/ 26 March 2015

African presidents spend millions to spruce up their dented images

Hat in the ring: President Goodluck Jonathan has embarked on his re-election campaign
Hat in the ring: President Goodluck Jonathan has embarked on his re-election campaign

A row over a law banning homosexuality in Uganda has been reignited after it emerged that the government paid a US public relations firm to offset negative publicity, a report said Monday, highlighting African governments’ love affair with Western image doctors.

Uganda’s Observer newspaper said the government had spent 614-million shillings ($206 000) “to prop up Uganda’s image” after it was “tarnished by the Anti-Homosexuality Act”.

It said that many MPs in the east African nation’s Parliament, where support is strong for tough anti-gay legislation, were now refusing to approve the government’s payment to Scribe Strategies and Advisors, a Washington-based lobbying firm.

“It’s quite unbelievable that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could use this money to clear Uganda’s image, yet us as Ugandans we are against this issue of homosexuality,” Florence Nebanda, one of several reportedly furious MPs, was quoted as saying.

Fox Odoi, an MP who opposed the legislation, confirmed to news wire AFP that the foreign ministry had informed Parliament that the cash was paid to the firm to lobby a bipartisan congressional caucus.

He said the firm was paid “to clear the image of Uganda”.

Museveni’s hotel problems
Aston Kajara, a state minister, was also quoted as saying that the fall-out from the controversy had resulted in President Yoweri Museveni having trouble finding a hotel room in Texas in September last year, when he visited the US state to drum up investment.

“There were campaigns against the government of Uganda to the extent that even the hotel they had booked for him had to change. We engaged consultants to intervene and stem the hostility against the president on behalf of Uganda,” the Observer quoted him as saying.

The anti-gay bill, under which gays could have been jailed for life, was signed into law by Museveni in February 2014, but was struck down six months later by the constitutional court on a technicality.

The law drew widespread international condemnation, with US Secretary of State John Kerry likening it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.

Since then MPs have proposed another law criminalising the “promotion” of homosexuality, although activists say it would be equally repressive.

Uganda would not be the first African country to engage image specialists to spruce up a dented image.

Last month the Kenyan government took on influential Washington lobbying firm Podesta Group for a reported $30 0000 a month plus expenses, the country’s leading Daily Nation reported.

The firm’s main objective is to persuade the US government to allow direct flights from Nairobi, which have for years been declined on security reasons, Kenya’s ambassador to the US was quoted saying.

This includes the removal of tourist advisories and other negative impressions formed by Americans, the paper said, noting that the country has in the past been represented in the US by two other image management firms.

In 2012 the country’s president Uhuru Kenyatta hired British PR firm BTP Advisers to promote his election campaign, which came at at time when he was facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court.

In media interviews the firm said it was providing “strategic advice on the election campaign and providing international media relations support since there’s an enormous amount of international interest in this election.” 

The hiring of the firm was seen as ironical as the Kenyatta campaign had cast “Western imperialists” as interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, has also had a long relationship with Western image consultants. It’s latest contract with US firm Levick ran into headwinds after Nigerians queried its role. 

Levick was signed on in June last year reportedly for $1.2-million, to improve media coverage of the Nigerian government’s efforts to rescue over 200 schoolgirls abducted in north eastern Nigeria.

The Los Angeles Times reported the firm had helped get prominent media placements for president Goodluck Jonathan, including an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

In reaction to the furore, the firm in a statement said: “As the world witnesses the brutality of Boko Haram, and its cowardly tactics of using children as pawns in their terrorist campaign, Levicks’s only mission is assisting the Government of Nigeria with its number one priority – the rescue of the girls and combating terrorism.” 

The girls are yet to be rescued, nearly a year after they were kidnapped, but a multinational force has helped turn the tide against the Boko Haram militants who claimed the abductions. 

Photo with the Obamas
In 2002 Angola hired Washington PR firm Patton Boggs to rebuild ties with the US government, on a reported one year-contract worth $2.2-million, or $2.9-million in current terms. The ruling party was during the Cold War backed by the Soviet Union.

In 2009 when US president Barack Obama and his wife posed for an official photo with Equatorial Guinea president Obiang Nguema and the First Lady, it was the culmination of several years of lobbying.

Nguema, who came to power in a coup in 1979, spent several years in the diplomatic cold, leading to the US closing its embassy in 1994. However the discovery of huge oil reserves in the country changed that dramatically, but the Malabo government had also sought out American PR strategists to help the effort.

Washington lobbying firm Qorvis Communications was taken on for a reported $60 000 monthly, while US regulations also showed a former official in the administration of president Bill Clinton as being paid $1-million a year. 

In 2006 the Sudanese government took on New York firm Summit Communications. whose most high profile work for its client appears to have been the insertion of an eight-page advertising insert in the New York Times.

Khartoum was said to be aggrieved by the negative media coverage in the US, and UN accusations that it was complicit in the violence in its Darfur region. 

Global marketing giant Young & Rubicam in 2008 also ran an election campaign for Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, in a vote that he came close to losing before his main opponent Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of a second round face-off.

Blair’s long list
The increasing involvement of former highly placed officials is also a trend, with former British prime minister Tony Blair through his Africa Governance Initiative seen to be advising up to 10 African governments. 

Brussels-based campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory, in a new hard hitting report said while there was a global trend to “outsource” diplomacy, there is “currently a particularly fierce ’Scramble for Africa’ among Western PR firms.

Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo form part of the 18 case studies in the report named Spin doctors to the autocrats: how European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes.

Uganda and Egypt are also mentioned, with loose European Union regulations cited for the lack of more information about African clients, as opposed to the US where reporting is mandatory.

The report says that governments engage such firms to help them get trade preferences and preferential accession talks, and to succeed they need a good image.

Electioneering is identified as a key moment to bring in such firms, which in their defence often say they are seeking to bring about progress on human rights issues. 

According to the report, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest spender on image-making, ahead of Egypt and Morocco. – MGAFRICA Writer, Agency.

This article first appeared on the Mail & Guardian‘s sister site, mgafrica.com.

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