Can lobbying and pursuing foreign powers resolve everything?

Not much has been gained even by amping up its lobbying

A report appeared in the newspapers that foreign minister AK Abdul Momen has requested those who hired lobbyists abroad in order to put pressure on the government, to first think about the country. While replying to journalists at the foreign ministry in Dhaka on Monday, he addressed those hiring lobbyists, saying, "For God's sake, don't destroy the country."

He also said that the lobbyists that the government had appointed in the US in Bangladesh's interests, had also been dropped. This statement of the foreign minister has significance in the lobbying debate. It would be good if the foreign minister had made public the details of this lobbying -- which lobbyist was hired, for which individual, party and the government, for how long, and at what expenditure. The foreign press had reported about a third country appealing for US support, but he offered no logical explanation about this matter.

If the government really cancelled the contract, then the foreign minister deserves thanks. After all, the work it did with five or more lobbyist companies yielded no results. The country gained nothing, other than a wastage of funds. And it wouldn't be far from the truth to say that such lobbying simply served to tarnish the image of the government, actually. An example of such waste is, using the services of BGR Government Affairs LLC to publicise the government's development work. Recipients of their relevant e-mails in this regard include journalists working in Dhaka. It seems that the main task of these lobbyist firms is to counter any criticism of the opposition or other critics published in the foreign press, by rattling off a list of failures of the past governments.

According to the statement presented by the Friedlander Consulting Group LLC, they had strived to arrange a meeting between the foreign minister and five senators and also lobbied for a few hundreds of Congressmen to put up a resolution in the Congress in commemoration of 50 years of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the US.

Finally on 22 May last year, a resolution was raised in the House of Representatives, but only by two members -- Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Amata Coleman. The resolution was sent to the committee for foreign affairs. The foreign minister will best be able to say how far this has served to brighten the country's image. We will have to wait a few more months to see whether the government's contract with the lobbyists has actually been cancelled or not. The lobbyists publish details of their work and income three or four times a year. The e-files updated in June indicate that till April the contract hadn't been cancelled.

Whenever there is a talk about the election and anti-government movements, the issue of lobbying comes to the forefront of discussions. Whenever a friend state or any foreign organisation calls for a free and fair election or talks about protecting fundamental civil rights and human rights when facing a movement, allegations are made that the opposition has lobbied abroad against the country and the government. Before the last election in 2018, such allegations were probed and it was found that lobbying had been carried out by all quarters, not just the opposition.

Information on the lobbying carried out by BNP, Awami League and the government over the past few decades can easily be found on the Department of Justice's website under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). It was also seen that a private firm had lobbied for Jamaat at the time. But when it came to expenditure, it was seen that when Awami League was in the opposition it paid around eight times more (USD 1.26 million) than BNP (USD 160,000 in three years).

In December 2021 when the US imposed sanctions on a section of Bangladesh's law enforcement, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and seven of its officials, the government decided to lobby strongly against this. On 5 January 2022, an appeal was made to the government at the parliamentary standing committee for the foreign ministry, to appoint lobbyists in the US, though already several lobbyists were working on behalf of the government at the time.

The government hasn't gained much even by amping up its lobbying. On the contrary, one sanction has been followed by threats of a similar sort

According to an official website of the US government, even at that time the government spent at least USD 320,000 (Tk2.75 crore) on lobbying a year.

A few days after this appeal of the parliamentary standing committee, the state minister for foreign affairs told the parliament, BNP had spent USD 2 million in three years (nearly Tk 17 crore). Then it was learnt that Bangladesh Bank was investigating how BNP had sent that money overseas. BNP denied the allegations and eventually it was never learnt whether anything was found in Bangladesh Bank's investigations.

It is perhaps surprising that there is no information on the US Department of Justice's website about BNP or any other opposition party lobbying in the US over the past three years. The last bit of information was on 1 February 2021, about a deal with Blue Star Strategies being cancelled. A certain Abdus Sattar in the UK, in August 2018 had hired a lobbyist for BNP. The Blue Star Strategies' statements reveal that in January 2019, a letter signed by BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir had been sent to a few top politicians and officials of the US, asking for an inquiry into the irregularities committed during the election. But there was no more information of BNP lobbying after the deal was cancelled in February.

Even more surprising is that member of parliament Tahzeeb Alam Siddique hired a lobbyist. He signed a three-year deal with Ice Miller LLP last March, spending USD 162,000 for the purpose. The details of the agreement show that he had appointed a lobbyist to personally improve relations with the US.

Without any visible lobbying in the US, the opposition is automatically getting the benefits of pressure from foreign quarters. They are being able to hold public meetings and rallies. Police persecution has lessened to a degree

The question is, did Bangladesh Bank give him the approval to take this sum of money overseas? He is the proprietor of a private power generation plant. But is that the source of his taking money overseas for political purposes? Or was there any other source? Does the foreign minister's appeal apply to him too?

There are two matters very clear if we analyse this lobbying-related information. Firstly, the government hasn't gained much even by amping up its lobbying. On the contrary, one sanction has been followed by threats of a similar sort. If the election is not free and fair or if a democratic election does not take place, many of those involved will not be able to visit their friends and family in the US, have the opportunity to send their offspring to study abroad or look for business opportunities there.

Secondly, without any visible lobbying in the US, the opposition is automatically getting the benefits of pressure from foreign quarters. They are being able to hold public meetings and rallies. Police persecution has lessened to a degree.

If the government really feels that there is no use in spending money on lobbying, this can be viewed positively. But the support and assistance of the democratic world cannot be availed without the effective restoration of democracy and the ensuring of human rights and the rule of law. Resisting a free and fair election in the name of possible instability, with the support of a handful of allies would result in even deeper and longer term crisis. So, it is a political solution that is required for the political crisis.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir