Saturday, August 3, 2019

Paying the piper

Paying the piper
February 07
12:08 2019


Good friends should be able to talk frankly and honestly to one another. This is also how it should be among old allies. If European and American diplomats have concerns about Nigeria, it does not mean that they are interfering in our affairs. We should listen, explain and, where we can, allay those concerns, even when some of their statements appear hasty and unbalanced.

But there is something different going on in the current election campaign. Reuters and Bloomberg, the two leading international news agencies, have both reported that Atiku Abubakar, the People’s Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, last month effectively ‘bought’ a change in US policy. And it gets more serious than that.

They reported that longstanding objections in Washington to giving a visa to Abubakar were temporarily waived after lobbying by well-connected firms: Ballard Partners, US President Donald Trump’s favourite lobbyists, were hired by the PDP on a million-dollar contract last in September. In December, Scott Mason, a former member of Trump’s transition team, was hired for $80,000 by Abubakar directly, apparently to push the 48-hour visa deal over the line.

Reuters and Bloomberg quoted officials as saying the change in policy was initiated by the lobbyists, and had been against State Department advice. Abubakar had not visited the US since even before he was indicted for money-laundering by the US Senate in 2010. That is to say, money changed hands, and policy changed. So far, so boring – Nigerian man makes a quick trip to America.

Except there is more to it than that, and more even than the fact that Abubakar, after paying his lobbyists, was reported also to have been able to meet a senior US diplomat – something Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, normally voluble on twitter, did not have time to record.

Lobbying, the art of using well-paid and well-connected intermediaries to try to shape and influence policies and people, is nothing if not sophisticated. Ballard Partners say they were not hired, at least not officially, at least not in so many words, for anything so crude, as to get the PDP back into power.

Thanks to statutory requirements for disclosure, we know Ballard told the Justice Department that their task was “strengthening and advancing democratic values and the rule of law in Nigeria, with a special focus in the coming months on maintaining political and security conditions free of intimidation and interference in order to ensure the success and fairness of Nigeria’s national election for president in 2019.”

Who could argue with such noble goals! It is the same clarion call from the US Ambassador W Stuart Symington. It is also what a third Washington lobbyist, K Riva Levinson, says she wants to do. Levinson was hired last September on $25,000 retainer by a Lagos firm representing Bukola Saraki. Saraki was originally in the PDP, quit to join the APC and then jumped back to the PDP last year, just in time to lose the party’s nomination for the Presidency to Abubakar, for whom he now serves as campaign director. Levinson is here to help Saraki “in support of free and fair national elections in February 2019.”

Levinson says in her self-published autobiography that she cut her teeth in the lobbying industry working with Paul Manafort (currently awaiting sentence in the US after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and obstructing justice) and Roger Stone, also a Trump adviser indicted this year by the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the US 2016 elections.

Levison has worked with some of Africa’s most notorious demagogues of the last 30 years, including Siad Barre, Jonas Savimbi and others. Outside the region, among her customers were Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a serial liar and fraud and architect of the post-Saddam sectarian polarisation of Iraq and the industrial corruption that continues to destabilise the whole Middle East. More recent charges include Joseph Kabila’s government in Congo, and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Liberia’s Nobel peace prize winner, with a penchant when President for appointing family members to state jobs that might make even the worst of our own politicians blush.

Ms Levinson says she is coming to Nigeria to with a team “to co-ordinate with international observers and others on behalf of Senator Saraki”. And this is the point. People paid by candidates have no greater sense of objectivity than their clients and even less understanding of local issues – and yet are using the same language as official representatives of Nigeria’s partners and other observer groups. And the PDP, in concert with their lobbyists, is already saying it can only lose the elections if they are rigged. The unholy trinity is complete: lobbyists say they are working to promote free and fair elections; international groups say they are concerned about free and fair elections; the loser complains they lost because elections were not free or fair.

We have to hope that that those independent bodies properly responsible for delivering free and fair elections are able to resist this well-funded attempt to blur the lines between independent oversight and so much well-funded partisan lobbying by one political party – and that observers and diplomats are sufficiently robust to see through the smoke and mirrors of K Street.

But at least these are the known knowns. Go to the air-conditioned hush of the 10th floor executive lounge of the Transcorp Hilton (if you can get in, which you can’t, unless you pay N144,000 for a room rising to N654,050 a night) or have a beer by the pool bar and you will hear a polyglot of international accents – Chinese, European, Israeli, American, British. There are no Justice Department requirements for disclosure here, where a whole suite of other, more opaque consultants attracted by the election industry, gather.

It’s a matter of record that the PDP hired Cambridge Analytica to help with its campaigns in 2007, 2011 and 2015. This help took the form of digital hate campaigns, email hacks and the systemic distribution of fake news. Cambridge Analytica is no more. But lower profile, unregulated look-alikes, running troll farms in Asia, with fake civil society groups and trigger issues up their sleeve, are in town with mayhem and bloodshed potentially only a few clicks of a keyboard away.

Nigeria has enjoyed one of the most violence-free elections in our history. Local muscle has had none of the access to easy money enjoyed by firms in Washington and elsewhere. This is a huge positive, where candidates must rely first and foremost on policy and pedigree than the tried, tested and failed methods of the past.

INEC and the security agencies have invested a huge amount in detailed preparations to ensure that people can vote free from intimidation and interference, confident that their votes are secure and that the counting process will meet the highest standards of integrity. There will be winners and losers, and there may be issues here and there. But lobbyists and other intellectual mercenaries can only muddy and complicate the task ahead. It’s shame that the PDP felt it could not progress on its own merits or resources, but neither we in Nigeria, nor our genuine friends, should be taken in by the charade.


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