Facing censure at home and overseas for a perceived failure to protect civilians from violent Islamists, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has launched an international media offensive to try to turn the tide of public opinion in his favour, Reuters reports.
But those efforts have backfired abroad, where many greet his defence with scepticism, and at home, where he was slated for hiring U.S. public relations (PR) firm Levick for $1.2 million, in what critics called a waste of money.
Jonathan, and Nigeria as a whole, have suffered a worsening image problem since Boko Haram sect kidnapped more than 276 school girls from Chibok, Borno State on April 14.
The attack overshadowed Nigeria becoming Africa’s biggest economy after a GDP rebasing in April, and its hosting of the World Economic Forum in May. Security is a major headache ahead of national elections in February that are likely to be the closest-fought since democracy returned in 1999.
An opinion piece by Jonathan in the Washington Post last month – in which the president wrote “nothing is more important than bringing home Nigeria’s missing girls,” but added that he had to “remain quiet” for their safety – drew open scorn.
Soon after, the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah published a satirical send-up of Jonathan’s op-ed. Her piece included lines such as: “Nothing is more important than stopping the machinations of Boko Haram, except maybe my desire to keep up appearances and show the international community that Nigeria was winning the war against the group.”
Analyst Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives, thinks the president’s timing was wrong.
“That op-ed backfired partly because the negative narrative was still so strong,” he told Reuters. “But often the PR guys advising want the upfront fees and don’t care about the result.”
Jonathan’s media team declined to comment on their PR strategy. A presidency source confirmed Levick’s contract but said such PR initiatives were standard practice for governments.
“All over the world governments engage PR firms and lobbyists to achieve certain objectives within a particular time frame,” the source, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
In this case those objectives involve reversing months of damaging publicity over the Chibok girls’ abduction, magnified by a #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign that drew in celebrities including Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie.
In the past week Jonathan’s articulate and Washington-savvy Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has toured the world doing press interviews, for example with CNN’s Christine Amanpour.
These often include earnest assertions that the Nigerian president is “doing his best” to get the girls back.
Ultimately, the bad publicity is unlikely to doom Jonathan’s 2015 re-election chances. In Nigeria, patronage can produce a ballot win more reliably than perceived performance, analysts say, as was proved in last month’s governorship poll in southwestern Ekiti state.