It’s not the kind of image problem they teach about in PR charm school: nine Nigerian activists, including world-renowned playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanging lifeless on a prison scaffold, victims of ruthless military dictator Sani Abacha. Within 24 hours of the Nov. 10 executions, the British Commonwealth had suspended Nigeria, President Clinton had recalled the U.S. ambassador, and African leaders from Nelson Mandela to Robert Mugabe were deploring the Nigerian regime.

Still, Gen. Abacha had good reason to hope that his bloody image would soon be buffed and shined, at least in America. Four Washington-area lobbying firms are doing their best to paste a happy face on Abacha’s despotic government. None has profited more than Washington & Christian, which has built a tidy franchise out of sanitizing the general’s messy reputation. Nigeria has sunk nearly $5 million into the 14-member D.C. law firm and its lobbying shop, the Washington Strategic Consulting Group. They have been Abacha’s primary D.C. flacks since he seized power in a 1993 coup. Since then, he has banned Nigeria’s elected government, jailed competitors, closed newspapers, and made a mockery of Nigeria’s putative transition to democracy.

Of course, cleaning up after foreign dictators can draw big yawns in Washington. D.C. lobbyists have long represented horrendous strong men ranging from Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko to Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Spinning for a dictator can sometimes make lobbyists feel a little queasy—“When we all graduated from college we…didn’t think we’d be working for people we didn’t want to work for,” says one Nigeria lobbyist—but many Washington flacks see the world as criminal lawyers do: They are making the best case for their clients, who have a right to representation. And lobbying for foreign tyrants, no matter how reprehensible, is perfectly legal, as long as lobbyists report their activities to the Department of Justice.

But Washington & Christian’s work for Nigeria seems particularly cynical, even by K Street’s low standards. Washington & Christian is a liberal, Democratic, African-American firm with ties to eminent blacks from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Democratic icon Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.). The firm is allied to the generation of black leaders who led the charge against apartheid South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s, and who faced down Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs to free the American South of segregation.

Few Democrats can match managing partner Robert Washington’s liberal credentials. He cut his teeth as a staffer for powerhouse Michigan Democrat Charles Diggs, founder and first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was an early confidant of Mayor Marion Barry and chaired the D.C. Democratic Committee. “Bob and [James Christian Sr., the firm’s other name partner] are clearly advocates for social justice in this country,” says Jackson, a longtime friend of Washington. Washington & Christian has donated space for campaign fundraisers for former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and firm members have contributed to the campaigns of Rangel, Dellums, and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.).

Robert Washington has tried to build Washington & Christian into the blockbuster black lobbying firm, and he has recruited accordingly. Steven Pruitt, the former staff director of the House Budget Committee, is a key lobbyist. Leola “Roscoe” Dellums, a Georgetown law graduate and the wife of Rep. Dellums, signed on with the firm the same week in 1993 that her husband became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The Dellumses’ son, Erik, also works at the firm as an assistant to his mother and other lawyers. Leonard H. Robinson Jr., perhaps the only Republican at the firm, served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Bush administration. And Adwoa Dunn-Mouton, a former director of African Studies at Howard University, brought a special expertise to the firm: As a House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer, she had pushed hard for sanctions against South Africa. These days, she bills Nigeria $190 per hour for her services.

“Why do blacks who profess to want to support their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, why would they take money from a dictator who is oppressing 100 million black people?” asks Randall Echols, an African-American lobbyist for M.K.O. Abiola, the widely acknowledged winner of Nigeria’s 1993 democratic elections. (Abiola is now languishing in prison, courtesy of Abacha.) “If Abacha were white, Bob Washington and his crowd wouldn’t have the nerve to publicly, or even privately, support, rationalize, or apologize for him and his rapacious rogues.”

Amnesty International, the human rights group, has also denounced the lobbying firm. “We have strong issue with the people at Washington & Christian,” says Adotei Akwei, the group’s Africa program officer. Akwei says that Robert Washington phoned him and accused him of betraying his black brothers by publicly protesting the Nigerian dictator’s appalling acts. “[He] called me up and said….”What [are you] doing? You are attacking an African government.’…I basically said, “Listen, I understand you have to make a living, but you know that doesn’t excuse you,’ ” for flacking for dictators, Akwei says.

Robert Washington did not return repeated calls. But he told the Oakland Tribune last year: “We don’t discuss our clients. We have a right to represent whom we please.”

Some of his clients concur, including American cities with large black populations. Despite negative news reports on Washington & Christian’s foreign work, Cleveland, Miami, and Oakland continue to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the firm’s services.

Nigeria’s recent executions are just the latest step in the sad journey of black Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria is an oil mecca—it is Africa’s biggest exporter—but since its 1960 independence, its people haven’t exactly made a killing off their black gold. The World Bank says that 60 percent of Nigerians lack safe water and that 43 percent of its small children are malnourished. Unemployment is rampant and inflation tops 50 percent. Meanwhile, a tiny and corrupt elite has amassed huge oil fortunes with the blessings of a series of dictators. Abacha is the latest and arguably the most ruthless ruler. He grabbed power in a coup after his predecessor annulled 1993 elections that observers called the freest and fairest in the country’s history.

