By: Ray Ekpu
Since 1999, Nigeria has had four Chiefs of Staff who served four of our Presidents. Retired Major- General Abdullahi Mohammed served Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for all of his eight years in office and one year of Umaru Yar’Adua’s term. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan had the former Deputy Governor of Edo State, Chief Mike Oghiadomhe and later retired Brigadier General Arogbofa. They all served without the trembling of the earth, almost innocuously and almost unconspicuously.
Then President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Mr. Abba Kyari, a brilliant Cambridge-trained lawyer who was also a journalist and banker. He gave his Chief of Staff the power of an imperial gatekeeper. He said that all correspondences and requests for meetings must be passed through his Chief of Staff. I have no idea how the access of ministers to the President or their letters to him were being handled in the past because we never heard of any friction between the Ministers and the CoS. Maybe they existed and were quietly resolved behind locked doors.
However, during Abba Kyari’s tenure, there was an outburst when the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu said that for about one month he had sought to see the President who was, and still is, the Minister of Petroleum Resources but he was blocked. He had written a letter the content of which he wanted to discuss with the President. When he was denied access he or somebody else released the letter into the public space. It was like a firebomb. The letter set teeth on edge and fed fuel to the traditional and social media fire. The content hinted at corruption in the oil industry and the lack of due process in the contract awarding process.
But more importantly, the public was shocked that for a month or so the Minister could not see his immediate boss with whom he was jointly managing the strategic Petroleum ministry. This sounded like a tale from some Banana Republic. And the CoS kept sealed lips while the storm lasted, but it was obvious that he wasn’t flexible enough to manage the President’s directive in such a way that our oil industry did not face any serious crisis through inaction caused by a roadblock to the President. That is when it became crystal clear to most Nigerians that the gatekeeper’s office was more important than that of a minister, even a Minister in charge of the industry that feeds the nation.
When Nigerians rolled back the tape to the MTN fine issue and the role that the CoS played to the discomfiture of the supervising ministry, Ministry of Communications, the picture of Kyari’s powers, given or taken, in the administration of the country was getting clearer. And then the Siemens issue for which he travelled to Germany to wrap up an agreement on power without the Minister of Power was the clincher. This can be attributed to either the fluidity or elasticity or enormity of the power structure in the Presidency that residual power or a power vacuum can be easily filled by an ambitious CoS. That is how Kyari came to establish himself as the most powerful CoS Nigeria has ever got. And to some people, it did not seem like a misnomer to dub him as the Deputy President.
This may not have been intended as an insult to the cerebral Vice President Yemi Osinbajo but as a mark of the imperceptible acquisition of potent presidential powers by Kyari. That is the setting in which Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari finds himself as the newly minted, tear rubber Chief of Staff to Buhari. His credentials are impeccable. He passed through some of the most respected elite institutions in the world: Kings College, Lagos, London School of Economics and Columbia University, USA from where he received his Ph.D in Political Science. He has had a roller-coaster career as a Professor of Political Science, Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Nigeria’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. He capped it up as the UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa. When he was through with his diplomatic forays he decided to establish and chair The Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD). He is coming into the job at age 75, fully loaded with experiences which if properly utilised can help the President in the resolution of the many problems that afflict Nigeria.
The Nigerian Presidency is a behemoth; it is big and its powers have both depth and breadth and anyone who wants to be an emperor can turn the office into an Empire if not restrained. But ironically, it is also a very lonely office. Several American Presidents have complained not about the enormous powers inherent in the office but about the loneliness that comes with it. Andrew Jackson described it as “dignified slavery.” George Washington said that he felt like “a culprit, going to the place of his execution.” Harry Truman who always had a placard on his desk that read, “the buck stops here” stated his view of the American presidency in his memoirs thus: “To be President of the United States is to be lonely, very lonely, at times of great decisions.”
Dr. Chuba Okadigbo who was a chieftain of the NPN told Newswatch that there were two people who were like President Shehu Shagari’s shadows: Umaru Dikko and Uba Ahmed. He said that they were almost always the last persons to see the President at night and drop the last words for the night into his ears. In the Shagari loop of power, the two men were highly visible and influential because they had unimpeded access to the President.
As CoS Professor Gambari will be playing that role of granting or restricting access to the President. How he does it will make a lot of difference to Nigeria’s future. When Bill Clinton was campaigning for the presidency some years ago he told Americans that if they voted for him it would mean that they bought one and got one free. What he meant was that his wife Hilary was as good a Presidential material as he was and if they voted for him they would have the benefit of two Presidents working for the country. Of course, the woman is quite brilliant and capable and went on to become a Senator, a Secretary of State and the first female Presidential candidate of a major political party who nearly got into the White House in 2016.
