By Idris Rilwanu

Who would have thought anything could easily get our minds off nose masks, social distancing and the escalating COVID-19 pandemic infections?

But that’s what has been happening since Monday when news filtered in that President Muhammadu Buhari had settled for Prof Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as his Chief Of Staff (COS).

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you would have noticed the sudden shift in conversation from the virus to what the Presidency will look like with Gambari in charge.

A national daily gave an insight on how and why he clinched the job as the nation’s fifth Chief of Staff since 1999.

It quoted one of its top sources as saying: “Out of the list of about 14 candidates available to the President, Gambari is the least exposed to the vagaries of Nigerian politics. He is a diplomat and an international bureaucrat.

“The appointment was made to pick an apolitical fellow and to correct the mistake of the past where the Office of the Chief of Staff is exposed to politics and pressure from politicians.

“To move forward, the President wants to restrict his Chief of Staff to bureaucratic schedule and not political manoeuvres in order to fast-track the implementation of the goals of his administration.

“The manner of jostling for the Office of the Chief of Staff since the death of the former occupant of the office actually suggested that those who have political ambitions were desperate for it.

“The international profile of Gambari played a significant role in his appointment. Buhari is looking at global politics after the post-COVID-19 pandemic and opted for an experienced hand in Gambari whose mileage can add credibility to his government and attract goodwill.

“Bilateral and multilateral relations will take the centre stage after the Coronavirus pandemic and he needs a respected international bureaucrat to assist his government to reach out to the world.”

Buhari’s choice of the former Under United Nations (UN) Secretary as replacement for the late Mallam Abba Kyari, has racked up huge interest, including views and comments, across mainstream and non-mainstream platforms.

For instance, as at 6:34pm Wednesday, the appointment was trending on Twitter in mostly two search categories: ‘Chief of Staff’, with 33,300 tweets and ‘Gambari’ with 34,500 tweets.

Aside agreement on the subject matter and, as is usual with social media, the jury is out on Gambari’s suitability as best man for the job.

Notwithstanding his admittedly rich curriculum vitae, some critics have wondered if the 75-year-old COS’ is not too old for the job.

Some, such as the brilliant Prof Farooq Kperogi and ex aviation minister Femi Fani-Kayode, viewed the appointment from a mostly anti-All Progressive Congress (APC)/Buhari government or (in Fani-Kayode’s case) an anti-Fulani domination conspiracy theory prism.

Kperogi, in particular, questioned Gambari’s “reputation for lofty, high-minded principles…”

But other Twitter users such as British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, former Senate President Dr Bukola Saraki and the highly cerebral former Anambra State Governor Mr Peter Obi were more positive-minded.

Commissioner Laing, for instance, was “delighted to hear” that the President had “appointed the hugely experienced diplomat…”

The mixed reaction to Gambari’s new role is not unexpected. Let’s face it, anyone occupying the COS office at this time is bound to attract, to put it mildly, critical scrutiny, what with the opprobrium, valid or otherwise, endured up by the previous occupant.

Surely, Gambari himself must have been aware of the challenges ahead when he accepted the job offer and, more importantly, so too President Buhari, who is probably hoping that the career diplomat will be able to bring his decades of diplomacy experience to bear on his new role.

So, will Prof Gambari justify the President and Nigerians’ expectations?

There is reason to believe that he will.

If he were alive, African icon and former South African President Dr Nelson Mandela may think so too.

As Chairman of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid (1990-1994) Ambassador Gambari worked closely with African governments to coordinate UN policy to eradicate apartheid, thereby building trust and confidence with governments and policymakers in member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

In 1990, Major-General Joseph Garba, was President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Garba and Gambari, the former directly, the latter by virtue of his office, received the South African leader’s commendation in a June 22, 1990 statement on racial discrimination while Mandela was Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC) to the 641st meeting of the Special Committee Against Apartheid.

Mandela said: “We also take this opportunity to salute the Special Committee against Apartheid, which has been and is a very important instrument in our struggle against the iniquitous and oppressive policies of the South African Government. We salute also the States that make up its membership, which have been unrelenting in their resolve to contribute everything they could to ensure that the world was mobilized to act against the apartheid system.

“In this connection also, Sir, allow us to express a well-deserved tribute to your country, Nigeria, which you so ably represent, as did your predecessor in this important office, His Excellency Major-General Joseph Garba, current President of the General Assembly, under whose leadership the United Nations Declaration on South Africa was adopted by consensus at the sixteenth special session of the General Assembly last December.

“That Declaration will go down in history as one of the most important documents in the struggle of the international community against apartheid.”

It doesn’t seem like much now, but Ambassador Gambari went on to build on that vote of confidence and accomplish unexpected success in one of the most intractable global problems the United Nations mediated at the time: Myanmar.

