The heat and tensions of the past few years seem slowly to be giving way to tentative cohesion and administrative effectiveness in the Muhammadu government, writes Adewale Adeeyo
As Nigeria marks her 60th Independence Anniversary, a significant part of the discourse will centre on national development, President Muhammadu Buhari himself, and to some extent, his team. It has been some five tumultuous years since the President assumed office at a time of huge but unmet expectations. For those five years, there has been no consensus on how steadily and progressively the government has steered the ship of state. There have been controversies about the representativeness and effectiveness of the cabinet, and there have been animated discussions about the patriotism of the President’s kitchen cabinet.
Also, there has been a greater and even more intense controversy about the direction of the Buhari Presidency itself, with the late Mr. Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff (CoS) to the President, a central focus.
It was in the midst of the search for regime clarity and unresolved questions about who or what constitutes the fulcrum of the administration that the then serving CoS passed away.
As CoS, Abba Kyari assumed a central role in the administration and indeed became its lightning rod. The President was thought to be very distant from the hurting populace, even somewhat ineffective, aloof and uninformed, and had in the general supposition of the public abdicated his responsibilities to the late Mr. Kyari.
Soon after the administration assumed office in 2015, the economy stirred, and never was fully grounded or stable, in the first place. But it had hastily hurtled itself into the depths of a harsh recession. President Buhari, naturally, was blamed.
While the cabinet was not promptly constituted in the first instance, and never quite met the radical expectations of the public, a much larger problem of laxity and confusion enveloped the nation and cast doubt about the cohesion and readiness of the administration to govern about 200 million very energetic and boisterous peoples.
In short, it took a few years before the ship of state steadied, and even then, it always seemed poised to keel over due to widespread animosities and internal struggles for influence within the administration and among appointees. Whatever progress was made, it arrived against the backdrop of these fierce and weird struggles, most of the time, and all motions always seemed worrisomely tentative.
After a while, the economy began to grow again, but it never seemed too far away from slipping back into recession. Railway lines were being constructed, but there was no consensus whether this was not at a dispiriting cost in external loans. Roads and bridges, long neglected by previous administrations, were also being built.
But there were misgivings about their costs and geopolitical representativeness. The administration functioned as a modern government, but the internecine battles between functionaries gave it away as less cohesive and effective than it seemed or was desired.
While these demons and many other militating factors that plagued the administration have not been fully propitiated, new appointments in the past few months have appeared to mollify the centrifugal forces neutralising growth, stability and progress. Improvements have been slow and sometimes desultory, but at least, there is evident and positive change of direction.
The heat and tensions of the past few years seem slowly to be giving way to tentative cohesion and administrative effectiveness. There was, of course, nothing inevitable about this change of direction. Indeed, everything seemed to be entirely fortuitous, particularly, with the choice of, and appointment of a new Chief of Staff, whose training and temperament are markedly different from his predecessor’s. Our President chose well.
A little less than a month after the passing of Mr. Kyari in April, the President appointed, as CoS, Ibrahim Gambari, a Professor of International Relations, outstanding scholar and long-standing diplomat with grit and gravitas plus global reputation.
Like his predecessor, the new presidential gatekeeper had announced to a nation wary of the unaccustomed powers now inherent in that important office that he would be proudly loyal to the President and would work from the background, probably often seen but seldom heard. He would be the engine room, as well as the brain box, of the Presidency like his predecessor, he clearly and matter-of-factly, stated.
But earlier in April, close aides and friends of the President, who were mortified by the passing of Mr. Kyari had indeed publicly wondered whether the late CoS had not left behind large shoes no one could step into. They tremulously suggested that the late CoS had redefined that office, made it idiosyncratic to himself, and set the bar inordinately high, all but suggesting that he had set a benchmark which no one, let alone a mortal, could aspire to, ever.
Though it is too early to conclude, so far, all that puffing and grandstanding, translated to nothing, and Prof Gambari has hit the ground running in probably the most unobtrusive and confident manner imaginable. He gives the wholesome impression that he understands the pitfalls of the office, the snares that had made many Nigerians, including supporters of the President, fearful of the superfluous aggregation of power into that office to the point of seeming to be subversive of the constitution.
Consequently, Gambari has worked very smartly to reassure both the Presidency and the public that as a systems man, he understands the role of the CoS, and will do his best to play the power game very effectively, and without causing offence; except for d ruination of any cluster of rude malcontents. Not being a politician, nor at the advanced age of 75, would the latest CoS, be eyeing or aiming for a higher office.
He thus preferred working behind the scene to streamline the operations of the Presidency, reconcile warring and sometimes egotistic appointees, as he now stringently control the tightened access to the President on a need-to basis. There is still much work to be done, but at least a fair and profitable beginning has been achieved.
Without any doubt, the new CoS is a stern and consummate diplomat, as well as a sharp and severe academic. He recognises that in the past five years of the Buhari administration, many power centres had become inextricably interwoven with the highest office in the land, some of those power centres so implacable that it is pointless attempting to disentangle them from the seat of power.