The State Department says that conditions have worsened markedly since. Its most recent report calls Nigeria’s human rights situation “dismal” and its prison conditions “life threatening.” Police and security forces torture and kill Abacha’s opponents. Saro-Wiwa’s treatment provides a case in point. Charged with four murders that occurred during anti-oil company demonstrations where he was not present, the one-time Nobel Prize nominee was locked up for more than a year. Then he was tried by an army-appointed tribunal with no access to his lawyers outside of court and no right of appeal. The tribunal ruled that he had incited the violence that led to the murders. He and eight unlucky colleagues were hurriedly hanged, before international appeals for mercy reached full force.

None of the outrage provoked by this brutality seems to have fazed the regime, which is said to be planning the executions of at least 17 other activists. It has kept placing regular full-page ads in the New York Times, declaring “the transition to democracy is imminent.” The Nigerian ambassador here, Zubair Mahmud Kazaure, has been recalled to Nigeria, and a spokesman declined comment. But Kazaure told the Washington Post last month, “I am proud to defend my country….General Abacha’s actions are guided by his concern for security and stability.”

Last year, asked publicly to comment on the performance of Washington & Christian, Kazaure said with a smile: “They are my friends.”

Washington & Christian and its lobbying shop have undoubtedly picked the most appalling three years in Nigeria’s recent history to work as its spin doctors. But spin they have. The lobbying shop hooked up with then-dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida six months before the June 1993 elections. One of the lobbyists’ first missions—which helped earn them $396,000—was trying to persuade President Clinton to meet with Babangida—a slight problem, since the Nigerian dictator was at the time busy banning strikes, shutting down newspapers, and detaining activists without charge.

The firm found a friend in Sen. Moseley-Braun, who had taken what an aide called a “personal trip” to Nigeria after her 1992 election. In March 1993, her former campaign manager and then-fiancé, Kgosie Matthews, was in hiring discussions with the Washington Strategic Consulting Group. Moseley-Braun collared Clinton at a Democratic senators’ retreat and urged him to meet with the dictator. After Matthews was hired at Washington Strategic Consulting Group, Moseley-Braun wrote Clinton, again pushing him to meet with Babangida. She wrote that she could “neither accept nor understand” the State Department’s vociferous opposition to a meeting.

According to Moseley-Braun’s office, she lobbied for the meeting only before Babangida quashed the elections. “The context was totally different,” says Bill Mattea, the senator’s legislative director. The office also provided 1994 and 1995 letters to Abacha from Moseley-Braun complaining about rights violations and a new statement calling the Saro-Wiwa execution “deplorable.”

Other friends of Washington & Christian also began speaking up on Nigeria’s behalf. In May 1993, at a summit of Africans and African-Americans in Gabon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called Babangida “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time,” the Post reported. Jackson said Babangida should be rewarded for moving toward democracy with a White House visit with Clinton.

“Washington & Christian…used Jesse Jackson to go out there and he spoke for them,” one D.C. lobbyist said afterward.

“There’s no question about it that Washington & Christian convinced both Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus to lobby the White House to have Babangida invited to the United States,” adds Dan Matthews, the editor of Africa Insider, a D.C.-based newsletter specializing in U.S.-Africa relations.

“That’s not true,” counters Jackson. “It had nothing to do with Bob Washington.” Jackson says he favored the meeting because it would have pressured Babangida to keep his promise to hold elections.

Despite the urging of Washington & Christian, the Clinton administration did not invite Babangida to Washington, and the dictator never met with the president.

That same May, Washington & Christian signed up to represent the National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria, and collected $200,000 upfront. The company, which builds fertilizer plants, was established, directed, and partly owned by the Nigerian government. Leola Dellums did not respond to interview requests for this story, but she has said elsewhere that she brought the client to the firm, and that she stopped lobbying for it after Babangida canceled the results of Nigeria’s June 1993 elections. She now does no foreign work for the firm, according to Justice Department filings.

The State Department called the dictator’s annulment of the June 1993 vote “outrageous,” cut off $450,000 in military aid, and expelled Nigeria’s military attache. Protests erupted in Nigeria, where democracy activists claim the government killed more than 100 peaceful demonstrators and locked up hundreds more.

But that didn’t deter Washington & Christian. A few weeks later the firm signed up to flack for Nigeria, as its lobbying shop was already doing.

The law firm collected $400,000 and promptly drafted a brief called “Nigeria: The Road to Democracy.” Sent to 200 journalists and politicians, it blamed critics for their “misunderstanding and lack of appreciation” of the good reasons for snuffing the elections. Anyway, it boasted, Nigeria’s transition to democracy was 90 percent complete, since local, state, and National Assembly elections had already been held. When Abacha took over in a coup two months later and immediately dissolved every elected body in the country, the firm wasn’t bothered. Washington & Christian began representing him.

