It takes a captain with the right mix of education, exposure and experience to calm the ship amidst a raging storm, as the appointment and one-year management of the Office of Chief of Staff to the President by Professor Ibrahim Gambari has shown.
Diplomat and technocrat at the highest global bureaucracies, Gambari has ensured a clear direction and less drama at the highest office in Nigeria.
He does so noiselessly but with systematic efficiency. Gambari assumed office on 13 May 2020 as the pandemic threatened nations, and a pall enveloped the Villa over the death of his predecessor.
On that bright Wednesday, he arrived at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, about 11 am. Officials introduced him shortly before the meeting of the Federal Executive Council. Expectations were high, judging by his records which spoke loudly.
After the Council meeting, he told the media that instead of coming as the ‘big headmaster’, his mission was clear: Full loyalty, competence and support to the President.
His guiding principle as Chief of Staff, he said, would be “to serve the President to the best of my ability.”
Twelve months down the line, what value has the erudite diplomat added to governance under President Buhari? Without any doubt, Prof. Gambari has brought some finesse to the administrative machinery of the Villa, opting, and wisely too, to operate an open-door policy.
It is a paradigm shift that encourages governors and ministers to walk in and discuss freely with the Chief of Staff before taking their matters to Mr President! Deep throat has it that Prof Gambari operates more like the old village teacher: the brilliant and dullard among students must get due attention to ensure holistic advancement and success.
Perhaps the most profound effect of Gambari’s arrival at the seat of power is the meteoric rise in Nigeria’s diplomatic profile and a string of successes.
Political pundits were agreed that the fight against terrorism, Boko Haram and other threats to her security had dwarfed Nigeria’s diplomatic status to the extent that her external visibility in global and continental organisations was reduced to mere attendance of meetings at international engagements.
Two international events that shaped Nigeria’s path to progressive diplomacy can be attributed to President Buhari’s personality and character.
His pre-inaugural visitations to contiguous Chad, Niger and Benin Republics as well as Cameroon propelled the re-constitution of the Multinational Joint Task Force of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and the expansion of its mandate to fight insecurity in the sub-region more concertedly.
Recall that in 2015, President Buhari had scored a diplomatic feat by fully supporting the election and ensuring the emergence of Dr Akinwumi Adesina as President of the African Development Bank.
His re-election in 2020 was quite herculean as the Trump Administration tried to play the spoiler’s role. Despite pressure on President Buhari to replace him, Mr President reinforced his faith and commitment in Dr Adewumi’s candidacy and reached out to world leaders seeking their support.
Prof. Gambari’s rich experience and connections in the diplomatic circle undoubtedly proved a game-changer. Nigeria’s progressive diplomatic footwork within ECOWAS is remarkable, namely the support for the complicated peace process in Mali, logistics support for practically all elections in the sub-region, coordinating and providing leadership for good governance, accountability and fight against corruption as well as managing the efforts to contain the catastrophic consequences of COVID-19.
All these earned the Buhari Presidency and Nigeria recognition, respect and appreciation, thanks to the rich, informed and calculative steps of the diplomat in the house. Indeed, when Nigeria expressed interest in fielding a candidate for Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security of the African Union, Nigeria’s adroit diplomacy came in handy. All ECOWAS countries stepped down for Nigeria’s candidate, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye who obtained the support of every African Union member to clinch the position in February 2021.
But perhaps, the election of former Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organization was the defining moment for the organisational ability of Prof. Gambari and the team of technocrats who worked the clock to remove all barriers to her nomination and endorsement to emerge the first African and first female to head the WTO.
The lesson in the rejuvenation of Nigeria’s diplomacy lies in two great attributes: Respect and recognition for the nation’s leader and the determination to always present one of our best. President Buhari is deeply respected within the sub-region and the rest of Africa. He is measured in speaking but firm on his positions.
The presence of Prof. Gambari in the corridors of power has certainly brought more panache and momentum to the country’s global engagements for maximum benefits and visibility.
