Washington lobbyists develop strategy for Nigerian politicians

The Democratic consultant who brought Silicon Valley strategy to Howard Dean’s 2004 White House bid exported his brand of high-tech campaign tactics to Nigeria during the run-up to the country’s April presidential election.

Joe Trippi, currently advising former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) 2008 campaign, designed a text-messaging campaign for opposition Action Congress Party candidate and then Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

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“What drove me on this one was the need for an opposition party. Democracy has only been there for eight years,” Trippi said.

He was just one of many Washington consultants and lobbyists hired by Nigerian politicians to meet with policymakers here or campaign across the Atlantic. Abubakar and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, through the West African country’s government, each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the months preceding the vote on such services.

Obasanjo fought successfully to secure victory for his successor in the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Umaru Yar’Adua. Yesterday in Nigeria, power was handed over to the new president.

The director of African Studies at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, Peter Lewis, said the feud between onetime allies Abubakar and Obasanjo had been “brewing ... for several years and exploded into the open during the last 12 months.”

“The malpractices were carried out in an absolutely brazen fashion,” Lewis, an international observer for Nigeria’s April polling, said of the election. “While there certainly was misconduct by all parties, the main source of the misconduct was the ruling party.”

Trippi stressed Abubakar’s underdog status — the longtime PDP politician ultimately placed third in official results contested by the international community — in his efforts to win popular support for the candidate.
“Essentially, the text-messaging campaign said, ‘Democracy is at risk right now with Obasanjo, do not let them take the election,’ that sort of thing,” Trippi said.

“Frankly, with all the problems of being on the ballot, off the ballot, it was difficult to say the least,” he said. “There was a point where the campaign was decapitated because of the arrests or the top of the campaign was in hiding.”

His firm took in about $20,000 for its work in Nigeria, according to the most recent records filed with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) unit.

Through his lawyer, Edward Weidenfeld, Abubakar also hired PR giant Hill & Knowlton as well as an investigative-services firm.

According to Department of Justice records, the James Mintz Group, staffed by former investigative reporters and federal prosecutors, took in close to $16,000 for “research/consulting services.”

“As a matter of long-standing policy, the Mintz Group doesn’t talk about its client work,” a spokesman for the firm said.

Weidenfeld also met with State Department officials in October 2006 to “discuss the political environment in Nigeria and urge U.S. support for free and fair elections in Nigeria.” Overall, the lawyer has earned more than $120,000 since October 2006. Weidenfeld did not respond to calls for comment.

“Clearly, there were challenges to the election in Nigeria. But for the first time in 40 years, there was a successful transition from civilian to civilian government,” the vice president for government affairs and communications at Goodworks International, Austin Cooper, said. “We hope the international community will unite behind the new administration.”

Goodworks was Obasanjo’s main U.S. lobbying group during the last year. The firm has taken in $500,000 since April 2006 from the government of Nigeria, according to the most recent records filed with the Justice Department.

Cooper said his firm avoided the politics back in Nigeria: “Frankly, we could not afford to get caught up in the internal strife.” Instead, Goodworks highlighted the former president’s economic reforms and his fight against corruption, and “promote[d] the democratic election in Nigeria.”

The firm helped to organize meetings and calls with American policymakers for the heads of two Nigerian government agencies that were thorns in Abubakar’s side.

In May 2006, Goodworks organized an itinerary for Nigeria’s chairman of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) to discuss his country’s “efforts in voter education and registration” with the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and State Department officials.

All have been heavily critical of last month’s elections, run by the INEC. The agency banned Abubakar from running, citing corruption charges, before the courts reinstated him.

Goodworks also helped to draft congressional testimony last May for the executive chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Cooper called the EFCC’s work an example of Obasanjo’s battle against corruption.

“Here is the head of the EFCC who can outline in clear and concise ways how his administration is fighting corruption, include jailing his own friends,” Cooper said.

The EFCC was the agency that charged Abubakar with corruption, crippling his presidential campaign. Though Goodworks said “there were no FARA-reportable contacts” in the months immediately preceding the election, Goodworks staff members met with Nigerian Embassy staff in early spring of 2007 and attended a March press conference for the EFCC’s chairman, in which he spoke of Obasanjo’s battles to halt corruption.

Cooper said Goodworks’s cooperation with the Nigerian government slowed as its contract drew to a close in early April. No proposal from the firm is before the new president.

With chosen heir Yar’Adua in office, Obasanjo has left public life after completing two terms. Abubakar is protesting the election results.

The past vice president may be out of luck. Lewis said that although election problems are being heard in Nigeria’s courts, it is unlikely Yar’Adua will be removed from office “due to the margin of victory and the concerns for stability.”