By Hayes Brown
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Friday, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan pushed back on criticisms that his efforts to find more than 200 missing schoolgirls has been ineffective. This plum placement comes, however, just days after signing a lucrative contract with a Washington PR firm to help fix the Jonathan government’s lagging reputation in the aftermath of the crisis.
“I have had to remain quiet about the continuing efforts by Nigeria’s military, police and investigators to find the girls kidnapped in April from the town of Chibok by the terrorist group Boko Haram,” Jonathan wrote in his op-ed. “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. My silence has been necessary to avoid compromising the details of our investigation. But let me state this unequivocally: My government and our security and intelligence services have spared no resources, have not stopped and will not stop until the girls are returned home and the thugs who took them are brought to justice.”
Those critiques, as the government has so far been stumbling in its fight against Boko Haram, have been admittedly harsh at times. So harsh, in fact, that the Nigerian government has turned to outside help to shore up its international reputation. According to documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and as first reported at The Hill, Nigeria has hired the Washington, DC public relations firm Levick to promote its image abroad and in Nigeria. Eleanor McManus, who will be working on the Nigerian case for Levick, confirmed to ThinkProgress that her firm did place today’s op-ed from Jonathan in the Washington Post.
Technically, the contract is between Levick and the News Agency of Nigeria, the country’s state-run news agency. Per the FARA documents, Levick began charging the Nigerian government at the rate of $100,000 per month over the course of the next year for its services starting on June 16. According to the contract between the firm and Nigeria, Levick will provide “government affairs and communications counsel with the primary objective of changing the international and local media narrative” on a number of issues. These include, as quoted from the contract:
The Government of Nigeria’s efforts to find and safely return the more than 200 girls abducted by the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, in the Borno State of Nigeria
Assisting the Government’s efforts to mobilize international support in fighting Boko Haram as part of the greater global war on terror.
Communicating the President Goodluck Jonathan Administration’s past, present and future priority to foster transparency, democracy, and the rule of law throughout Nigeria.
“A more comprehensive approach, using vehicles, such as public diplomacy and engaging outside experts to enact real changes, is how the advocacy industry is evolving,” Phil Elwood, a vice president at Levick, told The Hill. “A communications strategy alone is not enough to solve the complex and multifaceted problems facing some of the more controversial nations.”
In addition, Nigeria is also engaging Perseus Strategies, a law firm centered around the promotion of human rights, as a subcontract of its work with Levick to the tune of an additional $25,000 per month. Jared Genser, the lawyer at the heart of Perseus, has previously had such clients as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and currently represents Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. This is in contrast to some of the past associations of Levick vice president Lanny Davis, who will be working on the Nigerian case along with several others, who made a name for himself around Washington for representing more repressive governments, including Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang and for a period Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo.
The use of PR firms to place op-eds and other commentary from world leaders is not a rarity. Last year, the New York Times published a controversial op-ed from Russian president Vladimir Putin critiquing U.S. foreign policy and the threat of military action against Syria. As Buzzfeed reported, public relations firm Ketchum was behind the placement of the piece, as part of its broader contract with the Russian government. McManus, when speaking with ThinkProgress, would not confirm whether the Washington Post was the first outlet contacted for Jonathan’s op-ed.
As for the effect that the new PR blitz will actually have on changing the narrative, Africa hands are skeptical. Political parties in Nigeria have previously hired foreign firms to help manage their reputation in the past, both from Jonathan’s PDP and the opposition APC. But the timing is really suspect, one development professional recently returned from Nigeria told ThinkProgress, due to Wednesday’s explosion in a well-off neighborhood in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, that most observers believe Boko Haram perpetrated. “It’s just a really inopportune time, hiring a PR firm while Abuja is literally burning,” she said.
Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Colby College, also pointed to the Abuja explosion as a reason that the timing of Levick’s hiring and the Washington Post op-ed is problematic. “I don’t think any efforts that Jonathan makes in Nigeria will be effective unless there’s a significant change,” she said. The audience for Levick’s efforts aren’t Nigerians, she said, saying that “people on the ground are going to look at [Jonathan’s op-ed] and laugh, they’re going to not believe it, because it’s not reflective of the reality.”
“I don’t think most Nigerians are going to be very convinced,” Seay continued, noting that the money spent on hiring Levick would be better spent equipping the forces in northern Nigeria combating Boko Haram. In the aftermath of the kidnapping two months ago, soldiers repeatedly told reporters of the lack of morale among the army in the face of the much better armed fighters in Boko Haram. “As one Nigerian told me when I was there, they hire these guys for the army, so they recruit,” the development professional said, “So they have these recruiting drives, then they send the boys up there to northern Nigeria with no bullets. How can you fight against against terrorists who have armored personnel carriers with no bullets?”
As for the declarations of Gesner and Davis that Jonathan has been taken on as a client because he, as Gesner said, “has said clearly to us that he wants results,” there’s also skepticism. “It’s not gonna change a thing,” the development professional said, adding that Nigerians on the ground are very distrustful of the government, especially when it comes to Boko Haram. Such a shift in actions from Jonathan would be a major change, Seay said, one that would certainly be a response to international pressure, particularly the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. “But Jonathan has allowed this situation to fester for his entire term in office,” she said, noting that he hasn’t taken the concrete steps on the ground that are necessary to fix it.” This, on top of the disparity between how securely Nigerian politicians live compared to the average Nigerian who are targeted in Boko Haram’s attack, causes the idea that reforms are soon coming to “ring hollow,” Seay said.