By Gambari’s excellent credentials and pedigree, I think Nigeria has bought one and got one free. He must use that power of access judiciously and wisely for the benefit of Nigeria. For several decades Gambari has been a big game player; he has top drawer quality, refreshingly ingenious warmth and he is humble to boot despite his achievements. He has also been invested with disarming friendliness and social grace. If he brings these qualities into the job he will make a success of it.
Many people who manage or advise leaders mislead them for their own selfish agenda. But for the loud outburst from the public the last Inspector General of Police whose retirement period was up would have had his tenure extended beyond what the public service rules prescribe. A few years ago a federal Permanent Secretary whose time to go had come had got her tenure extended and this wrongdoing was defended by the last Head of the Civil Service Mrs Winifred Oyo-Ita. And this is a country with surplus manpower who could have easily filled her space. The former National Security Adviser Mr. Sambo Dasuki had been kept in prison for years despite various court rulings for him to be released on bail. The same thing happened to Elzakzaky and his wife. Those who found devilishly ingenious reasons to keep them in custody despite the court decisions including ECOWAS court were hurting the President and our country’s democracy. Our reputation as a country took a hit.
Since Gambari’s appointment was announced some people have made some excursions into his past pointing out what they consider to be the weaknesses in his character. Everybody has weaknesses. As William Shakespeare said in his play All’s well that ends well, “the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Most people have enemies in the course of their life’s journey. If there is anyone who has no enemy that person must be a failure. In life most things are bearable except other people’s good fortune. For those who are taking up arms against Gambari I would plead that they should give him the opportunity to concentrate on helping this beleaguered country that is almost on its knees to get back on its feet.
Before COVID-19 arrived we were battling daily with killings and kidnappings in various parts of the country in addition to Boko Haram that has been a source of torment for the country since 2009. Many of our citizens are still in captivity. Now the price of our major product, crude oil, has been badly hit by the downturn in the world’s economy because of the pandemic. All hands must be on deck if we are to rescue the country from the present predicament. One scholar and former diplomat who had worked with Gambari on several international issues affecting Nigeria, Professor George Obiozor spoke recently on his appointment. He said that our country needs healing and that Gambari “will bring to the table enough dignity and impeccable character that will enable him to reconcile the country and help Mr. President to do a lot for this nation.”
Gambari was a member of the 2014 National Conference which came up with about 600 decisions that can transform the country if implemented. The Buhari government has refused or failed to look at those recommendations. Instead, the APC set up its own Committee under the Governor of Kaduna State, Mr. Nasir El-Rufai. The Committee had since submitted its report which made some recommendations that look like a Xerox copy of the national conference recommendations. We expect Gambari, as the President’s unofficial adviser, to convince the President to look into those reports for the benefit of our country.
Another area of concern about the Buhari presidency is the lopsided appointment that constitutes a violation of the federal character provisions. It does not help the cause of the country’s unity, the spirit of inclusiveness and the people’s sense of belonging. Such appointments can only bring disunity, bitterness and a sense of alienation. Recently, Gambari was at the 80th birthday of the former Minister of Defence, retired General Domkat Bali in Abuja. Gambari said that “most of the problems confronting Nigeria were results of the structure, adding that if a structure is not working we have a responsibility to make an adjustment to that structure.” He went further: “We have serious reasons to be worried as a country. Our country is not in good shape. The countries we were at par with at independence are far ahead of us in terms of national cohesion and physical infrastructure. So we must identify and analyse the problems that are bedevilling us.”
Those problems have been identified and analysed and various groups have been campaigning for the implementation of the identified solutions. No one can reinvent the wheel now. The solutions to our problems are within arms reach. The Asian Tigers such as Singapore, Indonesia Malaysia and South Korea with whom we started the development marathon have since hit the tape while we are still crawling like a tortoise. They have become first world countries now and they are even called Asian Dragons today.
Gambari has a unique opportunity as an experienced senior citizen to whisper some words into the President’s ears to stay on top of the hot button issues and bring about the country’s transformation before 2023. It can be done because it is not rocket science. All that is needed is the political will and a sense of history. Both Buhari and Gambari are in the home stretch of their public service careers. I urge them to make it a memorable ending both for themselves and for Nigeria.
(First published by The Guardian)