Buhari and his Chief of Staff

Whilst the euphoria arising from the appointment of a personal member of staff of the President may typically not warrant the leading comment of this newspaper, the fantastic narratives, albeit mythical and sometimes preposterous, concerning the role of the president’s Chief of Staff (CoS) in recent times, call for some reflection. This call for reflection is further heightened by the appointment of Nigeria’s former Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari.


Prof. Gambari’s appointment has scraped open old scars and has generated clannish diatribes, just as it has triggered heated discussions on Nigeria’s power equation. However, none of these seemed to have raised the fundamental question regarding the president, his appointees, especially the Chief of Staff, and the power they wield as a result of the president’s curious insularity. Does the president need a Chief of Staff? Perhaps. Indeed, it is his personal choice to make.


The Office of the Chief of Staff, which was first introduced in Nigeria with the return of civil rule in 1999 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, appears to have been modelled after the position of the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. In Nigeria, this office has no constitutional backing. According to the Nigerian State House website, the staff of the office of the President perform the following functions: “administrative duties, protocol, security and media”, with the Chief of Staff to the President being responsible for “managing the President’s schedule and correspondence and any other duties that may be assigned by the President”. Obviously, the CoS manages the president’s time and space.  

  But what is the national value of a power-wielding CoS to a country in distress? Perhaps this administration requires the larger-than-life credential of Gambari, an academic, international public servant and diplomat, to illuminate and revitalise its lack-lustre performance so far. This, however, seems misplaced because there tends to be little or no nexus ipso facto between excellence of intelligence certified by academic laurels cum intellectual standing and the virtues of excellent performance. The late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua demonstrated this glaringly when he abolished the office of Chief of Staff and appointed what he called a private secretary, but still, by public perception, ran a relatively well-managed government.


Yet, many informed Nigerians, including certain members of the enlightened community still smarting from Abba Kyari’s praetorian taciturnity in office, have come to accept the occupant of the office of the Chief of Staff as the ‘surrogate president’ or the executive puppeteer and string puller. Some have reasoned that the new Chief of Staff would bring his sterling academic credentials and vast experience to bear on the polity. Others have also advised that he deploys his intellectual virtues to revamp the economy. This is disheartening for the ignorance displayed. What manner of CoS has such powers or authority when his loyalty is solely to his principal? But then pundits should not be blamed for such over-optimistic perception of the CoS because the office of the Chief of Staff has been made a powerful hub by the predilection of a seemingly tired president who may well be better known as a delegator or abdicator-in-chief.


Thus the greater import of the appointment of Gambari lies in the message it has for the president. President Buhari has been criticised for being a paladin for abdication of his duties and surrogate administration. This was evident during his first coming as a military head of state, as a former minister and also as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). Perhaps, the policy somersaults from public servants working at cross- purposes, the disregard for institutions and the impunity associated with near-rudderless leadership owe their prevalence to this sustained abdication. 


One consequence of the president’s style of administration is the creation of many leadership and power vacuums. Capitalising on these lacunae, the former Chief of Staff (Abba Kyari) was known to have appropriated enormous power in such a manner that he was the fulcrum on which the wheel of state was centralised. Everything moved when Kyari set it in motion, but nothing moved when Kyari was not the prime mover. It was tragic. 


Therefore, irrespective of what informed this posture, the president should respect himself, respect his office and respect the people of Nigeria by putting the office of the Chief of Staff in its rightful place. The inordinate bestowal of power on an ‘authority’ not recognised by law is an aberration that Nigerians must kick against. A personal staffer of the president, whose loyalty is solely to his principal, is irrelevant to the people and unknown by their laws. Nigerians are tired of influential courtiers, glowing luminaries and public administrators with intimidating credentials, whose genius for knowledge consumption and articulation, ossifies at the slightest taste of power. 


Despite the absence of any constitutional support providing legal gravitas for the CoS to function as the president’s Man-Friday, and given that utmost loyalty to the principal is the paramount credential for this position, the office of the Chief of Staff has come to stay. Or so it seems. It is now an expedient but dangerous political culture. Consequently, Gambari would do well to respect the offer that has been thrust onto him by an administration whirling in the most odious kind of lethargy, crass ineptitude and unacceptable negligence. 


Considering the pertinence of this office, it behooves on its occupant, as an auxiliary, to deploy some practical wisdom in the overall management of the affairs of the president. Notwithstanding his highly publicised enviable intellectual and diplomatic standing, it is expected that he will not perpetuate the clannish, cultic, insular and nepotistic management of the presidency that hinders national progress. The CoS is not the deputy to the president, nor does he have any authority to act constitutionally on the president’s behalf.


If there is any perceptible national value in the office of the President’s Chief of Staff, it lies in the capacity of that officer to manage the presidency in ways and manners that do not dubiously confer constitutionality to that office, or elevate it to prime ministerial position. To this end, the occupant of that office must stick to his remit as a member of the personal staff of the president.


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