The appointment of Prof.Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari is not without its controversies.
This is not blasphemy. As a Christian, I would not engage in it.
But if President Buhari were, by some magic, able to appoint God as his chief of staff; there would still be some uproar over such an appointment.
Not only would some people argue that the appointment would promote discrimination against non-believers in the Christian God; or the Moslem Allah, there would be those who simply so dislike Buhari and his government that; nothing the president does would pass any muster with them.
It is in our DNA as Nigerians to be contrary and that is practically on every matter.
So, you can imagine when a mere mortal is given any political appointment; he is toast and critics would make mincemeat of him.
So, if anybody expected the appointment of Gambari as the replacement for the late Abba Kyari; as Buhari’s chief of staff, CoS, not to raise some dust, that has been dispelled now.
It has not only become controversial, it is not an appointment that has “ticked all the boxes; especially as a round peg in a round hole” as members of the president’s party; All Progressive Congress, APC, have described it.
While many Nigerians have, by and large, welcomed the appointment of Prof. Gambari and have crooned about his pedigree; as well as his wide-ranging experience, others have been brutal about their distrust of this international diplomat.
Ambassador Dapo Fowora, who claims to have brought the new chief of staff into the international system; thinks of him as a backbiting opportunist who turned on his benefactor to fulfil “his own personal ambition.”
Many pro-democracy activists of the General Sani Abacha era have no use for him at all.
They berate and can’t forgive him for his spoiler’s role at the United Nations; defending the maximum dictator’s assault of the rights of Nigerians, and the execution of the Ogoni 9 activists; including the environmental rights campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa, on trumped up charges.
Still, Dr Kayode Fayemi, a pre-eminent pro-democracy activist himself and now governor of Ekiti State; in his book Out of Shadows, says; “I had come to respect and like Professor Gambari in the years of our struggle.
He became clearly one of our strongest opponents on the diplomatic turf in the sense that he never indulged in any sycophantic praise of the dictatorship in Nigeria.
“Unlike Tom Ikimi, who was really a good opponent to have, I crossed swords with Professor Gambari several times and even after I had attacked him, he would still tome around to me and say ‘Aburo (my brother), let us remember that Nigeria is greater than any one of us, and we must always protect Nigeria’s interest.”
In essence, what Gambari did defending the Abacha regime during some of the darkest hours in Nigerian history; was what would have been expected of any diplomat no matter how unpalatable it must have felt; especially to Nigeria’s pro-democracy community at the time and even now.
Of course, it would have been a massive coup if Gambari had decided to quit the UN system and had joined the ranks of pro-democracy activists.
He did not, and it is possible that this type of allegiance and loyalty to Nigeria in those turbulent times; further recommended him for the job of the chief of staff to the president.
President Buhari definitely needed a loyal person with sterling qualities and experience in that job. Indeed, he has found one in Professor Gambari.
They may not have the great personal relationship that the president had with the late Kyari. However, Buhari and Gambari share some history.
Professor Gambari was General Muhammadu Buhari’s minister of external (now foreign) affairs from 1984 to 1985.
He worked hard at repairing the damage done to diplomatic relations between Britain and Nigeria; in the wake of the failed attempt to kidnap the late Umaru Dikko in a crate via London Stanstead Airport; on July 4, 1984.
The “Diplomatic Baggage” affair ruptured Nigeria/British relations culminating in the withdrawal of high commissioners by both countries.
In his time as external affairs minister, Gambari espoused the concentric circles foreign policy which put Nigeria’s security; territorial integrity, and political independence at the centre of the circles.
The second circle embraced the West Africa sub region which comprises ECOWAS countries because; as Gambari explained it at that time, “events occurring within the area have a direct impact on Nigeria’s interests.”
There were other circles involving the larger African issues and organisations, institutions, and countries outside the Africa continent.
While things did not always fall neatly into the circles; what Buhari and Gambari did at the time mirrors recent events between Nigeria and its West African neighbours.
The closure of Nigeria’s borders in 1985 to tackle economic sabotage mirrors the closure of the borders late last year
. Then as now, smuggling, gun running, drug trafficking, car theft on a big scale; were powerful considerations for shutting the borders.
Gambari told Newswatch magazine in 1985 that; “For a long time, our policy towards ECOWAS could be compared to paying the piper without knowing which tune to call. We have to get more out of ECOWAS in terms of benefits for our people.”
The new chief of staff’s views at that time compared to what happened late last year; shows nothing has really changed in the way and manner that ECOWAS has continued to be a huge burden on Nigeria.
It does signify also that President Muhammadu Buhari has once again found a soulmate who can help him deal with such issues.
They have a meeting of minds on many issues dating back to their earlier interactions. And while circumstances may have changed and the world become more complicated; a very experienced international diplomat would probably be able to wade through the finer details of policy; helping the president avoid disastrous mistakes.
Unlike the late Kyari, Gambari, because of his diplomatic experience would probably be more circumspect; especially in dealing with matters that easily expose Nigeria’s fault lines. And for him to succeed, the new CoS must avoid the slippery slope of operating beyond his mandate.
Charges of overreaching and power grab were frequently levelled against the former chief of staff.
Things got so nasty between him and the National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno that; the latter in a leaked letter, accused the former CoS of undue and dangerous interference in matters of national security.
Monguno said in the letter that “Chief of Staff to the president is not a presiding head of security; neither is he sworn to an oath of defending this country.”
At 75, it is unlikely that Professor Gambari would be nursing any political ambition. His concentration in the next three years should be how to push the president to achieve his lofty ambitions of laying a solid foundation for Nigeria’s infrastructural development and the diversification of the nation’s economy.
However, his greatest test would be how he navigates his relationships with the president, his vice, Yemi Osinbajo; and the Secretary to Government Boss Mustapha. His relationships with other key appointees would also test his expertise and resolve.
The new chief of staff deserves an opportunity to sink or swim based on his own performances now; not on what some people make of his past. It is even unlikely that any diplomat worth his salt and with such varied experiences as Professor Gambari; would not have one or two skeletons in his cupboard.
“You show me a perfect person and I’ll show you somebody who has lived a very closed life.” Apologies to Robert Hepler Lowe, the American actor, producer, and director.