Divide and Confuse: Selling Nigeria to American Blacks
A few weeks ago, while reading a local black newspaper, I came across an impressive eight-page, four-color insert titled "Nigeria: A Closer Look." It included an article by Dorothy Leavell of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (N.N.P.A.), a trade organization of black newspapers, and editorials by Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, and by the Rev. Maurice Dawkins, listed as a freelance writer and a fighter for African freedom. The insert showed a country with a thriving free press, a population largely supportive of a government trying to make the transition to civilian rule and struggling to find its own kind of democracy. It was a different picture from what I had seen in mainstream papers showing Nigerian journalists frequently censored, political activists banned and human rights abuses rampant.The insert was the third occurrence I had noticed involving black newspaper publishers and Nigeria since the government of that country hanged environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists last November, an action that prompted groups like TransAfrica and human rights and environmental groups to call for international sanctions against the West African nation. The other two events were the report of a fact-finding trip to Nigeria by the N.N.P.A. and a full-page ad petitioning support of the Nigerian government placed in 110 black newspapers across the country by an organization calling itself the Coalition for Fairness to Nigeria. "Black Americans can no longer tolerate a double standard treatment of Black African Nations by the United States government," wrote Leavell, president of the N.N.P.A., in the ad. "If Jewish Americans can stand up for Israel we can stand up for Africa. Now is the time to let President Clinton know that we African-Americans respectfully recommend responsible engagement with Nigeria and oppose isolation and economic sanctions."At first glance such reasoning sounds plausible, given the treatment African nations have historically received from Washington. But in this case the arguments are misleading. Behind the aggressive "advertorial" and media campaign being waged by the N.N.P.A. is the Nigerian government, aided by an army of U.S. public relations firms, lobbyists, front groups and a black media placement company. Their aim, says Melvin Foote of the Constituency for Africa, a Washington advocacy group, is "to create doubt" about Nigeria in the minds of African-Americans.Kakuna Kerina, program coordinator for Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City, terms it "a pathetic example of how people can be co-opted or bought off."At the center of the Nigerian government's advertorial and media campaign is Maurice Dawkins, onetime Senate candidate from Virginia and black conservative with ties to right-wingers like Oliver North and to the religious right. Although listed as a freelance writer for the N.N.P.A.'s editorials, Dawkins is a paid lobbyist for the Nigerian government. He serves as an associate for the Alexandria, Virginia, public relations firm Symms, Lehn & Associates. Symms, Lehn is one of the many P.R. firms at the disposal of the Nigerian government. Dawkins registered as a lobbyist December 12, 1995, with the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Office (FARA). Between July 1 and December 31 of last year, he received $18,000. According to documents filed with FARA, Dawkins was to schedule and attend meetings between the government of Nigeria and members of Congress and the executive branch. But the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the subsequent international outcry brought an additional role for Dawkins: keeping sanctions from being imposed on Nigeria.It's a role that Dawkins defends. "Everyone has lobbyists," he told me in an interview. "That's the way we do business in this country. Besides, I have a history. I was working on behalf of Africa before I was a lobbyist. I helped to found the American Committee on Africa and in 1970, TransAfrica."But Richard Knight of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) says he can't remember Dawkins playing a role in the group's formation. "In the twenty years that I've worked here, I've never had any dealings with Dawkins in a positive light," he says. "The only time I've run into him is when he's lobbying against something we're for." George Houser, founder of ACOA, said he vaguely remembers Dawkins because the group was founded at Community Church in New York City, where Dawkins was an assistant pastor. "To say that he helped to found the ACOA is a little exaggerated," says Houser. The Rev. Donald Harrington, for whom Dawkins worked, says he hired Dawkins to be the assistant pastor at Community Church to work on education programs but that Dawkins never served as an officer or founding member of ACOA. TransAfrica's Debroah Harrod says the only Maurice Dawkins she remembers was an intern, a younger man who could not be the same Maurice Dawkins lobbying for Nigeria. "No one in the office knows anything about him helping to found TransAfrica," she says.The only work on Africa those I interviewed can remember Dawkins doing was in the mid-eighties for UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla