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Election 2015 How foreign firm working for Jonathan hacked Buhari’s emails

The full story of how foreign firm tried to influence the 2015 presidential election for Jonathan by hacking into Buhari's personal emails.

  • Published:
8 corruption allegations Buhari govt levelled against Jonathan play Goodluck Jonathan hands over to Buhari after a bitter, divisive 2015 campaign (Guardian)

A London firm called Cambridge Analytica was hired by the Goodluck Jonathan campaign just before the 2015 election with a simple mandate—sway the Nigerian election by digging dirt on opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari. All the dirt in the world.

Buhari's medical records were also fair game.

The firm was handed £2m for its troubles.

The revelation has been made by Guardian UK and Observer.

Cambridge Analytica whose parent firm is called SCL Elections was hired “ by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan, Buhari play Buhari and Jonathan engaged in a bitter, divisive campaign in 2015 (Pulse.ng)

 

"Cambridge Analytica was paid an estimated £2m to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation”, the report reads.

According to the story, senior directors of Cambridge Analytica – including its chief executive, Alexander Nix – gave staff instructions to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.

The hackers were hired from Israel.

Buhari's medical records

“It was the kind of campaign that was our bread and butter,” one employee was quoted as saying. “We’re employed by a billionaire who’s panicking at the idea of a change of government and who wants to spend big to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Seven individuals with close knowledge of the Nigeria campaign described to the Guardian “how Cambridge Analytica worked with people they believed were Israeli computer hackers”.

Sources who spoke to the Observer over many months – said the company was looking for “kompromat” on Muhammadu Buhari of the then opposition APC.

President says he fainted when Jonathan called to concede play Jonathan called to concede after Buhari swept the polls (Nigerianeye)

 

As Cambridge Analytica pressed on with its plans to sway the Nigerian election, the Israelis were commissioned to hack into Buhari’s emails and uproot his medical records.

Recall that Buhari’s health dominated the PDP’s campaign message ahead of the 2015 election which was postponed from February to March.

According to The Guardian; “the hackers offered Cambridge Analytica access to private information about Buhari.

“Their testimony paints an extraordinary picture of how far a western company would contemplate going in an effort to undermine the democratic process in a country that already struggles to provide free and fair elections”.

Freaked out

The story details how Cambridge Analytica team in Nigeria freaked out and fled the country when they discovered they had been handed materials from Israeli hackers.

It reads as follows:

An ex-employee said: “[Kaiser] got a phone call. It was just before Christmas and she flew out to meet them in Washington DC. It was all a bit ridiculous. It was only six to eight weeks before the election and they were looking to spend nearly $2m.”

Goodluck Jonathan presided over Nigeria between 2010 and 2015 but was ousted by Muhammadu Buhari play Goodluck Jonathan returns to Otuoke after his annihilation by Buhari at the polls (AFP/File)

 

The election was a big deal. At stake, the future of the most populous country in Africa, and potential access to its lucrative oil reserves. The sitting president was favourite to win, though Buhari was doing unexpectedly well.

Not least because his team had hired AKPD, once the firm of former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod, which was pushing a slick, social media heavy Obama-esque message of hope.

“There were a lot of scared millionaires worried that Buhari would get in. It was all very last-minute. A team flew out to Abuja and put together a communications campaign. It was a straightforward, normal comms campaign in most respects,” the employee said.

Disturbing video

Most but not all respects. The Observer has obtained an astonishing and disturbing video that Cambridge Analytica used in the campaign.

“Coming to Nigeria on February 15th, 2015,” the voiceover says in the manner of a trailer for a Hollywood movie.

“Dark. Scary. And very uncertain. Sharia for all.” And then it poses the question: “What would Nigeria look like if sharia were imposed by Buhari?”

Its answer to that question is certainly dark. And scary. It’s also graphically, brutally, violent. One minute and 19 seconds of archive news footage from Nigeria’s troubled past set to a horror movie soundtrack.

Campaign posters of Goodluck Jonathan and Buhari at the last presidential campaign play The Buhari-Jonathan campaign posters swept the streets of Nigeria in 2015 (Vanguard )

 

There are scenes of people being macheted to death. Their legs hacked off. Their skulls caved in. A former contractor said: “It was voter suppression of the most crude and basic kind. It was targeted at Buhari voters in Buhari regions to basically scare the shit out of them and stop them from voting.”

