Nigerian power shift leaves lucrative lobbying contracts in limbo

Nigerian power shift leaves lucrative lobbying contracts in limbo

Friday, April 3, 2015 10:05 pm

President-elect Buhari and VP elect, Osinbajo,  display certificate of return.

President-elect Buhari and VP elect, Osinbajo, display certificate of return.

Millions of dollars in contracts held by U.S. strategists could be in jeopardy after a historic presidential election in Nigeria that marked the first time a sitting president had been defeated.

The change in leadership, from President Goodluck Jonathan to former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, could be trouble for at least four firms with lucrative arrangements from the West African nation.

Levick, Squire Patton Boggs, Mercury and Weber Shandwick each have contracts worth a minimum of six figures per year with the Nigerian government.

“It’s not unusual for governments — whether foreign governments or even U.S. state or territorial governments — to switch lobbying firms after an election because the new government wants to have its own loyal troops in the field,” said Robert Kelner, the chairman of law and lobby firm Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice.

In total, the country spent about $4.41 million on lobbying and PR last year from U.S. firms, according to a review of forms filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

The most recent contract — inked with Levick last June — resulted in more than $1.64 million in payments during the last six months of 2014, according to filings with the DOJ.

The firm was retained, in part, to help improve Jonathan’s image and combat the notion that he was not doing enough to find and rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists.

Levick also subcontracted with Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who has primarily represented political prisoners, to help advise the government about making “real change” in the country ahead of the important elections this month.

The firm declined to comment for this article.

Ultimately, Jonathan fell about 2 million votes short in his bid to remain leader of Africa’s most populous nation, home to roughly 180 million people. The loss was attributed to economic inequality, corruption and the growing threat of Boko Haram.

Mercury, which has worked with the Nigerian government since 2013, had been hired to “enhance bilateral diplomatic, economic, and security relations between the U.S. and Nigeria,” according to disclosure forms. Last year, the firm earned $975,165 from the contract, which includes work by former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).

It said it would arrange meetings with members of Congress and the Obama administration about Nigeria and with Nigerian officials and “business and thought leaders.”

Mercury did not respond to a request for comment.

Nigeria had been under military rule until 1999, including once by Buhari, who was both installed and ousted by coups in the country. Since moving to democracy, it has largely been run by the People’s Democratic Party.

The transfer of power between Jonathan, a Christian member of the People’s Democratic Party, and Buhari, a Muslim member of the All Progressives Congress, is a historic one. President Obama on Wednesday commended the two leaders for encouraging a peaceful vote and transfer of power.

Buhari has promised to root out corruption and defeat Boko Haram, which has a growing foothold in northern Nigeria.

“Your vote affirms that you believe Nigeria’s future can be better than what it is today,” he said on Tuesday in his statement proclaiming victory. “You voted for change, and now change has come.”

Kenneth Gross, who leads the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said that a regime change doesn’t necessarily mean doom for firms that have contracts with Nigeria.

“If they have the appropriate connections with the U.S. government, they may well stay on,” he said, adding that a power shift “could present some new opportunities” for other firms to jump in on the action.

Weber Shandwick was contracted to do public relations work for Nigeria in the United States and the United Kingdom, including creating and maintaining a website to promote Nigeria’s Transformation Agenda. It was given a $617,000 budget for its services and subcontracted some work to another D.C. lobby firm, Cassidy & Associates.

“We have not yet had any discussion with our client in Nigeria, the National Orientation Agency, on the status of our work on their behalf,” a spokeswoman for Weber Shandwick told The Hill in an email.

Squire Patton Boggs, which boasts a deep bench of former officials, made more than $1.17 million representing the Office of National Security Advisor of Nigeria. In the past, the firm had represented the government more broadly.

The contract, signed in 2013, asked for a $3 million budget per year to “advise the [client] on security and defense issues,” according to documents. Last year, it sent letters and emails to State Department officials and Senate offices regarding bilateral relations, Boko Haram and a U.S. visit from the client.

Foreign lobbyists may choose to cut ties with countries — or vice versa — following a change in leadership, but it’s not a certainty.

For example, a 2006 coup in Thailand resulted in the country cutting loose at least one lobby firm. In 2012, during the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, the country parted ways with a group of high-powered lobbyists that had advocated on its behalf.

Called PLM Group, the coalition contained the Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.); the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.); and the Podesta Group, owned by super-lobbyist Tony Podesta.

Media reports from the time feature Egyptian embassy claims that it fired the lobbyists, and counter-claims from the lobbyists, who said they made the choice to terminate Egypt as a client.

When India underwent a massive change in 2014, however, electing Narendra Modi as its prime minister, the government kept its key U.S. lobby firms: Podesta Group and BGR Government Affairs.

The Nigeria contracts are “up in the air,” said one lobbyist at a top firm familiar with courting foreign work, asking for anonymity. “And anybody who tells you, ‘For sure we’re going to keep this’ — [they] don’t really know.”


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