For decades, Americans have sought oil riches in Nigeria. But now the rise of a new opposition party, a competitive election in 2015 and a serious terrorism threat in that African nation have created political gold for U.S. public relations and election-consulting firms.
Firms such as AKPD Message and Media, co-founded by Obama adviser David Axelrod, Burson-Marsteller, once headed by Clinton adviser Mark Penn, and Levick, led by Clinton confidant Lanny Davis, have all been hired in recent months by various political figures and government institutions in Nigeria.
The onslaught of U.S. advisers, many with Democratic connections to the Obama administration, comes as Nigeria’s emergence as the continent’s largest economy has been overshadowed by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram’s kidnappings of more than 200 schoolgirls this spring.
“The abducted girls put Nigeria on the world media stage more than any other event in its history,” Mr. Davis told The Washington Times, discussing the general landscape in the country without divulging the focus of his private work. “It’s a Page 1 story around the world. It doesn’t happen to Nigeria very often. It’s a tragedy, and that is one reason why the president and his re-election people believe it is necessary to tell his story.”
The opportunity for American advisers is clearly found in the Foreign Agents Registration Act filings at the Department of Justice. Over the last eight years, there have been 24 reports filed by American firms documenting foreign agent work for Nigeria, 11 of them in just the last year.
The sudden influx is creating some mistrust, and even some conspiracy theories, in the Nigerian press. The Nigerian Tribune, for instance, recently suggested that the country’s new political opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, hired an American firm to exploit the current government’s struggles in trying to free 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram.
“The APC is believed to be moving to reap huge political capital out of alleged inaction of the Nigerian Government in the efforts aimed at securing the release of the girls,” the newspaper reported July 25.
The American firms dismiss such speculation, saying their work is far more targeted and more a reflection of the fact that next year’s presidential election is viewed as competitive after nearly two decades of one-party rule in the country. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has gone undefeated and emerged victorious four times in 15 years.
The rise of the All Progressives Congress as a legitimate opposition has changed the equation inside the country — and the opportunity for American firms outside it.
For instance, AKPD, the Chicago political firm founded by Mr. Axelrod that helped power President Obama to victory in 2008, was brought in late last year to help the APC stand up as an opposition party.
Though Mr. Axelrod departed the AKPD in 2009 when he joined the White House and currently owns no stake in it, the hiring still created a stir since a U.S. firm with deep ties to Mr. Obama was aiding the political party trying to unseat the current Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, with whom Mr. Obama currently must deal.
Isaac Baker, a spokesman for AKPD, said the firm’s contract with the APC ended in March, a month before the kidnapping of the schoolgirls catapulted Nigeria struggles with the Boko Haram into worldwide headlines.
“AKPD worked with the APC from December 2013 to March 2014,” Mr. Baker wrote to the Times in an email. “We helped them as they worked to form a new political opposition party and create a platform in advance of their first national convention. We were no longer working with the APC when the Boko Haram kidnapping of the young girls took place.”
Mr. Baker did not offer an explanation as to why the firm’s work stopped.
Likewise, Burson-Marsteller, one of the West’s largest public relations firms that, until 2012, was headed by longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn, filed a report this spring registering as a U.S. foreign agent representing APC inside the United States. A month or so into the engagement, however, the firm said the work had already ended.