Perhaps nobody captured Prof Gambari’s skill, competence and persistence in resolving the Myanmar debacle than Anna Magnusson and Morten B. Pedersen in the 2012 book ‘A Good Office? Twenty Years of UN Mediation in Myanmar’ published for the International Peace Institute (IPP).

In the book, the IPP revisited the history and achievements of the UN Secretary-General’s good offices on Myanmar, in the previous 20 years of mediation efforts.

In over 100 pages, the book tells the story of UN mediation efforts in Myanmar through the lens of four special envoys: Alvaro de Soto, Razali Ismail, Ibrahim Gambari, and Vijay Nambiar.

Just like some were skeptical of Gambari’s appointment because of Myanmar’s aversion to people of different races, the authors noted that the Nigerian won over his critics through his competence and character.

“Some analysts were skeptical at the time of the appointment of an African envoy, citing Myanmar’s deep-seated xenophobia. Others rejected this superficial judgment of credentials, noting that a savvy diplomat and likable man like Gambari, with simple but polite manners, who listens at length and speaks little, in many ways was a better fit in the Myanmar context than the previous envoy,” they said.

Before Gambari’s appointment, Myanmar in early 2006 was a fairly dormant issue at the UN and his successor Razali had failed to make the expected impact. The Myanmar dictatorship had refused to welcome Razali in the country for almost two years. Pinheiro, the human rights rapporteur, had not been received in nearly three. But Gambari turned things around.

In August 2005, Gambari took up his new role as head of the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), under UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

As Under-Secretary-General, Gambari was in overall charge of the entire political department.

This role will probably give Nigerians insight as to what to expect of Gambari as President Buhari’s COS.

“…While Razali had kept his cards close to his chest and little was shared or requested from outside his inner circle, Gambari reached out more widely for advice and generally took expert analysis seriously. Without much of a background on Myanmar or even Asia, he quickly established a number of base assumptions and approaches that more closely reflected the pragmatic, evidence-driven academic and think-tank literature at the time than the often more polemic positions of the politically influential advocacy groups….”

“In May 2006, five months after Gambari took over the mandate, another good-offices visit became possible….The invitation in itself was a minor breakthrough for the Secretary-General’s good offices after a more than two-year hiatus. And the visit exceeded expectations…” the authors said.

READ ALSO: Gambari, the right man for the job ― Sanwo-Olu

The Nigerian was also able to meet detained rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi—the first foreigner to do so since Razali’s last visit in March 2004.

The UN was impressed.

When Ban Ki-moon of South Korea became the eighth Secretary-General of the UN, replacing Kofi Annan, the new Secretary-General reshuffled senior staff. Lynn Pascoe, a career US State Department diplomat was appointed Under-Secretary-General, replacing Gambari. Gambari, however, was kept on in a new job created for him as special adviser to the Secretary-General on the International Compact with Iraq and other issues. But the Nigerian was asked to keep the Myanmar brief because he had built up a good relationship with the Myanmar authorities, and with Aung SanSuu Kyi, something others had failed to do.

The Myanmar episode suggests that the Federal Government may just have found its man to help direct the herders/farmer conflict resolution efforts, among others.

Prof Gambari has already for years been putting his international diplomacy experience to good use through the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy & Development (SCDDD), a non-profit organisation promoting global peace & development through policy analysis, advocacy and strategic partnerships.

SCDDD describes itself as the leading strategic discussions on inclusive governance for sustainable development by targeting initiatives that will guarantee human security, sustainable peace, rule of law and human rights in Nigeria and Africa.

After 12 years of working in the UN and shuttling between tough terrains, mediating crises, resolving conflicts as well as preaching the gospel of global peace, Prof Gambari, CFR returned home to use his expertise and experience to help address the enormous developmental challenges that Nigeria, ECOWAS and Africa grapple with. He established Savannah Centre to focus on the nexus between peace, democracy and development. Often times, most ‘think tanks’ are established to deal with one or two of the above three thematic issues.

Savannah Centre was established on the underlying principle that peace, development and democracy are inextricably linked. Gambari was inspired by two UN Secretaries-General, both Africans – Boutros Boutros- Ghali and Kofi Annan. They both wrote seminal reports that dealt with peace, development and democracy in the world.

Boutros-Ghali’s report of 1992 entitled “An Agenda for Peace” laid out a post-Cold war agenda and argued that there can be no development without peace. He emphasized the need for preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution. He followed that in 1994 with “An agenda for Development”, wherein he further argued that there can be no durable peace without sustainable development. On the hand, Kofi Annan, in 2005, issued a report, entitled “In Larger Freedom” in which he argued that there can neither be peace nor development unless people have the right to decide who will rule them and how.

The name “Savannah” is reflective of the geographic location of the Centre within the Savannah belt of Nigeria.

Hopefully, all of these will help make Prof Gambari’s appointment as COS, Nigeria’s gain.

Rilwanu, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Ilorin



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