President Muhammadu Buhari has opted for Prof Ibrahim Gambari, a trusted ally with vast experience, as his new Chief of Staff. The seasoned diplomat armed with a rich resume, will need to deploy his renowned nous in a delicate national assignment that has, in recent times, come with increased influence, scrutiny and responsibility, writes Demola Ojo
Prof Ibrahim Agboola Gambari was announced as President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff last week during Nigeria’s first virtual Federal Executive Council meeting. Gambari, who replaces the late Mallam Abba Kyari, was one of the few FEC members present at the meeting held at the Presidential Villa, with others joining via video conferencing.
The profile of the new Chief of Staff lends further credence to the increased importance of his role under a President, who has a history of delegating responsibilities to trusted aides and deputies.
A scholar and diplomat, Prof Gambari had served seven Nigerian Presidents/Heads of States and four United Nations Secretaries-General. One of these roles was with President Buhari, as his External Affairs Minister during the then Major General Buhari’s 18-month stint as Head of State between 1984 and 1985.
That was just one of many assignments Gambari had undertaken in his service to Nigeria in particular, and Africa in general. His most recent occupation was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, a non-governmental think-tank, which he founded for the purpose of research, policy studies, advocacy and training on the nexus between conflict prevention and resolution, democratisation and development in Africa. He has many more achievements to his name.
Aristocrat, Scholar, Ambassador
Born Ibrahim Agboola Gambari on November 24, 1944, in Ilorin, Gambari is a blueblood, whose brother was Emir of Ilorin and whose nephew is the current Emir. After his primary education in Ilorin, he proceeded to King’s College, Lagos, and subsequently attended the London School of Economics, where he obtained his B.Sc. degree in Economics in 1968.
He later obtained his M.A. Political Science and PhD. International Relations degrees from Columbia University, New York in 1970 and 1974 respectively.
Gambari had already started teaching in 1969 at City University, New York, and later became an assistant professor at the State University of New York from 1974 to 1977. He returned to Nigeria to work as a senior lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1977, where he rose to become a professor in 1983.
The same year, at 39, he became the Director-General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, an appointment made possible by President Shehu Shagari, from where he was poached to serve under Buhari as External Affairs minister.
After his time as minister came to an end with the advent of a new military government, Gambari proceeded to be a Visiting Professor at three universities: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University and Howard University all in Washington D.C. from 1986 to 1989.
Otherwise known as Ambassador Gambari, he holds the record of being the longest serving Nigerian Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1990 to 1999, serving under five Heads of State and Presidents: Ibrahim Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar and Olusegun Obasanjo.
In 1990, he was appointed chairman of the UN’s special committee against apartheid for four years, until Nelson Mandela became the first Black South African President in 1994.
Gambari has subsequently held several positions at the UN. In 1999, he was the President of UNICEF and later became UN Under-Secretary-General and the first Special Adviser on Africa to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, from 1999 to 2005. Gambari was also Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2007 under Secretary-General’s Annan and Ban Ki-Moon.
His last appointment in the UN was from January 2010 to July 2012, when Ban Ki-moon, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, appointed him the Joint African Union-United Nations Special Representative for Darfur, usually referred to as the world’s largest international peacekeeping mission.
Fit for Purpose
There is no denying that the role of Chief of Staff has taken on extra significance under the leadership of President Buhari – a personal appointment by the President without recourse to the Senate – the responsibilities of a Chief of Staff are usually defined by the principal.
The Chief of Staff is the senior operational member of the Office of the President and the principal channel of communication between the President and the government. He is responsible for the official programme and correspondence of the President. Through these roles, the position naturally wields considerable influence.
Responsibilities of the Chief of Staff also include selecting key presidential staff and supervising them, controlling the flow of people to Aso Villa, managing the flow of information, protecting the interests of the President, negotiating with the National Assembly and other branches of government to implement the President’s agenda, and advising the President on various issues.
Gambari’s antecedents as an accomplished diplomat should come handy in balancing these roles. The coming days will be anything but smooth, especially, because the country, like many around the world, will be reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But having someone of Gambari’s international stature taking up the role at this time when countries are coming together to combat a common enemy bodes well for President Buhari.
With his intimidating resume, and following on the heels of the influence the late Kyari was perceived to have wielded, it is expected that Gambari would be in the spotlight, and with the attendant scrutiny and criticism that come with the visibility.
He will be in the crosshairs of those who believe they deserve unfettered access to the President and like his predecessor, must be ready to shoulder the blame for shortcomings within and outside his purview.
His comments – both in the past and recently – reveal his mindset. “In many ways, I have been privileged and with privilege comes a lot of responsibility,” he once said in an interview.
More recently, when asked by journalists what to expect from him as Chief of Staff, Gambari said at the Presidential Villa in Abuja: “We have not started. I’ll have to find out. I don’t report directly to the nation, I report to the president.”
Pressed further on his guiding principle, he replied, “To serve the president to the best of my ability.”
It is expected then, that Gambari will bring to bear his intellect, international network, professional and administrative experience in advancing the interests of President Buhari and by extension, the nation at large.