Justice Minister, Mr Abubakar Malami, has hired two American lobbying and public relations firms to plant opinion article favourable to the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration in American newspapers.
Mr. Malami’s action came to light more than five years after this newspaper exposed the Goodluck Jonathan government for spending several thousand dollars on arranging interviews for administration’s officials on U.S. media outlets.
Officials at Nigerian embassy in Washington have always wondered why administration officials preferred to waste public funds on American lobbyists rather than take advantage of the resources at the country’s diplomatic mission there.
“One of our jobs is to relate with American institutions on behalf of our country, but we are hardly used,” one embassy official said, asking not to be named for fear of being victimised. “We have extensive contacts within the media here . So why our people keep wasting money on hiring lobbyists remain unclear.”
Investigations by this newspaper showed that in the latest case, Malami, in May this year, verbally contracted a Nigerian public relations firm, Channel Koos, to help him identify American firms that could insert pro-Buhari opinion article in a major U.S. publication.
The article, Malami demanded, must showcase the administration’s ‘reforms’.
It is unclear how much the minister paid Channel Koos. But the company spent $8,000 of its earning on hiring two U.S. firms to deliver on the project.
The company hired Mount Olive LLC, a Maryland-based PR firm owned by Nigerian-American businessman, Olufemi Soneye, according to details submitted to U.S. Department of Justice in compliance with the US Foreign Agents Registrations Act (FARA).
Mount Olive in turn subcontracted the job to Prime Policy, a Delaware Corporation, for $5,000. According to the signed agreement between the two firms, Prime Policy was mandated to draft and place “an opinion editorial for the Nigerian Attorney General”.
Buhari government awarded the PR contract to “inform the international community about reforms in Nigeria, regarding the rule of law.”
“The agreement is oral stating that Mount Olive LLC should help arrange an op-ed for the Attorney General of Nigeria in a major US newspaper,” the filings by Soneye said.
“The op-ed is to inform the international community about reforms in Nigeria, regarding the rule of law. The fees is $8000 of which $5000 was to be paid to Prime Policy to market and $3000 for Mount Olive.
“The consultant firm, Channel Koos is working with the Attorney general’s Office as a media consultant locally. It is controlled by Nigerian government. I was engaged to handle the international media engagements for Mount Olive. The process will be financed by the government to inform the international community about progress in the fight against corruption and rule of law.”
Further explaining the reason for the contract, Soneye said the federal government decided to commission the drafting and circulation of the opinion article “in response to allegations of human rights abuses” against the current administration by international organisations.
Curiously however, he added that the opinion article was yet to be published, four months after payment was finalised and the contract was said to have been concluded.
Soneye’s explanation was communicated in an email he sent to PREMIUM TIMES regarding the contract.
“Mount Olive is a duly registered PR, Communications firm in the state of Maryland. We duly received an article for publication on behalf of the AGF for publication in international media in response to some allegation by some international organization’s criticism of the administration’s human rights abuse, according to the brief. The brief was from a third party and not directly from the AGF.
“We negotiated for $8,000 of which $3,000 was paid to us at Mount Olives and the rest $5,000 went to the firm (Prime Policy).
“The article was however, withdrawn as recent incidents have overshadowed it and it is right now being updated and we await the updated article,” Mr Soneye said.
He however declined a request to provide a copy of the opinion initially intended for publication, saying doing so would be a “breach of contract.”
Malami did not answer or return calls made to him by our reporter. He also did not respond to text messages sent to him.
The minister’s media assistant, Salihu Isah, said he knew nothing about the contract.
“I have also not been able to access any information on your request.” Mr Isah said.
It is unclear why the minister would spend about N2.5 million (at the current exchange rates of N306.2 to a US dollar) for the publication of a single opinion.
Speaking to Nigerians through in foreign media
Mr Buhari has been criticised for consistently making major pronouncements on key national issues through foreign media.
Shortly after his first major appointments in 2015 for example, Nigerians criticised the composition of the appointees, describing them as lopsided in favour of Buhari’s northern region.
Despite the widespread condemnations across he country, Buhari kept mute. He only responded to critics during an interview with the British Broadcasting Cooperation, weeks after the outrage began across the country.
In April, Buhari was widely condemned for describing Nigerian youth as lazy during a meeting with commonwealth leaders in London. The President only clarified his comments two weeks later during an interview with the Voice of America.
While he has appeared on Aljazeera, CNN, BBC and VOA, Mr Buhari is not known to have granted interviews to any major Nigerian publication since he came to office in 2015. He has held only one media chat, in December 2015.