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U.S. public relations, consulting firms find political gold in Nigeria

Election, Boko Haram terrorism threat create opportunity for Democrat-linked advisers

- - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

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.

"In May 2014 we were asked to support two visits — to London and Washington, D.C. — for APC officials," the firm said in a statement to The Times. "We supported the London visit, but the Washington, D.C., visit never took place. All work was concluded by the end of May 2014."

As APC has moved to aggressively use American political and public relations expertise, President Jonathan and his ruling PDP party have tapped some help of their own.

After the Nigerian president struggled for weeks to respond to the Boko Haram kidnappings, enduring criticism across the globe, his administration hired Levick, a political and legal crisis managing firm where Mr. Davis works.

Mr. Davis gained worldwide fame in the 1990s when he was the public spokesman defending Bill Clinton during the fundraising and sex scandals that engulfed the White House. Mr. Davis' books have become blueprints for crisis communication classes, and his emphasis on deflating bad news in advance and "owning" tough stories by telling them preemptively has garnered a big following in the private sector. For much of the last decade, he has represented clients engulfed in scandal, such as Penn State University in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case.

Mr. Davis and his team were hired by President Jonathan's administration this summer to provide international media advice. The president was already getting advice from Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's 2004 upstart presidential campaign and Mr. Jonathan's first election effort in 2011.

Almost immediately after Mr. Davis' firm arrived, the Nigerian president was seen going on offense after months of silence about the Boko Haram kidnappings created the impression he wasn't concerned or engaged. In response, Mr. Jonathan placed an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he declared that silence does not indicate inaction.

"I have had to remain quiet about the continuing efforts by Nigeria's military police and investigators to find the girls," he wrote. "I am deeply concerned, however, that my silence as we work to accomplish the task at hand is being misused by partisan critics to suggest inaction or even weakness."

On the eve of President Obama's major U.S.-Africa summit last week, Mr. Jonathan held an off-the-record breakfast with key American reporters, then granted an impromptu hotel room interview on the record with The Washington Times in which the Nigerian president disclosed for the first time that he was reaching out to Boko Haram through third parties in an effort to secure the girls' safe release.

Mr. Davis was in the room for the interview. And when the president went off script a bit, suggesting he was "negotiating" for the girl's release and suggesting U.S. efforts to secure the children's release had produced few results, Mr. Davis was fast to clarify the remarks.

"The president is not negotiating with Boko Haram. He is, however, encouraging dialogue between the sect and the government," Mr. Davis explained.

In fact, Western public relations firms have become so prominent that government ministries are hiring their own public relations firms independently of one another.

For instance, Levick is working for the News Agency of Nigeria, whereas the administration's Ministry of Finance has hired former U.S. Ambassador Adam Ereli, a retired and respected career diplomat who now serves as vice chairman for the Mercury Group strategy firm in Washington. Mr. Trippi was engaged by President Jonathan's re-election campaign, while Burson and AKPD were hired by the opposition party, APC.

Of all the firms, Levick was most willing to describe its work to The Times.

"Levick was engaged to widely disseminate the facts about President Jonathan's effort to find the Chibok girls and the dangers of Boko Haram in the larger context of the global war on terror," explained Phil Elwood, a vice president at Levick.

"By merging public relations and public diplomacy, our mission is to both alter false perceptions of those in the media while providing Nigeria with advice to communicate to the international community their leadership in combating terrorism, respecting global human rights norms and promoting government transparency," he said.

Mr. Davis declined to comment directly on his specific work in Nigeria but acknowledged that the Boko Haram crisis, a growing economy and a competitive election opened the door for more American consulting business and image-making.

"Nigeria is now an engine," he said. "It has emerged as the largest economy in Africa, and it is not just about energy and oil, it's about image. It realizes it has to get its facts out to the global media," he said.

The emergence of a robust opposition party also signifies Nigeria's democracy is healthy, he added.

"That's not bad news for the Goodluck Jonathan government; it's good news. Unlike other African countries, this country faces a very real election contest and campaign. That means if Goodluck Jonathan loses the election, there will be no tanks and guns, which is good news for everyone," he said.