Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan Begins His Charm Offensive

By Eric K. Williams

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is now on the offensive, making what some will call a ‘First Strike,’ or ‘opening salvo,’ to those on the international stage with an ‘Op-Ed’ Piece that appeared in the Washington Post this week.

His opinion piece titled ‘Nothing is more important than bringing home Nigeria’s missing girls,’ is the Nigerian President’s first step in rehabilitating his image, first for local consumption, but more importantly, for lawmakers and policy wonks inside Washington D.C.’s ‘Beltway.’

In a story that first made headlines in THE HILL magazine, the publication reported that the Jonathan Administration had ‘cut’ a $1.2 million U.S. Dollar deal with Levick, a high powered Washington-based Public Relations firm. It is an attempt by Jonathan to ‘spin’ his image, with the upcoming presidential elections eight months away.

“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. 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,” Jonathan wrote in the first paragraph of the Washington Post Op-Ed.

Lanny Davis, an executive vice president at Levick who is also a columnist for The Hill, said Jonathan is committed to the rescue effort.

“For me, after talking to him, the priority for President Jonathan beyond any is finding and bringing home the girls,” Davis said to a staff member at The Hill who broke the story of the $1.2 million dollar PR Contract. “There’s got to be a way to amplify what he’s saying and doing to find these girls because over here in America, we’re not hearing much about his effort.”

What American lawmakers are hearing and seeing out of Nigeria is a mixed message, and actions of perceived ineptness out of Abuja. One key lawmaker who shares that perception is the Arizona Senator John McCain, a Vietnam Veteran and former Prisoner of War. McCain is considered a ‘Hawk’ on U.S. foreign policy, and has found the inaction of the Jonathan government striking in his perceived ‘hapless actions’ in the rescuing of his own citizens. In particular, the Nigerian government’s claim to the outside world that they “know” where the kidnapped Chibok students are being held, but are trying to negotiate with the Boko Haram in spite of continued attacks across Nigeria, and further kidnappings of citizens this week.

“If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in ‘a New York minute’ I would, without permission of the host country,” McCain told ‘The Daily Beast’ newspaper in May, while attending a Republican Party fundraiser in New York. “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan,” he added, referring to the president of Nigeria.

Yet, McCain’s sentiment is shared by many elected officials in the U.S. including a number of Democrats, who spoke with this correspondent off-the-record regarding Nigeria. But that, ‘sending in the troops,’ is easier said than done. Existing law complicates U.S. military intervention in such cases. The Leahy Amendment, for example, bars direct aid to any foreign military guilty of human rights abuses — a charge the State Department has made of the Nigerian military in the past.

Hence, the widely reported corruption within the Nigerian government, an army both out-manned and out gunned by an insurgent Islamist sect, coupled with an unwillingness to move militarily against that sect, has spurred on the Jonathan government to take the extraordinary steps to hire a noted PR firm experts at ‘spin.’

“In Nigeria, there are political, religious and ethnic cleavages to overcome if we are to defeat Boko Haram. We need greater understanding and outreach between Muslims and Christians. We also know that, as it seeks to recruit the gullible, Boko Haram exploits the economic disparities that remain a problem in our country,” President Jonathan continued in his Washington Post Op-Ed piece. “We are addressing these challenges through such steps as bringing stakeholders together and creating a safe schools initiative, a victims’ support fund and a presidential economic recovery program for northeastern Nigeria. We are also committed to ridding our country of corruption and safeguarding human and civil rights and the rule of law.”

One striking part of the charm offensive of note is that Levick is partnering on the $1.2 million dollar contract with Jared Genser, a human rights attorney who primarily represents political prisoners. It is an odd, yet strategic move on the part of the PR firm, which may help to paint the Jonathan administration as ‘victim’ to both the Nigerian public, and international community.

Genser’s client list is impressive, reports The Hill. His list includes the Burmese pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Genser also began representing human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, currently imprisoned in China, months before he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. And now that list includes President Goodluck Jonathan.

“Arbitrary detention is, for better or worse, my specialty,” Genser said, mentioning that it has been about five years since he has worked for a foreign government.

Genser said his decision to work for Nigeria was based on Jonathan’s commitment to taking on Boko Haram.
“In terms of advancing human rights, however, the real work has to be done working with governments that are well meaning but lack the capacity — or as much capacity as they might like — and want to do the right thing,” he said to The Hill magazine.

It is not too difficult to learn about part of the contents and financial breakdown of the Jonathan government’s contract with the Levick firm. It is a ‘fairly sizeable contract’ in terms of overall cost, according to both New York and Washington sources who spoke to this correspondent when looking at PR contracts in both American cities.

Levick will be paid $75,000 per month for its work, in addition to the extra costs of advertisements, video production and website development, and is working for the government through a state-owned media agency.

If members of the firm travel to Nigeria, for example, there will be an additional estimated cost of $22,500 per person. A subcontract with Perseus Strategies is valued at $25,000 per month, bringing the monthly retainer to a total of $100,000.

What is clear is that the ‘charm offensive’ on the part of the Jonathan Administration is now underway, beginning with the Washington Post Op-Ed piece that ran on June 26th. Further efforts to turn the tide for what has been an unexpected turn of events for the Nigerian president will likely be ‘stepped-up.’

What is unclear is how opposition parties, and candidates in Nigeria, will respond to Jonathan’s PR blitz during the upcoming presidential campaign. Will the Levick contract become an issue? Or do the opposition parties, political pundits, critics, and media ‘lack the capacity’ in taking on what is arguably an unprecedented and historic public relations move by an unpopular sitting head of state?


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