By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
When former President Olusegun Obasanjo introduced the office of Chief of Staff into the Nigerian presidency in 1999, very few people here knew the significance of the office that was first introduced by President John F. Kennedy into the United States government in 1961.
One exception was Governor Chimaroke Nnamani who had just returned from the United States after years of medical practise as a foetal surgeon.
Governor Nnamani of Enugu State became the first governor to establish the office of Chief of Staff in 1999, and following him, many other governors followed suit as democracy gained ground. But the establishment of the office was simply accidental.
As he formed his first cabinet after the inauguration in May, 1999, Nnamani proposed to appoint Barrister Ike Ekweremadu, then, the immediate past local government chairman of Aninri Local Government Area as a commissioner in his cabinet, having seen Ekweremadu’s contributions to his gubernatorial campaign.
Local political rivals of Ekweremadu in the local government, however, persuaded Chief Jim Nwobodo, at that time the undisputed godfather to Nnamani not to allow the appointment. Nnamani, it was learnt then, sought to make Ekweremadu the Secretary to the State Government, yet the local enemies cried foul saying that that would even be worse given their determination not to give Ekweremadu a place of prominence in the new Nnamani administration that was just taking off in 1999.
It was then as a last resort to compensate Ekweremadu that Nnamani then created the office of Chief of Staff in the Government House for Ekweremadu, and it was after that, that his local enemies from Aniniri relented.
But Ekweremadu made good use of that office and from there climbed the political hierarchy to become the Deputy President of the Senate and the number six man in the national order of precedence, a position his local adversaries would never have contemplated.
Ekweremadu’s climb reflected the leverage the office of Chief of Staff could project any shrewd individual in a political setting.
The office of Chief of Staff in the presidency in particular, is the clearing house for everything concerning the president. The office arranges the president’s schedule and clears everything before the president takes action.
It is no wonder that in the United States, it is often called the alternative president or the gatekeeper.
It was perhaps for the reason of simplicity that President Umaru Yar‘Adua decided to scrap the office after the first and only occupant of the office, Gen. Abdullahi Mohammed left office in 2008. Mohammed served Obasanjo for eight years and served Yar‘Adua for one year following which the office was abolished and replaced by the office of the Principal Secretary to the President, who essentially did almost the same duties.
However, President Goodluck Jonathan re-created the office of Chief of Staff when he came to office with the appointment of Chief Michael Oghiadomhe. Whereas the only other Chiefs of Staff that had been appointed since the advent of the Fourth Republic, Mohammed and David Edevbie (who held office as Principal Secretary) were quite younger men to Obasanjo and Yar‘Adua respectively, Oghiadomhe came to the office as a friend of the president.
Appointing Oghiadomhe as chief of staff in the office of the vice president (actually deputy Chief of Staff to the president) was like a natural thing for Jonathan given the relationship that had developed between the two men. The duo had worked as deputy governors to two showy governors, Lucky Igbinendion in Edo and Dipereye Alamieyeseigha in Bayelsa State.
High profile personality
However, for many stakeholders, stepping up Oghiadomhe to Chief of Staff after the death of Yar‘Adua was an issue. Indeed, after the death of Yar‘Adua, the presidency commissioned a high profile personality in government to make a proposal on how the team that came with Jonathan from the office of Vice-President could be maximised. One of the prominent recommendations was that Dr. Jonathan should get a new Chief of Staff.
“It was felt that a new person with deep insight and capacity be sought for the office of Chief of Staff because we felt that yes, Mike was good as Chief of Staff to the vice-president, but for the president it was an entirely new game,” the source privy to the recommendation told Vanguard.
The president, however, jettisoned the recommendation. But after the 2011 presidential election and as the president set about constituting a new team, the issue again came to the fore and this time, even more turbulently, for Oghiadomhe who was determined to keep his job.
Oghiadomhe had proved himself as a key motivator in achieving victory for the president. He was active alongside Godsday Orubebe and Princess Stella Odua in promoting the Neighbour to Neighbour campaign organisation that provided the necessary wherewithal for the campaign.
