On Wednesday, May 13, 2020, Prof. Ibrahim AgboolaGambari was officially unveiled by President Buhari as the new Chief of staff at the federal executive council meeting to replace late Abba Kyari, who died in April following complications from the Covid-19 infection. It was an anti-climax of the sort given the chaotic circumstances characteristic of this government as speculations about the appointment had been rife for over 24 hours without a word from the presidency; it took a family source identified as the Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji Sulu Gambari to confirm it.
Since the appointment was made official, several things have been said about the new CoS, but none of these is particularly material to his suitability. There is little doubt that the president could have made a different choice. Prof. Gambari is as good as they come, and perhaps one of the country’s finest diplomats: A former director General of NIIA, former external affairs minister, former Nigeria Permanent Representative at the United Nations for over a decade, and Under-Secretary-General of the UN.
So if the demand of the office is qualification and merit, President Buhari got it right; at least the replacement is no less qualified than the previous holder of the office. As far as competence and capacity go, there may be little to worry, given his accomplishments as a technocrat. But in Nigeria, performance is not dependent on merit and capability; in most cases, as has been demonstrated over time by this government, it all comes one thing: Politics and loyalty to the president.
From all accounts of him, the late CoS was also very qualified and capable but such sterling qualities were largely compromised by ethnic politics and personal loyalty above national interest. Generally defined as the gatekeeper, the office of the chief of staff is the only non-statutory position that commands so much national relevance and responsibility. To a large extent, it determines the performance and functionality of the Presidency in general and the president particularly.
As the number one staff of the president, he has a lot of leverage over his principal in decision making and policy direction. He is the brain-box of the president and can determine in a very definite manner the content and outcome of policies. The major failing of the previous holder of the office was an inclination to use such a powerful position to advance narrow sectional objectives at the expense of national cohesion, peace and stability. Given the untrammelled power he wielded, as a result of the president’s health challenges and mental dysfunctions, it was a golden opportunity for a fair-minded and nationalistic technocrat to steer the ship of state toward a more accommodating, and less bellicose administration.
Many people believe that this government has foisted a divisive culture that rolled back several years of whatever gains had been made in our march toward unity, peace and justice. No CoS can be exonerated from the policy positions of the president, so he is as guilty or responsible as the man. As President Trump of U.S, who has had four CoS in four years, has demonstrated, there could never be any difference of opinion or philosophy between them.
Here then is the real burden of the office which Prof. Gambari has been thrust into by this appointment. His response to the media after inauguration through diplomatic was also concerning and indeed, troubling. According to him, his first and only loyalty is to the president. This is sad and a red flag to those who cherished the principles of democracy and national integration, and lay at the root of the problems of patriotism and nationhood.
The question is, to whom or what do government appointees owe their allegiance? When there is a conflict between the person and the state, which takes precedence? It is a question most advanced democracies have settled without reservations, but still undecided in societies, such as ours. This explains why President Trump has had such high turn-over of CoS because those concerned would prefer to leave than compromise their allegiance which they have sworn to the state.
Gambari is coming at a period the nation is confronted with political and economic challenges. Unlike the economic problems, though urgent but transitory, the political issues are deep-seated and of far-reaching implications. The nation is more divided than it has ever been since the civil war, and this government is particularly responsible for it. There is a general sense of insecurity in a different part of the country as a result of the activities of a certain group from a part of the nation, who seems to have official approval.
Nigerians from the southern part of the country generally feel a complete sense of alienation from this government in appointments and distributions of government benefits, such as the Social Investment Programme. This government has promoted an absurd culture of nepotism which has seen virtually every position of consequence in the country occupied by only people of his ethnic group. For the first time in our history, the three arms of government are headed by Hausa Fulanis; as well as all the top 21 security agencies. This cannot be the picture of one united country.
It is the opinion of this newspaper that the Nigeria federation is in deep crisis and needs urgent redemption. It is here that we support his appointment because there is an urgent need for fresh political thinking in government. As a renowned scholar in political science, it is important for a reverse, through critical inputs, the growing dysfunction of the state. As secretary of the 2014 Political conference, some of the recommendations still hold the key to the nagging questions of unity and stability in the country.
If some of these can be infused into public policies to improve national functionality, posterity will reserve a place of honour for him. He must realize that the entire world he once served at the UN is watching, and his reputation is at stake. It will be sad and unfortunate to allow the global reputation he has attained over the years to be rubbished by a few years of political office; at 75, nothing could more tragic than that.