By Tajudeen Suleiman
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), has given itself a new mandate and it has nothing to do with money matters. It does not even have anything to do with stabilising the foreign exchange regime or strengthening the naira, desirable as that task is.
The new role of Nigeria’s apex bank is to launder Nigeria’s image abroad.
In what is the latest in a trend of frivolous and wasteful spending of tax payers’ money, the apex bank in April engaged the services of APCO Worldwide Inc., a public relations and political consultancy firm based in Washington DC, to help launder the image of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and the country in the United States.
In the last three years, the icirnigeria.org has tracked many of such controversial contracts amounting to over $6 million dollars awarded by different agencies of the Nigerian government to foreign firms to launder the country’s image abroad.
From our investigations, such contracts, it appears, are mere conduits for siphoning public funds.
Previous similar questionable contracts tracked by this news website include a $3 million lobbying contract awarded by the National Security Adviser’s office in September 2013 to Patton Boggs, an American law firm that specialises in lobbying and a $1.5 million PR contract awarded by the News Agency of Nigeria to Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington-based PR firm.
There is also a $700,000 PR contract awarded by the Nigerian Embassy in the US to Mercury Public Affairs.
The latest image laundering contract awarded by the CBN has an initial fixed payment of $95,000, more than N33 million at the parallel market exchange rate today, and is for a period of three months beginning from April 18 to July 17, 2016. The contract agreement, however, gives wide room for APCO to negotiate further fees when necessary during the life of the contract.
According to a document obtained from the US Department of Justice by icirnigeria.org, APCO is expected to provide media relations, stakeholder engagement, and strategic communications services for Nigeria within the United States.
“Registrant (APCO) has contracted with Davebrook Digital PR Services Limited to provide services for the foreign principal (CBN) within the United States to promote positive relations between the United States and the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” the document states.
The document states further: “A copy of the Registrant’s agreement with Davebrook Digital PR Services Limited is attached. The Registrant commenced services within the United States for the foreign principal starting on June 1, 2016.”
The CBN contract raises too many questions with nobody purportedly involved in it ready to provide answers. There are also many curious things about the contract.
First, the CBN did not award the contract directly to APCO but purportedly hired a Nigerian public relations firm, Davebrook Digital PR Services, to engage the US PR consultants. Davebrook, according to the document is located at No 1, Asabi Cole, Ikeja, Lagos.
“THIS MASTER ENGAGEMENT AGREEMENT (Agreement) made and entered into as of April 18,2016 (Effective Date) with offices located at 90 Long Acre, London by and between APCO Worldwide Limited WC2E 9RA, United Kingdom (“APCO”) and Davebrook Digital PR Services Limited…(“Client”)…” are the exact words of the agreement.
Another curious point in the contract is that although APCO is an American firm, the contract is enforced by laws of the United Kingdom and Wales, not US statutes. Thus, the person who signed the document for APCO, which is headquartered in Washington, is James Acheson – Gray, the managing director of the firm’s London office.
Of the questions the contract raises, perhaps the most obvious is why the Buhari administration, which has enjoyed worldwide support and goodwill since its emergence in May last year, would need to embark on any image laundering exercise.
Besides, why would the CBN be the government agency to award a PR contract when the ministry of information and the office of the media adviser to the president exist?
Also, what will the Buhari administration benefit from a three-month image laundering job in the US?
But, most importantly, was due process followed in the award of the contract? For this kind of contract, the Public Procurement Act requires that the contract be advertised in at least two international newspapers and a bidding process conducted, among other due processes. From our investigations, it is unlikely that any of these processes was followed.
What clearly proves the contract to be bogus, however, is that the Nigerian firm which the CBN purportedly hired to award the contract to APCO denied any knowledge of its existence.
“This is news to me. Please I want more details about this contract because this is the first time I’m hearing about it. We don’t have any contract with either the CBN or the federal government,” he declared, adding that some people might be using his company’s name to feather their nests.
But the biggest scandal of all is the denial by the CBN of any knowledge of the contract. When our reporter contacted the spokesman of the regulatory bank, Isaac Okorafor, to clarify issues surrounding the contract, he said that it does not exist as there was nothing in the records of the bank regarding it.
When he was first told of the contract, Mr. Okorafor denied any knowledge and said he would not “respond to a rumour.” He asked whether the reporter had evidence of the contract to which he got an affirmative response.
Mr. Okorafor then asked the reporter to “do an email stating the details of the contract.” On Tuesday morning, the CBN spokesman called our reporter to say that he had searched everywhere and asked everyone, but there was nothing about the contract in their books.
“I have searched through our system, I’ve asked around and looked out for what you said at every corner of our office and I can’t find anything like that. If you have any evidence or document to show me, you can scan it and show it to me,” he stated.
Asked if he confirmed from Kingsley Obiora whose name is provided as the liaison person for the bank, Mr. Okorafor said the CBN governor’s aide also denied knowledge of the contract.
“I am telling you I haven’t seen anything. I’ve asked everybody. So if you have any document to show me you can scan and send to me…” he said.
He refused further discussion on the matter and added that the newspaper could go ahead and publish falsehood.
“I have answered your question. If you want to go ahead and publish falsehood, you can go ahead. You can’t expect me to comment on a document I have not seen. I am a professional.”
By U S law, specifically the Foreign Agents Registration Act OF 1938, as amended, every firm providing services for a foreign principal is required to provide detailed information about any contract signed.
The document in the possession of the icirnigeria.org was filed and signed on June 9, 2016 by Terry Judd, a senior director at APCO on behalf of the PR firm. He gives the registrant’s name as APCO Worldwide Inc. and its address as 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 300 Washington, D.C. 20004.
In the filing, the foreign principal is given as “Central Bank of Nigeria (through Davebrook Digital PR Services Limited)” with address at “Plot 33, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Way, Central Business District, Cadastral Zone, Abuja, Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria.”
Also, in the document, the name and title of the official with whom registrant deals with is given as “Kingsley Obiora, Special Adviser to the Governor (Economic Matters) Central Bank of Nigeria.”
The detailed activity for which the PR firm will provide the CBN for three months at the cost of $95,000 is “media relations, stakeholder engagement, and strategic communications services within the United States to promote positive relations between the United States and the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The contract document was signed on April 20, 2016 by Acheson- Gray and Adesida.
However, the contract document itself was not filed as an annexture with the US Department of Justice as required by law. When our reporter checked www.fara.gov, the contract document was missing and he had to physically go to the Washington office of the Department of Justice to collect it. The official who provided the full contract document could not explain why it was missing in the documents filed with the Department of Justice.
The chief executive officer of the Public and Private Development Centre, PPDC, which advocates transparency in budget and public procurement processes, Seember Nyager, questions the entire contract and condemned the trend whereby public funds are being frivolously expended by several agencies of government to launder the country’s image.
“All government contracts must be bound by the Public Procurement law as long as state resources are involved. All contract will have to be through competitive bidding unless there is a reason to use a restricted method, and even then there has to be a justifiable reason,” she said.
“In any case why is CBN the one to award a PR contract for government? Is it because they have the resources?” she queried.
“I don’t think it is a good use of our resources. The unfortunate thing is that these things keep happening,” she said.
This report was first published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting. We have their permission to republish here.