group headed by Jonas Savimbi, which was backed by the apartheid South African regime and at one time by Washington. According to FARA documents, between December 1986 and June 1987, Dawkins received $123,577 from UNITA for lobbying. He gave speeches and interviews and met with members of Congress and civil rights leaders. His goal was to lobby Congressional intelligence committees to "avoid cutoff of covert aid to Free Angola," according to FARA records. Dawkins serves a similar role for the government of Nigeria. "What the Nigerian government is doing through Dawkins is trying to drive a wedge in the African-American community between those like TransAfrica and the N.A.A.C.P., that support sanctions, and other members of the community," says Dave Peterson, a program officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy.Dawkins employs a two-pronged strategy: promoting racial solidarity by accusing the U.S. media and government of racism, and creating doubt about the motives and credibility of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Nigerian pro-democracy groups. This strategy is reinforced with ads and editorials by members of the black press, by Roy Innis of CORE and by alleged grass-roots organizations that have formed to support the Nigerian government: the National Coalition for Fairness to Nigeria, the National Coalition for Fairness in African Policy and Americans for Democracy in Africa. These three groups, however, can all be traced back to Dawkins. When I called Symms, Lehn for information on contacting Dawkins, I was referred to a number where the receptionist answered the phone, "Americans for Democracy in Africa." Dawkins himself answered the phone there for our interview. Joan Wallace, identified as chair of the Americans for Democracy in Africa in a full-page ad in The New York Times, is Dawkins's wife. Dawkins admits to being chairman of the Coalition for Fairness to Nigeria, which paid for ads in the black papers. When I called the National Coalition for Fairness in African Policy, which paid for the Americans for Democracy in Nigeria New York Times ad, the person answering the phone said Dawkins was out of town but confirmed that he runs the organization."Maurice Dawkins has no friends or family in Nigeria," says Felix Morka, now U.S. representative for the Nigerian Human Rights Community, a broad umbrella group. "He's just trying to get a paycheck. The American public is not up on the situation in Nigeria, so when Dawkins puts out this kind of information, if they don't have an alternative, they have no choice but to believe what they see."For the most part Dawkins has been aided in this effort by the N.N.P.A., an organization formed in 1940 that represents more than 200 black newspapers with 11 million readers across the country. Through a series of editorials, the N.N.P.A. has attempted to portray Nigeria as a black nation under siege by the "majority media" and the "international liberal left network," as Dawkins put it. After traveling to Nigeria on a trip organized by Dawkins and paid for by the Nigerian government, the group wrote: "We found that those governing, being labeled in the United States as the most 'corrupt and brutal dictator in the world,' were actually installed by a broad section of Nigerian citizenship, including many who were held in detention.x We found no violence on the streets, human rights abuses, universal corruption, nor abuse of power."Critics charged that the group was wined and dined by the government and could not have met with opposition parties, journalists or anyone else for an opposing view of the country. "I think that the N.N.P.A. was bamboozled in Nigeria," said Mel Foote of the Constituency for Africa, who visited the country with another delegation on a fact-finding trip. "So what if you're the N.N.P.A.? That doesn't make you an expert on Africa."Foote says his delegation, which was funded by an African businessman with ties to the Nigerian government, was entertained by oil company executives and government officials. The government did attempt to limit their contact with opposition groups. Still, he says, he did get to meet with Moshood Abiola, the businessman and presumptive winner of the 1993 Nigerian presidential election, who has been under house arrest since declaring himself president a year after the election was nullified by the country's military leadership.Dave Peterson, who accompanied Foote on the trip, confirmed news and human rights accounts of political repression. "I've worked in Nigeria for ten years and the current level of repression is the highest that I have ever seen," he said. "The fear in Ogoniland is palpable, and the oil companies are most likely playing a role." Peterson said his entourage was supposed to have had a whole day to meet with opposition groups but scheduling by the government cut it to less than thirty minutes. "So I can't imagine what the N.N.P.A. could have seen without knowing anyone."Bill Reed of the N.N.P.A. stands by his reporting. "What I saw, who I met with, they can't take that away from me," Reed said. "I did objective reporting based on what I saw and who we were able to see." Reed says his delegation met with people from a cross section of Nigeria, including journalists, human