and competitive — complete with polling and social media campaigns — African candidates are hiring Western firms to sway voters and influence the media coverage of their candidacies.

Consultants with perceived ties to Mr. Trump are especially valued by their political clients, even in countries that he disparaged with a vulgar phrase, and which are largely off his administration’s foreign policy radar.

From the sidelines at a recent election event in Nigeria, Ms. Levinson reminisced about the old days when Mr. Manafort would dispatch her across the globe to enlist unsavory leaders and help them clean up their international reputations, for a hefty fee.

“Paul was a master strategist. He could hover above at 30,000 feet and see how all of the moving parts fit together, and then move each one with precision,” she recalled. “I learned that from him, and he gave me a front-row seat to watch history. I’m grateful to him for this.”

“They also seek to manipulate the election narrative by planting press stories or neutralizing negative narratives on social media,” Mr. Page said.

In Nigeria, the opposition party also tapped another consulting firm, Ballard Partners, to help facilitate meetings for Mr. Abubakar on Capitol Hill as part of a $90,000 a month contract. Brian D. Ballard, the firm’s owner, was a top fund-raiser in the Trump campaign.

This month the government of Zimbabwe hired Ballard Partners on a contract worth $500,000 to improve relations with the United States, according to government filings.

Longtime African election observers say that in the region, opportunities abound for Western firms to take advantage of editorial standards at local newspapers that can be less rigorous than in other parts of the world. They also can manipulate social media in ways tested and refined in recent elections in the West.

Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit consultancy, built a client base by working for the opposition for free in Gambia, where one of the region’s most brutal and longest-serving presidents was ousted in 2016.

For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the opinions of officials on the other side of the globe matter. Western governments can offer millions of dollars in aid to alleviate extreme poverty, and military training and weaponry to fight Islamist insurgencies.

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