Nigerian vice president lobbies in U.S. over voting in his country

Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar has maintained a Washington lobbying presence separate from the embassy, costing him roughly $200,000 over several years, while he has campaigned for the top seat back home in Africa.

This past weekend’s presidential elections in Nigeria were marred by violence and alleged fraud, and results are not yet final. Initial results show that Abubakar’s rival, Umaru Yar’Adua, won by a landslide, and he announced victory yesterday. But the vice president and the opposition have demanded that the election be canceled due to irregularities. 

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Abubakar has long clashed with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and ran in the election as an opposition candidate. In the run-up to the vote, he was put on and off the ballot amid ongoing corruption allegations at home and abroad. Among other things, Abubakar is implicated as the possible recipient of a $90,000 bribe from Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is under investigation by the FBI.

Obasanjo’s relations with Abubakar “have been difficult for some time,” said David Throup, a former British Foreign Service officer who was an international observer for Nigeria’s 1999 elections. Abubakar “has been basically been cut out from the administration for the past two or three years.”

Abubakar’s Potomac, Md., mansion was raided in August 2005, when Jefferson’s Capitol Hill apartment was searched. Abubakar and Jefferson were allegedly working on establishing telecom contracts in Nigeria.

Abubakar’s representatives are confident that the allegations against him are unfounded.

“All of the evidence exonerates the vice president, whose only contact with Congressman Jefferson was standard protocol for government officials,” said Edward Weidenfeld, the vice president’s lawyer. “There was no deal.”

Weidenfeld is the latest in series of hires by Abubakar. The vice president has spent more than $140,000 on legal services so far, according to the latest forms filed with the Justice Department. Weidenfeld provides legal counsel as well as “support for free and fair elections in Nigeria,” according to his registration form.

“From the vice president’s view, he wants someone to look after his own legal interests here in the United States,” said Throup. “He would not be expecting the embassy here to represent him at all. In his position, it is quite legitimate for him to have a PR company and a lawyer.”

In addition, Weidenfeld has subcontracted the public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton to work on Abubakar’s behalf. The firm has taken in more than $22,000 to work on “U.S. media relations,” according to Justice Department records.
The Nigerian vice president’s representatives in Washington also discussed Obasanjo’s attempt last year to change the nation’s constitution to run for a third time. The move, which would have hampered Abubakar’s own ambitions for higher office, failed amid strong parliamentary opposition.

Weidenfeld has talked with ambassadors and other officials from the State Department, according to Justice records.
Like his campaign in Nigeria, Abubakar’s lobbying effort in America has had its bumps. J.C. Watts Companies, headed up by former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), ended its relationship with the embattled politician in December 2005. Justice Department records show that it earned about $40,000 for its efforts, which included talking to members of Congress about Nigeria.

“We were hired by Interamerica Inc., to provide strategic advice about communicating concerns about potential changes to the Nigerian Constitution affecting the Nigerian elections to the U.S. government,” said Steve Pruitt, a senior Democratic partner at the Watts Consulting Group, a subsidiary of J.C. Watts Companies.

Interamerica CEO Jerry Pierce Santos wrote that the contract had been terminated because “present circumstances do not permit continuation of this agreement,” according to a letter from Abubakar’s attorney’s office. A December 2005 e-mail to some of the firm’s principals cited that letter.

Santos speculated that the firm terminated the contract because of the FBI’s raid of Abubakar’s residence. “I believe this decision was basically due [to] the experience at the VP’s residence here in D.C. and that what we’re seeing is a reaction,” he said.

Santos later told The Hill that the contract’s termination had “no relation” to the raid.

 “We basically had done the work on the U.S. side, so our work was done,” he added. “It kind of coincided with that event that happened, but he needed to spend his time and his resources on Nigeria.”

Abubakar then turned to Alexander Strategy Group (ASG), a firm primarily run by former top aides to ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

ASG contacted Congress and the press, including reporters from the New York Times and the Associated Press, to discuss “the debate within Nigeria on a possible third Presidential term of office,” according to its filings with the Justice Department.

But Abubakar’s relationship with the firm ended shortly thereafter. Ed Buckham, the CEO of ASG, later amended the filing. In a July 2006 letter to the Justice Department, he wrote that the contract “lasted less than a month and was ended prior to any payment.”

Earlier in 2006, ASG collapsed amid the scandal surrounding jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and closed for business.
Many in Nigeria believe the election is far from over. Yesterday, the opposition rejected the results, and observers from the European Union and the National Democratic Institute contend that the vote was not free and fair. The opposition is expected to contest the results in court.