Nigeria hires PR for Boko Haram fallout

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The Nigerian government has signed a contract worth more than $1.2 million with a Washington public relations firm to deal with the fallout from the Boko Haram kidnappings, documents obtained by The Hill show.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who is up for reelection in February, is seeking to counter the perception that he has not done enough to combat the Islamic extremists in his country who abducted more than 270 schoolgirls in April.

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To that end, his government has hired Levick, a prominent PR and lobbying firm in Washington, to engage in an effort to change the “the international and local media narrative” surrounding Nigeria’s “efforts to find and safely return the girls abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram,” according to a contract document signed June 13.

The firm will also be “assisting the government’s efforts to mobilize international support in fighting Boko Haram as part of the greater war on terror.”

Levick is partnering on the contract with Jared Genser, a human rights attorney who primarily represents political prisoners.

The firm said the work for Nigeria will be more than just PR and will be part of an effort to create “real change” in the country.

“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 April, Boko Haram, a terrorist group whose name loosely translates to “Western education is sin,” snatched more than 250 schoolgirls from a state-owned school in northern Nigeria. Government officials say 219 girls are still missing, while about 57 have escaped their captors.

Local media reports out of Nigeria suggest Boko Haram kidnapped more girls last week. More than 60 women and girls, and 31 schoolboys are missing after a three-day siege in the northern part of the country.

President Obama has sent a team of U.S. military, law enforcement and hostage-negotiation advisers to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to help with the search for the missing youths. He has also committed 80 American troops to the neighboring country of Chad.

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. “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.”

Levick will be also working to publicize “President Goodluck Jonathan Administration’s past, present and future priority to foster transparency, democracy and the rule of law throughout Nigeria,” according to contract documents.

That’s where Genser, armed with impressive human rights bona fides, comes in.

His client 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.

“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.

In addition to his own firm, Perseus Strategies, Genser founded Freedom Now, an independent nonprofit that works to “free prisoners of conscious worldwide.” The firm has more than 15 campaigns that urge the release of political prisoners in countries including Ethiopia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan.

“It’s of course easier to wear the white hat,” he said, referring to the bulk of his work, “because who’s going to object?”

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.

“At the end of the day, the [Nigerian] president has said clearly to us that he wants results,” he said.

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, 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.

By K Street standards, the $1.2 million Nigeria contract is a fairly sizable one, though other firms have earned more from Middle Eastern countries. For example, The Glover Park Group has a contract with Egypt valued at $250,000 per month.

Genser said he hopes to bolster the efforts already underway to rescue the schoolgirls.

“I would not sit here and pretend that we are singlehandedly going to rescue the girls, that’s not our role,” Genser said. “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.”