A political consulting firm founded by Obama administration confidante David Axelrod has been far more involved in backing controversial Nigerian presidential candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari than previously disclosed, according to a series of emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon and interviews with sources on the ground.
Axelrod’s firm, the Chicago-based AKPD, has admitted to doing work on behalf of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) party in the past, but claimed to have ceased its ties in March 2014 after the Islamist terror group Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.
However, emails sent between senior APC party members and advisers show that contrary to the firm’s claims, AKPD has quietly continued to perform political work on Buhari’s behalf as he fights to unseat current President Goodluck Jonathan.
With the controversial elections now delayed for another six weeks amid security concerns related to Boko Haram, sources on the ground in Nigeria are beginning to raise new questions about AKPD’s work on behalf of the APC and Buhari, who previously rose to power in the mid-1980s after leading a military coup.
AKPD’s ties to the APC first sparked controversy in March, when Boko Haram’s terror campaign attracted international outrage and shined a spotlight on Nigeria’s problems combatting terrorism.
Under pressure from the press and negative attention, the AKPD told reporters in March that it had ceased its work with the APC.
"AKPD worked with the APC from December 2013 to March 2014," AKPD spokesman Isaac Baker told the Washington Times last year. "We helped them as they worked to form a new political opposition party and create a platform in advance of their first national convention. We were no longer working with the APC when the Boko Haram kidnapping of the young girls took place."
However, AKPD’s Baker admitted on Monday that the firm worked again with the APC in December 2014.
"AKPD worked with APC from December 2013 to March 2014, at which point our contract ended. Nine months later, in December 2014, the APC re-hired AKPD for a 3-week engagement to help the party in organizing announcement events," Baker told the Free Beacon in an email. "That was our only involvement with the party since we completed work in March."
"That project is now complete and we have no ongoing relationship with them," Baker said.
The internal emails sent between APC advisers over the past several months and obtained by the Free Beacon confirm that the work with AKPD continued after March 2014.
In a series of messages between senior APC officials and advisers from September 2014 to late January 2015, AKPD polling and other work are repeatedly discussed.
"The meeting went well and the report well received. [Gov. Rotimi Amaechi] will meet with the AKPD team tomorrow to discuss the facilitation of the event but no dates fixed yet," APC member Olubunmi Adetunmbi wrote in one September 23 email to top Buhari adviser Kayode Fayemi.
AKPD’s work is again mentioned in a separate chain of emails sent between Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo, and adviser Fayemi.
"I also think the AKPD surveys also clearly showed that the South West is the battle ground for this election," Osinbajo writes in a discussion about boosting election turnouts for the APC.
A third email chain from Jan. 21 shows APC leader Nasir El-Rufai discussing an "October 2014 AKPD poll" that he hoped to disseminate to "the team."
Requests for comment sent to several APC figures mentioned in internal emails were not returned by press time.
Sources on the ground in Nigeria and familiar with how the elections have been shaping up say Buhari has run an uncharacteristically disciplined campaign.
"They have run … a well disciplined message campaign, running on a clear and singular message of change," said one source who agreed to discuss the matter only on background. "It sounds very familiar to another campaign some Americans might remember from seven years ago."
While the APC has had trouble displaying unity in past election bids, the current campaign has showed few signs of dissent, the source explained.
"It strongly points to coaching they ordinarily would not have had in past elections," according to the source. "That’s really the clearest sign that I’ve seen and other have seen that these guys are running a Western-style, Western-directed campaign that has identified a message through polling and research."
While Buhari has positioned himself as an agent of change, critics point to his controversial and oppressive rule over Nigeria in the 1980s.
Buhari’s military government was known for harshly cracking down on civil rights, arresting opposition forces, and intimidating critical journalists. Human rights activists routinely criticized Buhari’s military rule. Buhari was deposed in a 1985 coup.
Other sources on the ground and familiar with the APC’s campaign say that the party has been trying to keep AKPD’s ongoing work quiet. It is rumored that AKPD employees are being housed in an APC compound located in Lagos, according to multiple sources.
"The sense is they’re being hidden currently in Lagos," said another insider on the ground who would only speak on background. "They’re trying to keep a very low profile."
AKPD’s close ties to the Obama administration also has given rise to criticism from those who see the White House as meddling in the elections.
"They have been particularly careful not to be seen at all because of the perception of the connection between Axelrod and the president and what that would convey," said one of the sources quoted above.