by Chika Amanze-Nwachuku and Tobi Soniyi with Agency report
The federal government is said to be seeking public relations counsel amid increasing pressure over its response to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram militant group more than a month ago in Chibok.
According to the Holmes Report, an in-house online publication of the UK-based Holmes Group which specialises in public relations consultancy, government representatives, led by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, have met approximately five PR firms in London regarding the assignment, as government attempts to counter mounting criticism both inside and outside the country on the Chibok abduction saga.
The Holmes Report revealed that the minister was also in London with her team in the public relations firm recruitment drive to launder the image of the federal government in a deal estimated to be around $800 million.
But when contacted on the issue, the General Manager, Group Public Affairs Department of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr. Ohi Alegbe, who also doubles as the minister’s spokesman, said he was not aware of any such moves.
The development, according to the website, followed intense pressure from the international community and calls by activists from the #BringBackOurGirls group on the government to ensure the rescue of the abducted schoolgirls.
The website quoted a Senior Special Assistant to the President, Ken Wiwa, as stating that the federal government is concerned that domestic unrest sparked by the spate of kidnappings may prove politically costly with elections looming.
“Rather than being about Boko Haram and their atrocities, this is turning into a referendum on [President] Jonathan’s administration,” he was quoted to have said.
The Holmes Report also quoted sources familiar with the situation to have said that any relevant PR counsel would be limited to improving the transparency of the government’s communications in the light of intense global media scrutiny.
One source noted that the government would benefit from a “clearer, more transparent media operation”.
“What we shouldn’t be doing is promising to clear up the story,” he said.
The minister, alongside her close aides, was said to have sent requests for proposals (RFPs) to some international public relations firms in London seeking for public relations counsel for the federal government.
The Holmes Report stated that almost all the PR firms are insisting on a long term commitment with most of them advising the minister and her team to improve the transparency of government’s communications in the light of intense global media scrutiny.
One of the PR firms with offices in London and New York was quoted to have said despite the numbers of PR firms in contention, it remains optimistic about getting the lucrative deal for a period of three to four years.
“The main focus right now is increasing investor confidence. We have to include all fronts including economic angles. There has been a barrage of international media coverage and we need to try to convert this interest into positive coverage.”
An unnamed PR firm, with offices in South Africa and London was reported to have declined the request to work for the Nigerian government, while another one identified as Ketchum, reportedly criticised for its role in working for the Russian government but is believed to have been contacted by the minister and her team, was said to have also declined to give out any information, citing client confidentiality.
Nigeria’s next general election takes place in early 2015 and the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), hired a political consultancy, AKPD – best known for its work with US President Barack Obama — earlier this year to support its campaign.
However, Alegbe yesterday denied that the minister was involved in the PR recruitment drive.
He wondered why the petroleum minister should be the one to embark on such an assignment when the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, is there for that purpose.
Alegbe said Alison-Madueke was neither the Minister of Information nor the presidential spokesman, adding that if there was need to seek the services of a global PR outfit to launder the image of the president, as the said report stated, then Maku should be the right person to do so and not the petroleum minister.
In another development, a Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday directed the House of Representatives to hold a press conference and inform the public that Justice Ahmed Mohammed did not issue any order stopping its investigation into the allegation that the NNPC spent N10 billion to lease a private airplane for the personal use of Alison-MAdueke and her family.
Also, when hearing resumed in the case filed by the minister and the NNPC to stop their appearance before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House, the court still refused to issue the order to stop the committee from going ahead with the probe.
Although the minister’s lawyer, Mr. Etigwe Uwah (SAN), made several attempts to persuade Justice Mohammed to issue an order in the interim injunction to stop the House from going ahead with the probe, the judge tactically refrained from giving the order.
Uwah had told the court that despite the fact that the matter was before the court and all the parties had been served, the House was bent on continuing with the matter and had continued to issue invitations to his client to appear before it.
He cited a statement credited to the Speaker of the House, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, where he urged PAC to go ahead with the probe.
He also told the court that a subsidiary of NNPC, Pipelines and Product Marketing Company (PPMC), was also summoned despite the pendency of the suit.
But all these and more did not persuade the court to grant an interim order to preserve the res.
The judge told him that Uwah’s application to prevail on the court to ask the House to stop was not before him since it was filed yesterday.
Meanwhile, the House yesterday apologised to the judge for misrepresenting the order of the court which asked the lawmakers to come and show cause why the minister’s request for an interim order should not be granted, but which the lawmakers claimed barred them from going ahead with the probe.
The House’s counsel, Mr. Abubakar Mahmud (SAN), apologised on behalf of his client and repeated the apology several times before the judge accepted it.
In view of the apology, the court reviewed its earlier stance and said it would dispense with the House’s appearance if only the House could issue another statement to inform the world that the court did not make any order stopping it from going ahead with the probe.
Mahmud assured the court that it would be done. He then asked for a short adjournment to enable him prepare his defence in the suit.
While not objecting to the request for an adjournment, Uwah asked the court to issue an interim order to preserve the res by stopping the House from going ahead with the probe.
The minister’s lawyer contended that the request for time was a strategy to tie his client’s hands behind her back while the House went ahead with the same investigation that she is seeking to stop.
Relying on the principle of lis pendis (pending legal action), the senior advocate argued that the House should ordinarily, even without the court making any order, stop further deliberations on the controversial aircraft charter issue, having been served with court papers showing that the matter was already pending before the court.
He said: ”The principle of lis pendis demands that once a matter is pending before the court, no further action should be taken to overreach the court.
“The directive of the speaker to the Public Accounts Committee to go ahead with the investigation into the issue will foist a fait acompli, a state of helplessness upon this court.”
But his position was contested by Mahmud who pleaded with the court not to allow it to be used by the minister to stop the House from carrying out its constitutional functions.
He said: “No court should allow itself to be used to stop an institution from carrying out its constitutional duties. This court cannot grant the orders sought by the minister without looking at the entire processes filed in the substantive suit.”
Justice Mohammed had twice summoned the House to appear before it to show him the purported order allegedly made by him, which stopped the House from going ahead with the minister’s probe.
The judge said the attribution to the court for an order which did not emanate from the court was capable of ridiculing the judiciary.
The case has been adjourned to June 19 for hearing of the substantive suit.