Former External Affairs Minister, Professor Ibrahim Gambari stepped in the saddle as Chief of Staff, CoS, to President Muhammadu Buhari on May 13, 2020 fully prepared to chart a clear trajectory that is apolitical and non-pecuniary in the discharge of his clear mandate of organizing the critical gamut of the President’s staff members.
He is also charged with organizing his principal, interfacing between him and administration officials; scrutinizing memos and reducing them and other policy documents into executive briefs that help the president to understand their ramifications even on the faces of the documents, and, perhaps, while on his feet.
Such intricate and sensitive mandate should be shorn of overtly political distractions. Luckily for Gambari, he is apolitical. He is, however, politically discerning since in his office as CoS to the President, he must necessarily be able to deconstruct the political and economic themes and interests underlying issues and requests by administration officials who seek engagements with Mr President. In a largely dissimilar fashion, he is acting covertly and has so far maintained a clean slate across media platforms such that he has yet to run into a storm as happened to his predecessor, the late Abba Kyari.
Unlike Kyari, who threw his weight around in the archetypical manner of a godfather, pulling strings, pressing buttons, issuing orders in the name of the President and feigning ignorance of what is happening, Gambari would appear to have been consistent and persistent in keeping to his briefs of quietly managing the office of the President-no contentions, no suggestions of building a cabal, and no identifiable pecuniary interests in anything bearing the President’s imprimatur and that is of public interest. Deploying his vast experience as a diplomat extra-ordinary and administrator par excellence, Gambari has been able to permanently calm the storms that were still raging after Kyari’s death.
If he were interested in politics, he would have been caught in the political cross-currents. To boot, he would have been chatty and unable to restore the respect and the glamour of the office of the Chief of Staff to the President. Gambari had come to the job robustly endowed with loads of experience and expertise in diplomacy. And, indeed, that is the turf in which he has deployed his diplomatic legerdemain in the last one year, getting things done, using his wide international connections without talking about them.
As CoS, it is instructive that Gambari does not hug the limelight. He knows that he is not to be heard or even seen, except the President says so. He is to ensure that the President is capacitated with the relevant information to speak to issues. By so doing, the President takes the credit. Where the President does not speak, he ensures that the presidential spokespersons-Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu-do their job well, constantly providing that avuncular support for seamless communication with the Nigerian people.
It is in the context of his commitment to ensure things work without caring who takes the credit that he has doubled down not only to deliver on presidential mandates but also to ensure the eternal credits go to Mr President. Since assuming the position, Gambari has helped to ginger up Nigeria’s diplomatic profile, which has unsurprisingly been on the rise. Through his influence and the gravitas that he infuses into his mandate delivery, he has assisted President Buhari to reposition Nigeria on the international scene and turning it into a significant member of the comity of nations. This is better explicated by the emergence of Nigeria’s former finance minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the first female director general of the World Trade Organisation in 2021.
The re-election of Dr Akinwumi Adesina as President, African Development Bank for a second term in 2020 was another milestone. In the face of international conspiracy spearheaded by the US under Donald Trump, Nigeria was able to reach out to many countries to secure their significant support for Adesina’s candidature. Gambari reportedly put his nose to the grindstone to set up a series of quiet meetings and talks between President Buhari and leaders of countries to lobby support for Nigeria’s interest.
Through the intellectual warhorse that Gambari typifies and the bulwark of diplomatic proficiency that he deploys, a number of things have changed because the approaches have changed. There has been a bounce in Nigeria’s diplomacy, which the Boko Haram insurgency had hitherto limited through their terrorism acts and other threats to national security. Nigeria had almost completely lost her visibility on the international scene and respect in global and continental organisations until Gambari came to advise President on what to do.
At the United Nations level, Nigeria’s diplomacy has continued to offer some hope. When António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, assumed office in January 2017, he looked in the direction of Nigeria to choose a deputy and found Amina Mohammed, former minister of environment, as a fit and proper choice, thanks to Nigeria’s robust global diplomatic policy. Another diplomatic feat of the Buhari government is the emergence of Professor Tijjani Bande, as Permanent Representative and President of the UN General Assembly in 2019. His tenure, in the era of coronavirus, was adjudged quite successful as the Assembly operated smoothly through virtual sessions, ensuring that the global body remained relevant in the lives of humankind.
With the Foreign Affairs ministry drawing inspiration from Gambari’s persona, Nigeria’s progressive diplomatic leg-works within ECOWAS have earned President Buhari and Nigeria, recognition, respect, appreciation and approbation. The pluses are support for the complicated peace process in Mali, logistics support for practically all elections in the sub-region, co-ordinating 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.
In the corollary, when Nigeria expressed interest in fielding a candidate for the position of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security of the African Union, Nigeria’s adroit diplomacy came to play once again, when all ECOWAS countries, in February, 2021, stepped down for Nigeria’s candidate, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye,who obtained the support of all the African Union member-countries to clinch the position.
The lesson in the upward swing 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. And here is where the unseen interventions by Professor Gambari have always proved utilitarian to the benefit of President Buhari and the national interest. Without a doubt, President Buhari is highly respected within the sub-region and the rest of Africa. He is measured in speaking but firm on his positions. He throws his weight around causes he deeply believes in and his brother-Presidents cherish that. Nigeria cannot but keep the momentum and prioritise its global engagements for maximum benefits to Nigeria, Nigerians and Africa at large.
And talking about prioritization, Gambari has continued to quietly deploy his intellectual pluck and diplomatic nimbleness to assist the President to be sharply focused on the ball. The 77year-old prince of the Fulani ruling class family in Ilorin (his nephew, Ibrahim Sulu Gambari, is the Emir of Ilorin), former diplomat of the foremost genre, a technocrat with a large dose of administrative savoir faire, iswithout a doubt, dancing to the rhythm of his soul as he fulfils his purpose in life. He was of course prepared for the trajectory that destiny has steered him in.
Indeed, he is a well-read man, profoundly lettered. Having attended King’s College, Lagos, the London School of Economics where he obtained his B. Sc. (Economics) degree (1968) with specialisation in International Relations, his M.A. (1970) and Ph. D. (1974) degrees from Columbia University, New York, USA in Political Science /International Relations, he would appear robustly prepared for life’s journey. But these are just human accomplishments. The most significant of all factors is destiny.
H.L. Dietrich once said in A Final Destiny: “We are all victims, Anselmo. Our destinies are decided by a cosmic roll of the dice, the winds of the stars, the vagrant breezes of fortune that blow from the windmills of the gods.” The winds of the stars and vagrant breezes of fortune from the windmills of the gods brought President Buhari and Professor Gambari together in 1984 when Buhari, as military head of state, appointed him as minister of external affairs. He was then the director general of The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. He holds the record of being the longest-serving Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations, serving under five Heads of State and Presidents from 1990 to 1999.
Just as President Buhari is, Professor Gambari, who was tapped again by Buhari for the position of CoS, is passionately patriotic in the service to the fatherland, committed to the success of the President in realising the Nigeria Project. Meanwhile, Gambari, with his principal, has 737 days more to acquit himself creditably in his position as Chief of Staff. Will his tenure remain unblemished, untainted, and inviolable? The answer lies in the womb of time.
Mr. Ojeifo writes firstname.lastname@example.org