Ahead of the 2011 presidential inauguration, Ambassador Godknows Igali, who served Jonathan as a commissioner in Bayelsa State and was widely respected for his organisational capacity was recalled from his diplomatic posting in Sweden to take the position of Chief of Staff.
However, pressures from concerned associates of Oghiadomhe within the administration fought back on behalf of Oghiadomhe. One key argument used at that time was that the president could not appoint an Ijaw man as Chief of Staff with the late General Andrew Azazi at that time being the National Security Adviser.
In the end, Oghiadomhe bounced back.
But those desperate to see his back for one reason or the other did not give up. Assertions were made repeatedly of how Oghiadomhe took over the job of some principal officers of the government. Several legislative initiatives of the government that ordinarily should be handled by legislative liaisons were carried out by the Chief of Staff and often times not successfully.
A year into his job it became the most open secret in political circles that the broadcaster, Dr. Raymond Dokpesi had been offered the job of Chief of Staff, but Oghiadomhe it seemed, never, lost his cool given the solid support he had within the president’s inner circle comprising at least two female ministers whom it seemed were backing him.
However, the pressures from the international community and pressures arising from the alleged foibles of the former minister of aviation, Ms Stella Oduah, reportedly one of the supporters of Oghiadomhe, and the reported organisational shortcomings of Oghiadomhe, the president it seemed had to choose between his legacy and his friendship with Oghiadomhe.
It has also been alleged that some of the northern interest groups supportive of the president’s re-election had given the sack of his Chief of Staff as a condition for working for him.
A day after Oghiadomhe’s removal last Tuesday, the president also shocked many with the sack of Ms Oduah as the minister of aviation. Oduah had lately been seen as the face of corruption in the government following her indictment by the House of Representatives over the purchase of two bullet proof vehicles outside the budget. Her case was worsened by allegations of forgery of her credentials.
Forgery of credentials
With such a woman occupying such a high and very visible place in government, it seemed as if the administration’s messages on anti-corruption had turned humdrum. The week before her sack, Ms Oduah had organised high profile inspection of airports the last being the Jos airport rehabilitation project raising stir among the populace.
Also fired were Godsday Orubebe, Caleb Olubolade and Yerima Nagama, respectively ministers of Niger Delta, Police Affairs and Minister of State, Finance. All three are aspiring to contest the gubernatorial elections in their home states.
Orubebe, particularly, was known to be in the inner circle of the president with ties stretching from home. He was one of the two ministers, the other being Diezani Allison-Madueke, nominated into the Yar‘Adua cabinet by the then vice-president.
He was also part of the engine room of the government and was a key facilitator of Neighbour to Neighbour. However, over time, his stock fell as he antagonised his one time godfather, Chief Edwin Clark who it is believed, brought him to Jonathan.
Orubebe has also been attacked by some anti-corruption groups for alleged deeds, but nothing conclusive has been proved against him by any judicial or quasi judicial body. He is leaving the government to aspire to be governor of Delta State, an ambition, Clark has already raised himself against.
Olubolade is also leaving the government to seek PDP gubernatorial ticket in the forthcoming Ekiti State. His exit came about one month to when the PDP is expected to choose its candidate in a primary fixed for March 15.
Olubolade served as military administrator of Bayelsa State in the late nineties, and his return to government at the federal level was at the behest of Alamieyeseigha who he knew then as an administrator of Bayelsa State.
Nagama, who also exited the government, is also seeking the governorship ticket of the PDP in Yobe State. He had in his time become a deep operative of the government in the Northeast and was believed to have played a key role in the political alignment between the former Chief Security Officer to Sani Abacha, Major Hamza al-Mustapha and friends of the administration.
The exit of the five from government is undoubtedly a reflection of the determination of Dr. Jonathan to stimulate his government ahead of his declaration for a new term in office.
Oghiadomhe, Oduah and Orubebe were undoubtedly key players in the inner circle who determined and directed many policy actions of the Jonathan administration. They have played their roles, now eyes are on Dr. Jonathan to see the kind of stuff the next engine men and women are made of.