Tuesday, July 8, 2014 4:28 pm
The image laundering embarked on by Nigeria’s government evokes many questions
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria sure knows the role of public relations in the successes an individual records while driving his wishes, dreams and aspirations into those around him. Nigeria, undeniably, has also been a very critical and harsh environment for the government. Before winning in the general elections in 2011, he had engaged a series of organisations, including Neighbour To Neighbour, which went from house to house campaigning for the man, who Nigerians got sentimentally attached to because of the controversies that threw him up for the position prior to the election year. Then he picked Dr. Reuben Abati to replace Ima Niboro as his Special Adviser on Media. Not done, he picked Dr. Doyin Okupe to handle public affairs and Reno Omokri to be in charge of social media. Today, the President has upped his ante by going international in the quest to redeem the image of his administration that has received severe battering, much of it owing to the over 200 girls that were abducted nearly three months ago by the dreaded Boko Haram terrorist group.
The contract with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington DC-based powerhouse Public Relations firm, was signed for $1.2 million by Mr. Ima Niboro, who is the current Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, technically for the NAN Businesses Limited, but on behalf of the Nigerian government while Mark S. Irion, president of the firm, signed on behalf of his organisation. Though the contract was signed on 13 June, Levick was to begin executing the project three days later, on 16 June, for an initial term of 12 months.
According to a copy of the signed document, the firm, the contract details state, is expected to help repair the image of the President Jonathan government by providing professional assistance, “with the primary objective of changing the international and local media narrative” in relation to “the Government of Nigeria’s efforts to find and safely return the more than 200 girls abducted by the terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, in the Borno State of Nigeria, assisting the government’s efforts to mobilise international support in fighting Boko Haram as part of the greater war on terror”.
The scope of service to Levick includes ensuring the communication of the current administration’s past, present and future priority is to foster transparency, democracy and the rule of law throughout the country. The concern of the Presidency, this magazine learnt, is that the current administration’s reputation is at an all-time low. Even before the attacks by the Boko Haram insurgents became more ferocious, with an attendant failure of the government to meet its constitutional obligation to protect the lives and propery of the citizens, the President and his administration had been regarded as the most repudiated in the country. Most of this was achieved by the citizens, using some of the cheapest means of communication including the social media.
The administration had not also been finding reports in the local media palatable. This seeming frosty relationship soon became obvious when weeks ago, the Nigerian media began to experience a military clampdown as the government became uncomfortable with the daily reportage on its weakness to stem the growing insecurity in the country. But while the clampdown on local media continued with many criticising the government, the international media maintained its barrage against the government. The administration made matters worse for itself with the handling of the abduction of the girls from their school. In the first two weeks, the government remained silent, with some of its officials doubting the authenticity of the abduction. Provoked by the government’s poor attitude, a protest began on Twitter with the tag: #BringBackOurGirls. This soon spread across the globe.
Many notable global figures including Michelle, the wife of President Barack Obama, and Britain’s David Cameron supporting the protests by displaying placards. An alleged offensive by the Nigeria Police against the protesters who daily gathered at a spot in Abuja was also frustrated by a court order secured by the protesters, led by Oby Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian Minister of Education.
As agreed between the firm and its client, apart from the professional fee for the organisation’s staff, which stands at $100,000 monthly, every other activity related to the contract attracts additional fees. For example, Levick said it was engaging Jared Genser of Perseus Strategies, a prominent international human rights law firm, to assist in the area of promoting transparency, democracy and the rule of law throughout Nigeria, at the sum of $25,000 monthly. Also, the cost of travel and meals for professionals in the course of the firm’s duty is billed at $22,500 per professional. Then, if the firm’s professionals are to be based in Nigeria for the job, their expenses are borne by the client.
To actually show it had hit the ground running therefore, an opinion from President Jonathan surfaced in the Washington Post few days ago in which the President reiterated his resolve to bring back the girls for which a global clamour has subsisted. His opinion was published almost the same period Lanny Davis, an executive vice-president at the PR firm, was quoted as saying: “For me, after talking to him, the priority for President Jonathan beyond any is finding and bringing home the girls,” while Eleanor McManus, who will be in charge of the enormous task working on the Nigerian reputation crisis for Levick, told ThinkProgress, a media organisation, that her firm placed the President’s op-ed in the Washington Post.
President Jonathan maintained in the opinion that he had remained quiet about what he called the continuing efforts by Nigeria’s military, police and investigators to find the girls kidnapped since April. “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…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,” he declared.
He also expressed his passion as the head of the Nigerian government by stressing that his heart aches for the missing children and their families. “I am a parent myself, and I know how awfully this must hurt. Nothing is more important to me than finding and rescuing our girls,” he said, even as he maintained that terrorism in Nigeria is not an isolated case. “Since 2010, thousands of people have been killed, injured, abducted or forced by Boko Haram, which seeks to overwhelm the country and impose its ideology on all Nigerians. My government is determined to make that impossible. We will not succumb to the will of terrorists,” he added, promising that he would, at the U.N. General Assembly in September, urge for the establishment of a U.N.-coordinated system for sharing intelligence and, if necessary, special forces and law enforcement to confront terrorism wherever it occurs. While noting Nigeria’s religious, political and ethnic diversity, President Jonathan stressed that though Boko Haram seeks to recruit gullible Nigerians for its exploits, the government would continue with strategies to frustrate such efforts, rid the country of corruption and safeguard human and civil rights and the rule of law.
Though this is an attempt to buy over public sympathy and strengthen hopes, Jonathan’s critics still believe that the government is too weak to embark on the defence of the citizens. Hours after the President’s opinion was published, a terse editorial in the New York Post slammed the Nigerian government. Despite global attention since April, the editorial said, the girls remain missing. “Remember, this is the same leader whose military initially claimed it had freed the girls, whose wife’s anger was directed at Nigerians protesting the government’s inaction rather than the kidnappers, and who presides over Africa’s largest economy and fourth-largest armed forces…Apparently the government’s secret plan to get the girls back — which President Jonathan says he has to ‘remain quiet about’ — isn’t much impressing them,” the American media organisation said.
Professor Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s literary guru, had also criticised the President for posting a photograph of himself and his daughters on Facebook on Father’s Day celebration while parents of the abducted girls were still grieving.
Ipoola Omisore, former president of the West African Outdoor Advertising Association, told the magazine that it is very difficult to market a bad product because the effort could end up killing the product. To him, the late Dora Akunyili failed in her effort to rebrand Nigeria because advertising is meant for people to try a product which they would drop if they are not satisfied. Omisore explained that getting consultants for Nigeria is not the solution to the country’s problem. The solution lies simply in doing things right, exterminating corruption, securing lives and property, and showing good leadership. “When you contract somebody to come and launder an image, what do you launder? It is gabbage in, garbage out. How do you sell a government that cannot recover stolen kids months after? American newspapers are daily writing about corruption in Nigeria and the government is busy freeing corrupt people. President Jonathan has not shown even one per cent seriousness that he means business,” he said, maintaining that President Jonathan knows what action to take but is scared of hurting powerful people, especially in the North, because of his own 2015 ambition. He also wondered if the contract sum was budgeted for.
The success or, maybe, failure of this crisis management strategy would be known as the months continue to fade into 2015.