For pundits who initially regarded Prof Gambari as an ‘outsider’ in the Villa, the confidence reposed in him by President Buhari is palpable going by several delegated responsibilities on security, political, diplomatic and labour matters.
But for the discerning, his interventions have proved critical in the appointment of new service chiefs, government-labour relations and the smooth working relations between the executive and the legislature. Indeed, informed sources said the hitherto cat and mouse relationship between ministers and heads of agencies and parastatals is gradually giving way to more robust engagement and confidence sharing.
With his training as a teacher and a diplomat, it is now certain that the Chief of Staff would rather stay behind the curtain and propel his principal to excellence.
In April, diplomatic feathers between Nigeria and China were nearly ruffled when the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, announced the revocation of four oil leases operated by the Addax Petroleum Exploration Nigeria Limited.
The government regulator, citing the company’s inability to comply with exploration targets, sought to re-allocate the oil mining leases to the chagrin of China, a country with strong bilateral relations with Nigeria.
Addax Petroleum was established in 1994 and is presently a subsidiary of Sinopec Group, a major oil and gas producer in China. While the contract termination by DPR was premised on economic necessity, the Presidency promptly intervened after weighing ethical and diplomatic considerations. President Buhari’s intervention and reversal of the revocation must be seen as a strong ethical stand and a bold statement on commitment to due process in contractual obligations.
That indeed is a clear departure from the era when all sorts of iniquities were perpetrated in the name of the Presidency! The Addax saga certainly speaks to the quality of advice available to the President from his close advisers, outside the official bureaucracy.
An informed commentator, Olu Tayo, writing recently in Thisday Newspaper, said: “The special bilateral relationship Nigeria enjoys with the Peoples Republic of China, the owner of Addax Petroleum would have suffered immeasurably”, but for the prompt intervention of the President.
“Clearly, the ethical approach in Nigeria’s engagement of its Chinese partner as well as in wider international affairs must reflect conscience, principle, responsibility and restraint in decision-making.
This strategy, as President Buhari has adroitly demonstrated, helps prevent undue conflicts and provides an ecosystem of mutual trust and goodwill among nations”.
Just twelve months in the saddle, analysts agree that Prof Gambari has not disappointed those who invested enthusiasm on his choice.
For instance, the Kwara State Governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, had described the appointment as a befitting development that is rooted in dedication, loyalty, and history.
“The appointment is clearly fit for purpose and is well deserved for our own Professor Gambari whose record of service as a diplomat and global statesman is unblemished,” the governor said. The Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, on his part, affirmed that Gambari’s outstanding contributions, administrative experience, scholarship and excellence will have a positive impact on the administrative structure and smooth operation of the Presidency.
He was confident that the President Buhari-led government will enjoy Gambari’s inputs towards ensuring good governance, democratic dividends as well as shared prosperity in the nation.
He expressed his belief in the ability of the diplomat to make a difference. Former Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, urged Nigerians to support Professor Gambari in his tasks as the Chief of Staff to President Buhari.
Saraki described Gambari as “a decent man, a cerebral academic and a disciplined diplomat”, coming with the necessary pedigree to help him do well on the job.
Prior to his present calling, Gambari, a scholar-diplomat, has had an illustrious career, spanning academia, government and international diplomacy.
Between 1999 and 2005, he served as the first United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Africa. He was the Chairman of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid from 1990 to 1994 and on Peace-Keeping Operations till 1999.
He was Head of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs between 2005 and 2007and also operated as UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Cyprus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar and Special Representative in Angola.
Earlier, he served from 1984 to 1985 as the Minister of External Affairs and subsequently Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations from 1990 to 1999. Professor Gambari also served as Joint AU/UN Special Representative in Darfur and Head of UNAMID from 2010-2012.
Until his current assignment, he was the Chairperson of the Panel of Eminent Persons of the African Peer Review Mechanism. With daunting security challenges and separatist agitations buffeting the country and with fresh elections approaching, Prof. Gambari surely has his job cut out, going forward.
•Kareem is a public policy analyst.