Abacha soon perfected the art of promising to hold elections—and then stalling. (He recently said that 1998 would be soon enough for him to leave office.) Meanwhile, the firm kept busy advising him on U.S. “perceptions” of Nigeria’s democratization process, and handling criticism here. Not long after President Clinton barred Nigerian officials from visiting the United States, Washington met with Moseley-Braun on Nigeria policy. He and Pruitt also traveled to Nigeria, and Dunn-Mouton made dozens of calls on the country’s behalf, many to her old colleagues at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They must have done a good job. In July 1994, Nigeria paid the lobbying shop another $2.3 million for its efforts.

Abacha grew increasingly ruthless that summer. He jailed Abiola, the president-elect. Strikes and protests erupted. Abacha cracked down on opponents, closing newspapers, deporting foreign journalists, and jailing critics without charge. He announced harsh decrees squashing civil rights and forbade the judiciary from reviewing them.

Robert Washington lost no time putting the best face on all of this. One week after his firm collected the $2.3-million payment, he wrote to 111 senators and members of Congress. “I would like to communicate with you on the many positive things that are happening in Nigeria,” the letter opened. His client, he wrote, was “propelling Nigeria in a direction that will allow the people to reclaim their status as a true leader in Africa and the world.” Abacha’s plans to restore democracy, he added, were “moving forward with appropriate dispatch and high-level involvement.” He appeared on CNBC’s Inside Opinion to defend the regime. Meanwhile, his partner Christian told Miami’s New Times that Nigeria was a victim of distortions by overzealous watchdog groups like Amnesty. “None of my clients have been found guilty of any violations,” he said.

Nigeria paid $105,000 to the lobbying shop and $1.5 million to the law firm, in December 1994 and March 1995, respectively. Just before the March payment, the firm almost broke its ties to its client, according to its most recent filing with the Justice Department. “While W & C originally decided that this relationship would terminate [in February 1995], unexpected events require continued representation of [Nigeria] for an indefinite period of time,” the papers say.

In the last year, the firm has shifted its focus to trying to remove Nigeria from the Clinton administration’s list of lax drug enforcers. (Such nations lose U.S. aid.) But it has still found time to spin the latest Abacha debacles, of which there have been plenty. In March, Abacha summarily executed at least 60 soldiers who allegedly plotted a coup, Newsday reported. In July, another 40 people, including a respected former head of state, were convicted at secret military trials, although Abacha, under intense pressure, has since commuted the death sentences of some. In June, after a constitutional conference controlled by Abacha produced a document widely regarded as a sham, Washington & Christian sent out press releases proclaiming that Nigeria was moving “inexorably toward a system of democracy acceptable to all Nigerians.”

As of their latest Justice Department filing, dated Aug. 31, the firm and its lobbying shop had collected $4.7 million from the Nigerian government, plus the $200,000 from the government-directed fertilizer company.

In the age of equal opportunity, it may be naive to expect a black firm like Washington & Christian to walk away from lucrative African clients. “Nigeria is a black nation. It’s a government that has resources at its disposal. They would naturally turn to a black firm,” says David Bositis, an analyst at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a minority-issues think tank.

And after all, if the firm didn’t take the Nigeria account, some other firm—undoubtedly a white one—would. White firms represent dictators all the time, and no one blinks. In fact, the other local firms representing Nigeria right now are heavily white. They are: Georgetown’s Barron & Birrell Inc., which in July signed a $400,000, one-year contract with Nigeria; Symms, Lehn & Associates Inc., of Alexandria, run by Steve Symms, a former Republican senator from Idaho, which in August began a $350,000, one-year contract; and APCO Associates Inc., on L Street NW, which has collected $200,000 for handling recent U.S. visits by the Nigerian foreign minister and other politicians. Is it really fair to hold an African-American firm to a different standard?

Advocacy groups say that the issue isn’t a double standard: None of the firms should escape condemnation for doing what they’re doing. Washington & Christian and its lobbying shop have, in any event, represented the regime for far longer, and earned millions more for it, than the other firms.

What’s more, Washington & Christian has a sorry history of representing just about any body who can pay the freight. The Washington Strategic Consulting Group has collected more than $1 million as spin doctors for the government of Cameroon. There, according to the State Department, President Paul Biya and his inner circle condone “egregious” human rights violations by security police. Washington & Christian also represents Gabonese ruler Omar Bongo. He has ruled that oil-rich country since 1967, while accumulating a massive personal fortune. Bongo’s 1993 elections featured secret vote counts barring all but government observers. He has paid Washington & Christian $1.3 million since 1993.

What’s worst about the firm’s work, say some critics, is that it stains an honorable liberal Democratic legacy. “The same rights that African-Americans died and fought and marched for years here in the United States are being denied today by Gen. Abacha to Nigerians,” says Abiola’s lobbyist Echols. “So the level of hypocrisy on the part of all the American Negroes who choose to try to rationalize and support this oppression in Nigeria is unprecedented.”

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michael Reidy.