A Nigerian newspaper has reported that the government of the West African nation has hired an American lobby firm to ‘launder’ its image after it was internationally criticised for not doing enough to locate over 200 schoolchildren abducted by a militant group, Boko Haram, from the northern Nigerian town of Chibok. The girls were taken by the militants into dense jungle near the Nigerian border with Cameroon in April and have still not being found.
Online newspaper Premium Times, in a report filed via African news aggregate AllAfrica.com, claimed that the government of Preisdent Goodluck Jonathan has taken on the services of a U.S. public relations outfit. The lobby firm will be paid 195 million naira (GBP £702,721; USD $1,195,926) to tender its services, which the Nigerian politicians will help improve their shattered reputation on the world stage. The firm, identified in the report simply as ‘Levick’, plans to help change “international and local media narrative” surrounding the quest to free the missing children, which the Premium Times report described as “inept handling”. The newspaper also condemned the hiring of Levick by Nigeria as an attempt to whitewash the government’s handling of the abduction. The girls were made to change their religion by their captors from Boko Haram, a group which is waging war on the federal government in Abuja in order to impose religious law,and the instigator of the crime has threatened to marry them off to his fighters as well as sell them abroad.
Militants from the highly dangerous Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is sinful” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language, forced the girls into waiting trucks seventy days ago just as they were about to sit their final secondary school examinations. Around fifty-three managed to escape the militants and fled on foot to safety. Most of the girls had been staying in the dormitories of the Government Secondary School in Chibok when they were taken prisoner.
A couple of weeks later, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video in which he addressed Nigerian politicians. The video, bilingually narrated in Arabic and Hausa, depicted Shekau speaking to camera and threatening to sell the Chibok children into slavery. He also made an offer to release the girls in return for Boko Haram fighters currently incarcerated in the country’s jails. Another video showed the girls dressed in Islamic clothing. By then they had allegedly been split into two groups to evade discovery, and no word on their condition has been lately announced.
Nigeria’s government has come under severe criticism both locally and internationally for its lethargic handling of the Chibok crisis. Foreign governments, notably Britain and the United States, have sent planes and advisors to help locate the missing girls but with little success. This prompted the ruling party, The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to lay the blame on the opposition for making matters worse by them setting up a campaign in the media aimed at discrediting the PDP. To add to the government’s woes, the United States allegedly released a statement this past Wednesday urging Nigerians to hold their leaders accountable for the abject failure in liberating the abducted schoolgirls two months on from the incident. Boko Haram meanwhile has continued to carry out terrorist atrocities in Nigeria including a fatal bombing of a bus station in the capital Abuja a few weeks ago that killed more than 70 commuters.
According to American political paper The Hill, which publishes matters at the heart of the US Capitol, the Levick firm will also be “assisting the government’s efforts to mobilize [sic] international support in fighting Boko Haram as part of the greater war on terror” as well as effecting “real change” in Nigeria. A Levick company vice-president, Phil Elwood, told The Hill “A communications strategy alone is not enough to solve the complex and multifaceted problems facing some of the more controversial nations”. Fellow Levick employee Lanny Davis, the company’s executive vice-president, added “For me, after talking to him, the priority for President Jonathan beyond any [doubt] is finding and bringing home the girls,…”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,” Davis added.
Levick will also be working with the human rights lawyer Jared Genser, who has worked on cases alongside notable human rights activists such as South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu,as well as Myanmari pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Genser will help the PR firm publicise “President Goodluck Jonathan Administration’s past, present and future priority to foster transparency, democracy and the rule of law throughout Nigeria”.
Genser told The Hill that he took the job following Mr Jonathan’s commitment to tackle 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.
“At the end of the day, the [Nigerian] president has said clearly to us that he wants results,” he said.
“I would not sit here and pretend that we are singlehandedly going to rescue the girls, that’s not our role,” Genser added. “What we can do is, we can provide advice and support about how to do so in accordance with international human rights norms and standards,” he further added.
The public relations contract between the Jonathan administration and Levick will also incorporate ‘extra costs’ for advertisements, video productions and website designs via an unnamed state-owned multimedia agency. In addition, Levick will receive an extra 3,487,500 naira ($22,500) if one of its staff needs to make a business trip to Nigeria.
The hiring of the PR firm to handle the scandal came to light after a respected public relations industry site, http://www.holmesreport.com first mentioned the Nigerian government’s search for a suitable agency to handle their tarnished image with local and world media. When approached, political representatives denied that any PR services were being enlisted while the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, (PRCAN) criticised the government describing its search for a foreign PR firm as a “needless strategic gaffe”, according to the Premium Times. “The purported search is premised on a wrong foundation of white washing Nigeria before foreign media and audiences. However, the real challenge before the Federal Government of Nigeria lies elsewhere and that is at the home front with its citizens, representing the primary stakeholders,” the PRCAN said in a statement issued at the time.
The expenses shed by the Nigerian treasury could backfire on Jonathan’s party as it is almost certain to provoke additonal criticism of money being wasted at a time when the Nigerian army’s finances are being stretched to the limit in fighting Boko Haram. In addition, there is a more deeply entrenched issue with the government in that many Nigerians still live in poverty, despite lucrative oil and finance industries making their country one of the most buoyant new ‘lions’ to emerge in recent decades from the sub-Saharan region.