rights groups and even banned opposition parties. Reed claims that his group also went to Ogoniland, in Rivers State, where they met with members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and the widows of the Ogoni chiefs that Ken Saro-Wiwa was alleged to have ordered slain. Regarding the environmental damage that MOSOP says Shell Oil created, Reed sides with the Nigerian government, blaming sabotage by Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP.As for Nigerians who denigrate the N.N.P.A.'s reporting, Reed says, "Those people who criticize us are not just regular people waiting to get their green cards. They are people who have direct linkage with Abiola and tremendous funding sources. We were looking out for what will be good for the people."There may be other incentives for N.N.P.A. support, however. Besides the junket underwritten by the Nigerian government, revenue from the Nigerian ad campaign provides significant income to a black press with faltering ad revenues. According to Amalgamated Publishers Inc. (A.P.I.), the black media placement company that produced the petition ads and inserts, in 1995 black newspapers lost significant funding from the tobacco industry, Amtrak and Greyhound Bus Lines -- longtime revenue sources. Ads like the ones for Nigeria appearing in early March in black newspapers cost from $700 to $12,000, according to an advertising executive at a black newspaper who asked not to be named. The inserts cost anywhere from $50 to $80 per thousand, depending on circulation, he said. A.P.I. at one point spoke openly of its relationship with the Nigerian government, even citing it in a newsletter, with A.P.I. president Michael House noting, "As many of you know, the Nigerian government has initiated an advertorial campaign in black newspapers along with an informational 8 page/4 color supplement on Nigeria that will be inserted at the first of the year."Sanford Sims, national markets sales manager at A.P.I., explains, "The Nigerian government came to us and said, 'We're trying to get a message out to the black community.' They gave us the text of what they wanted to say, wrote a check, and we hired someone to produce the insert." House, who reportedly also arranged for the Nigerian Ambassador to be one of the featured speakers at the N.N.P.A. annual meeting in the Bahamas earlier this year, did not return phone calls seeking comment."They certainly got their thirty pieces of silver," says Randy Echols, acting in Washington as executive assistant for U.S. affairs for Abiola. "All this has done is to further undermine the credibility of the black press." So far the ad campaign seems to have had little effect on African-American perceptions. Other than the ads and editorials produced by Dawkins and his associates, there has been little activity generated in favor of Nigeria. Instead, support for actions against the country has increased.*The New York City Council passed a resolution condemning the government of Nigeria, over the objection of Roy Innis of CORE and his son Niger, who lobbied against the resolution.*The National Black Caucus of State Legislators turned down a request by Dawkins that they attend the recent elections in Nigeria. California State Senator Diana Watson wrote on behalf of N.B.C.S.L. members, "I am troubled by the fact that our trip is financed by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. I cannot justify in my mind being guest of a government that has deprived its people of a legitimately democratically elected president."*Under the direction of TransAfrica, fifty-four prominent African-Americans signed a letter to President Clinton asking for an oil embargo and other punitive measures against Nigeria.*Much of the membership of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto a bill sponsored by its chairman, Donald Payne, that would impose limited sanctions on Nigeria. And some black publications, like ysb, a magazine for young African-Americans, and The City Sun newspaper in New York City, have taken positions critical of the Nigerian government. Many black columnists have also taken positions in opposition. "Not all the black press buys into the things the N.N.P.A. is saying," observes Frank Dexter Brown, editor in chief of ysb.In a larger sense the N.N.P.A. is right to call attention to the negative images of Africa and its people. For too long Africa has been a victim of U.S. media and government, portrayed as a continent ravaged by AIDS, economic chaos, starvation and ethnic wars, and used during the cold war as a strategic lever against the Soviet Union. In this regard, the N.N.P.A. has every right to travel to Africa to dispel myths and establish dialogue between Africans and African-Americans. This was the vision of the great African-American scholar and journalist W.E.B. Du Bois at the first meeting of the Pan-African Congress, in London in 1900. Du Bois called for a "news network geared toward calling international attention to the living conditions of the Black people of Africa and the Diaspora." The N.N.P.A., however, under the influence of a black lobbyist and the Nigerian government, appears to have desecrated this vision by crossing the line between good journalism and public relations, substituting one myth for another.