By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
It is part of our national dilemma, confusion and uncertainty that the appointment of a new Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari has elicited so much excitement, anxiety and concern that we have forgotten that the CoS is a personal staff to the president. Given our perception, private anecdotes and media presentation of the immediate past Chief of Staff Mallam Abba Kyari, as a man who wielded immense political power and virtually ran the country, whoever was appointed to the position would necessarily generate a lot of interest. It is against this background that the appointment of the 75 year-old widely experienced Professor Agboola Gambari as the new Chief of Staff is of national importance.
One of the very first public statements credited to Professor Gambari when he arrived in Aso Rock was that his is to report and be accountable to his principal, that is, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and not the people of Nigeria. As far as private appointments go, this statement is excellent though it may not have been necessary at this time. But I suppose he was under pressure to make it clear that despite what anyone may have said about his predecessor, he plans to toe the same path created by Abba Kyari that endeared him to the Number One Citizen. A Chief of Staff is expectedly to be loyal to his appointor. Even if he disagrees with his boss, it must never come into the open. He can only give advice in the closet and await his master’s decision. Once a decision is reached, he must pursue it with fervour, zeal and commitment as if he was originally for the idea as he relates with institutions and elected and appointed officials.
In the current dispensation, the perception is that like former American President Ronald Reagan, President Buhari cannot deal with the day to day details and complexities of our political life. As a result, he needs strong and dedicated staff who will read his mind perfectly, initiate and implement policy decisions in the overall interest of the polity. More than ever before, Nigeria needs expert and responsible hands that can effectively balance all the centrifugal forces currently tugging at the ropes of national unity. If the Chief of Staff is that rallying point, it will be dangerous to appoint a neophyte or an ethnic jingoist to that position. If the president had been led in the past into taking decisions that appeared to favour a section of the country, this is the time to gradually steer him back to the paths of national cohesion.
Professor Gambari as an international diplomat understands the power of perception in governance. Sometimes, it is more compelling than the real facts. The questions is whether he shares the view that there is an ugly tilt in the country in power sharing that has made a vast majority of people in the south very uncomfortable. In the north, both the elite and the ordinary people are worried by the level of violence and insecurity which marauding gangs have unleashed on the land. So, whereas most highly sensitive and politically powerful positions are held by persons of northern origins, this has not translated into anything life-transforming in the region. What can we say of the hometown of a top army chief being overrun by insurgents? The perception therefore is that these appointments favour individuals, not the country. Which is sad.
As a newly appointed Chief of Staff, presumed to be the de facto president of Nigeria, Professor Gambari has a lot of work to do. If the president has his ears, as I believe he does, there are some urgent tasks to be done. This is the time to diversify the economy. This is the time to tinker with the rules of engagement between the constituent parts of the federation for positive ends. A true federal structure and practice should evolve now. The service chiefs need to be replaced. A new strategy to end the Boko Haram insurgency should be developed.
The rogue herdsmen currently ensconced in forests in across the country should be dislodged. If it is true that DPOs are under orders not to arrest and prosecute the Fulani marauders and kidnappers in southern bushes, this is the time to reverse it. Appointments should reflect national character and the regional interests which constitute the country. No one ethnic group is superior to another. The level of disenchantment against the government is very high right now, no matter what the smiling politicians who will troop to the presidency to welcome the new CoS as the best appointment ever made by the president.
Although Gambari is not accountable to the Nigerian people, at 75, he should be concerned with his legacy and the survival of Nigeria beyond him. Abba Kyari’s obnoxious directive that the Ministry of Health’s budget should be routed through Ministry of Agriculture for whatever reason has been reversed. The judgment that he usurped presidential powers and misled the country is out there. The last trip to Europe to negotiate power issues could have been done by the minister. He did not have to be on the board of NNPC. The leaked memo that he gave orders to service chiefs, sideling the National Security Adviser, thereby making the president look bad and inefficient is in the public domain. The Chief of Staff ought not to be seen or heard. He is not the alternative president. He ought to smoothen the engine of government working in consonance with other government officials. In his tenure, Gambari should encourage the president to ‘seem’ to take charge. An appointee, not recognised by the constitution cannot, should not usurp the office or powers of the president.
Finally, I congratulate Professor Gambari on his emergence as chief of Staff, an office currently perceived as the de facto powerhouse in the country. All the vicious stakeholders will converge now and try to seize him into their corner. Whatever his antecedents are, good, bad and ugly, it is left for Professor Gambari to use his past to help guide the president and create a better Nigeria than we currently experiencing. The clock is ticking. Nigerians are watching!
-Eghagha who writes from the University of Lagos, can be reached on 08023220393