By Olu Fasan
THE appointment of Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as his new chief of staff is President Muhammadu Buhari’s only high-profile and undisputedly meritocratic political appointment since he assumed office in 2015. Over the past five years, President Buhari has run a mediocre and lacklustre government, with uninspiring cabinets, consisting of ministerial poodles who brought nothing spectacular to government except loyalty to the president.
In 2015, asked why he populated his inner circle with people from his ethnic group, Buhari responded: “These are people who have been with me through trying times”, adding: “What then is the reward for their dedication and suffering”.
But five years on, their legacy is a ramshackle and absolutely dysfunctional presidency. Recently, some newspapers reported that the late chief of staff, Abba Kyari, made several appointments and approvals without the president’s permission! So, those Buhari rewarded for their “dedication and suffering” turned out to be enemies of good governance.
Ministerial appointments were also based on loyalty and political expediency, not competence and international clouts. Last year, President Buhari said he didn’t know most of his first-term ministers before he appointed them, describing them “strangers”. He then vowed: “This time around, I’m going to be quite me”, adding: “me in the sense that I will pick people I personally know.”
But who did he pick? Well, politicians, who, even now, are more interested in scheming about the 2023 general elections than in governing.
But any government that wants to gain credibility with foreign investors must have more than career politicians in its cabinet. It also needs people with extraordinary technocratic qualities and international gravitas. A government of Lilliputians, of ministerial doormats, who cannot challenge the president’s wrong orthodoxies but simply take their steers from his preferences, predilections and body language, is bad for good governance.
A journalist once interviewed Chief Obafemi Awolowo and remarked that he worked for General Yakubu Gowon. Quick as a flash, Awolowo replied, correcting him.“I didn’t work for Gowon”, he said, “I worked with him!” The difference between the two phrases, “work for” and “work with”, is important: the former suggests subservience, the latter partnership. Of course, when you have a government consisting of intellectual giants and technocratic linchpins, as General Gowon did, ministers do not work for you, they work with you, bringing something significant to help move the country forward.
Take another example. In her book Reforming the Unreformable, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, two-time finance minister, narrated how barely two weeks after becoming President Olusegun Obasanjo’s finance minister, she tendered her resignation. Why? Because Obasanjo took the Budget Office out of the Federal Ministry of Finance without consulting her. She found that unacceptable and, despite pressures from ministerial colleagues, refused to withdraw the resignation letter.
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Then, Obasanjo invited her to his office and told her the Budget Office could stay in the Ministry of Finance, but that the budget director would be reporting to him. Not satisfied, Okonjo-Iweala asked Obasanjo if the budget director could report jointly to both of them. Obasanjo agreed. “I asked for this agreement to be captured in writing in a memo that I would draft for his signature”, Okonjo-Iweala wrote, adding: “Interestingly, the president accepted and signed the memo the next day”!
Of course, Okonjo-Iweala could act so confidently because she brought something significant to the table. As the World Bank’s senior vice president, she added credibility to the Obasanjo administration within the international financial markets. What’s more, Obasanjo needed Okonjo-Iweala to use her technical abilities and international connections to help secure debt relief for Nigeria. So, he couldn’t afford to let her go until the job was done – which it was as Nigeria received 60 per cent debt write-off from the Paris Club.
Looking at Buhari’s government since 2015, it’s hard to see anyone with enough stature, who could say he/she was/is working with, not for, Buhari, or who, like Okonjo-Iweala, could make powerful opposing arguments and be prepared to walk away because of fundamental disagreement on policy choices. Indeed, it’s hard to see anyone with demonstrable technocratic ability and international clout, who is widely recognised internationally.
Well, until now, with the appointment of Professor Gambari as President Buhari’s new chief of staff. So much is known publicly about his credentials that I am not about to rehearse them here. But suffice it to say that as Nigeria’s ambassador/permanent representative to the UN for nine years and later Under-Secretary-General and special adviser to four UN Secretary-Generals, Professor Gambari is one of Nigeria’s brightest and best, who will bring his world-class bureaucratic skills to bear to reorganise Buhari’s ramshackle presidency.
But it would be a waste of Professor Gambari’s enormous talent if he is only seen as the president’s so-called “gate-keeper”, a glorified diary manager. He must also be his chief strategist. Which, then, brings us to his values. What does he stand for, and what advice would he be giving to the president?
Well, Professor Gambari blotted his copybook and was rightly criticised for calling the Ogoni activists “common criminals” who deserved their execution by General Sani Abacha. Nothing captures his rebuke more powerfully than a damning article by Femi Adesina, President Buhari’s senior media adviser, in 2008, in which he said: “Gambari enslaved himself to please his paymasters” and described him as a “fawning bootlicking groveller”. In politics, as in life, the key moral question is: “Whose side are you on?” Sadly, Gambari was on the wrong side of history during one of Nigeria’s darkest moments.
But looking forward, the defining issue in Nigeria today is political restructuring and, on that, Professor Gambari covers himself in glory, widely hailed for the constructive role he played at the 2014 National Conference. The question now, however, is whether he can help his new boss to secure an indelible legacy by persuading him to support and lead the proper restructuring of Nigeria. If Professor Gambari can, he too would earn a worthy legacy for himself!