If Buhari wins, the film warns: women would wear the veil. Sharia law would be introduced. And the inference is, you may be macheted to death.

It wasn’t just videos spreading fear. The Cambridge Analytica campaign team in Nigeria were jumpy too.

“It felt risky, being there. There were various points when we were told we were in danger.” And in the Abuja hotel to which the team was confined in early 2015, rumours abounded.

'Israelis didn't want Buhari to win'

The tales are Graham Greene-esque. The hotel was where slick western consultants, including a team from the now disgraced Bell Pottinger, partied with their Nigerian counterparts. Mingling among them, western intelligence operatives - state backed, or privately commissioned, nobody was quite sure.

And then there were the meetings: three sources have told the Guardian about one that took place between Cambridge Analytica employees and two people they were told were Israeli intelligence operatives.

“There was a two-hour meeting that took place in the hotel lobby between two senior campaign members and Israeli intelligence. After which they swept our hotel rooms for listening devices and said they would switch out our phones. The story we were told was that there were intelligence agents from a number of different countries, including Israel and France, who were supporting Goodluck Jonathan and helping the campaigns.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 25, 2018 play Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. His country didn't want Buhari to win? (AFP/File)

 

There is no suggestion that Jonathan was aware of or implicated in this support. Another employee said: “Basically the Israelis didn’t want [Buhari] to win.”

Other employees questioned whether they were “real” Israeli intelligence operatives, or Israeli private contractors.

A few weeks later, as the campaign was drawing to a close, there was another meeting at Cambridge Analytica’s London office.

An expert had flown in from Israel with a laptop, sources say.

And Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s now suspended CEO, and Kaiser, asked employees to take a thumb drive and download the contents on to their own computers.

The content was private emails and the information, they were told, related to Buhari’s financial and medical records.

One employee who was present at the London meeting said he had initially assumed the visiting expert was Mossad or Israeli intelligence passing on what he called “legtimate information”.

But he began to realise this wasn’t the case, he said, when he saw the reaction of his colleagues. One of them had “freaked out”, he said. “He was like, ‘What the fuck? I don’t want anything to do with this.’”

President Muhammadu Buhari (middle), Lai Mohammed play Buhari gets a get-well soon card from his media team after a recent medical trip to London (Bayo Omoboriowo)

 

The witnesses are clear – at least in their own minds. The information they were shown had come from hackers.

Back in Nigeria, the team still on the ground found out what was going on from their colleagues in London. There was more “freaking out”. This time with live, pressing concerns.

“They were fucking scared,” said a colleague who spoke to them while they were in the country. The campaign fixer, the person with local knowledge who navigated them through the ins and outs of Nigerian politics, made it clear to them: they needed to get out of the country right away.

Cambridge Analytica had put them all in danger, they said. If opposition supporters found out, there was no saying what might happen.

The APC Change poster during the 2015 elections play The APC preached change in 2015 (Africa Check)

 

One member of the team missed his flight and instead of asking the office to re-book it, he got the first fight out – to Dubai – and put it on his credit card. “Everyone just wanted to get out as soon as possible.”

Under investigation

Cambridge Analytica worked on the Donald Trump presidential campaign as well and the UK Brexit vote of 2016.

Cambridge Analytica’s operations are being investigated in the US by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his inquiry into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election.

A former employee of Cambridge Analytica recalls that moment when staff working on the campaign fled Nigeria.

“What is clear is that the security of their employees didn’t even seem to have occurred to them. It was a very serious situation and they had to evacuate immediately.”

Vendors

A statement from Cambridge Analytica’s company, SCL Elections denied any wrongdoing: “During an election campaign, it is normal for SCL Elections to meet with vendors seeking to provide services as a subcontractor. SCL Elections did not take possession of or use any personal information from such individuals for any purposes. SCL Elections does not use ‘hacked’ or ‘stolen’ data.

Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town hall debate on October 9, 2016. play Cambridge Analytica also worked on the campaign that produced Trump as president (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

 

“Members of the SCL Elections team that worked on the Nigeria campaign remained in country throughout the original campaigning period, although the election was rescheduled and SCL was not retained for the entirety of the extended campaign period.

“Team members left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan. Team members were regularly briefed about security concerns prior to and during deployment and measures were taken to ensure the team’s safety throughout.”

The Guardian writes that “the revelations will add to the questions facing Cambridge Analytica and the techniques it uses to influence elections for its clients.

“In the UK, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office are investigating the firm for breaches of electoral and data protection law”.

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