The Buhari Gambari Gambit

Nobody saw it coming. Really? The appointment of Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as chief of staff may have surprised many of those who still give a toss about the Buhari presidency. Not to those who run the presidency, and we know who they are.

Gambari, who succeeds the late chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari, brings to the job a formidable array of experiences in the academia and international diplomacy. Indeed, no one can question his competence and suitability for the job of managing the president’s affairs and schedules. And just like his predecessor, he has an advantage of a close relationship with Buhari, having worked for him as foreign minister when the president was military head of state, January, 1984 – July, 1985.

He has the job clearly cut out for him. He has to find a way to bring order to a dysfunctional presidency that has fostered a largely lethargic administration. And while doing so, he needs to deftly navigate round the checkpoints of the cabal, who are not going away now or tomorrow.

The narrative that Gambari’s emergence was solely Buhari’s preference and decision is one contrived to create the false impression that he wants to take back his presidency. Even if that were the case, what would he do with it? Given his physical and mental limitations, he will still be relying on those he trusts to get things done for him and on his behalf. The cabal will still be there, even more entrenched.

And there’s a potential for conflict between the new chief of staff and the cabal. Gambari may have known the members individually and collectively for a long time. But he wasn’t one of them. He has promised that he will be loyal to the president and nobody else. That pledge may soon collide with the reality of the cabal’s control over the presidency. Gambari won’t want to suffer the indignity of being pushed around by anybody, as he has his reputation to protect. But the cabal won’t equally allow their overarching influence in the presidency to be curtailed or threatened in any way and by any one. Not even Gambari, no matter how impressively credentialed he is.

So, a sort of working relationship will have to be forged quickly between Gambari and the cabal to enable the new chief of staff settle down and do his job. Trying to work round the cabal and without their inputs and buy-in, is not really a viable option for Gambari. The cabal is there because Buhari trusts them to have his back always.

There are those who believe that the position of chief of staff to the president is a job downgrade for Gambari. That is certainly arguable. How he handles himself and how quickly he takes charge of his brief will determine whether that proposition is true or not.

What is not in doubt is the expectation of cabinet members and other top administration officials that Gambari’s appointment will bring a breath of fresh air into the government. And energize the presidency in a constructive way to get government business moving at a faster pace than before.

One major element of the criticism of Abba Kyari was the way he ran his office, which fed the lethargy that hampered the government. Vital files were held hostage in his office. Important memos that required the president’s attention were detained or buried deep in the drawers. And ministers and other key aides couldn’t get access to Buhari even when there was a compelling reason for them to do so. That was why many of them loathed Kyari, never mind the sanctimonious eulogies that they poured on him after he died.

One of the three famous memos that Kyari withheld from the president was the one Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State sent in 2016. In it he had drawn Buhari’s attention to the need for his administration to kick into fourth gear in order to begin to fulfill the APC’s promises to the people. He warned that the government was in danger of completely derailing, and that more worrying, the administration was being sabotaged from within the presidency. The other two memos were the one by Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, former minister of state for petroleum resources, in 2017 on the controversial NNPC’s $25 billion oil and gas contracts approved without due process; and the one by the national security adviser, Major General Babagana Munguno, late last year, calling out Kyari for appropriating his authority and functions and those of ministers. None of the memos got to Buhari.

It was an open secret that ministers and other top officials were deeply frustrated by the way Kyari exploited Buhari’s weaknesses to amass power for himself and the cabal. Now they are hopeful that, with Gambari there, things will be different.

As celebrated as Gambari is because of his vast experience, it’s way too early to say if he can make some real impact and get the presidency and the government moving quickly in the right direction. There are too many serious issues that need to be urgently addressed namely, the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy that is spiraling into a depression and the ever-growing insecurity in the country.

But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the arrival of Gambari at the presidency is pivotal and signals a new dawn for the government and the country. Not much will change as the new chief of staff doesn’t have any magic wand to make it so.

Kyari had hitherto unheard of privileges and wielded enormous authority relative to his office, which is not even constitutionally mandated. All of which magnified the inherent weaknesses of the president. However, it remains to be seen whether the same wide latitude will be extended to Gambari, who is not an insider within Buhari’s circle of close minders and confidantes.

Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari Photo
Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari
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