He has left these competing power centres alone, so that they may sleep into comatose mode or gestate into meaningless nothing, with him knowing for sure that any threat to their existence could be met with such fierce, fratricidal response that would ensnare, stultify and slow down the Presidency.
He recognises that if the President, whom he swore to serve loyally and with utmost vigour, were to be left alone, and fortified with freedom, to fulfill his electoral promises, internal conflicts and competitions for influence must be considerably minimised, and indeed rigorously subdued. To a large extent, this arduous goal has been achieved in a matter of months.
In his second term, quite fortuitously, President Buhari is, therefore, moving more steadily and more rapidly to fulfill his objectives.
To be sure, and in a more nuanced way, the President has now appeared to have a better grip on his Presidency, and may now indulge in the thrills of the expert choreography that the the preppy diplomacy of his CoS had used to adorn, and also further enhance the already enormous powers of the Presidency.
There are no accusations, any more, that Mr. President is abdicating his Presidency or outsourcing his powers to any appointee.
Gambari has, as it were, restored the composed powers of the Presidency, shifting censorious gaze away from any other power centre, real or hypothetic, and refocusing and redirecting the whole country to see the President as the Commander-in-Chief and Chief Administrator, who has absolute control and authority over all the levers of power, attached to his fancy job and commanding office.
It takes a superlative diplomat and suave strategist to recognise the need and value of making the President to be, and be seen, in control even if others are doing the yeoman job.
The President conducts virtual conferences with his cabinet, gives orders for amelioration of public discord, and has a far more publicised grip on his cabinet and developmental issues, including infrastructural renewal matters. The National Security Agency (NSA) and the Ministry of Defence are gradually restoring control, including synergetic coordination, over military and other security establishments and issues. The national organogram of the security services makes more sense today than obtained in the past, thus helping the President to worry less about issues of synergy between his security and law enforcement agencies. The ultimate goal of flawless coordination is still a long way off. But a helpful and synchronised start has at last begun. It won’t take too long for the President to wonder why he never had this kind of grip in his Presidency in his previous term, and until now.
There are of course still many problems relating to coordination, whether in politics or administration. It is unlikely these logjams will ever be completely resolved. But unlike in the early years of the Buhari administration, these problems are now being deliberately ameliorated, with Nigeria increasingly enjoying some form of real coordination.
There will continue to be problems relating to the acrimony in the ruling All Progressives Congress party (APC), as the President himself has admitted, and there is nothing to suggest that he will in the immediate future get a better hang of the disarticulation, tearing members of the party apart.
But with the enthronement of transparency, order and rule of law in the administration, especially with respect to rules imposed to regulate the running of government, there is likely to be a positive spillover to the party as the months roll by.
A few powerful individuals will still bend or take advantage of established rules, if not the law itself, as indeed is still happening, but overall, the electoral promises of the Buhari administration now stand a higher chance of being truly fulfilled.
While no single individual can take credit for the order and absence of contentiousness now pervading the Buhari administration, it is noticeable that in the economy, as troubled and slippery as it is, or in the national response to the COVID-19 crisis, and in the reinvigoration of the counterinsurgency operations, or the upgrading of national infrastructure on a holistic level, deliberate speed has become noticeable and relative order has expanded the President’s vista, and energised his vision despite its controversiality, and freed him from the needless bickering that once assailed his Presidency.
In the coming months, if nothing is allowed to overwhelm or undermine the process, the Presidency may yet function with the untrammelled idealism envisaged by the constitution. It has helped that a diplomat of the highest global distinction and a largely apolitical functionary unencumbered by primordial restraints now occupies the vital office of the Chief of Staff which enables the President to be in charge, and act in charge.
That fulcrum upon which the Presidency must anchor its activities and ambitions has been captured and secured by Gambari, and blended into the art of governance and quietly meshed into the indispensable soul of government itself.
In the coming weeks and months, the Presidency will face its severest tests yet. The increase in petroleum products prices, upward review of electricity tariffs, looming strikes, and inflationary pressures are certain to put a huge strain on the Presidency. The economy as a whole will also be stressed to nervy limits.
Good thing is Nigerians do not have the impression that the President has an economic team that is top notch. Nor do they think that by the nation’s habitual non-rigorous antecedent may swiftly harvest reward that would stir the economy to a vigorously robust model. But they now have assurance that the president’s latest attentiveness, nurtured by Gambari, would never permit it that none, again, would ever be left behind.
May the genuine and profound counsels of the CoS to Mr. President yield an inimitable style of governance without convoluting the real essence of politics and ethnicity in our land. The President will need this stability and resourcefulness at the home front as it confronts the political, economic and social exigencies that tend to complicate the twin objectives of reform and modernisation.
May the sublime combination of the President’s inner strength and crucial obstinacy that sustained him in five Presidential Electoral Campaigns, with three harsh defeats and 2 splendid and triumphant victories mingle with subtlety, caution, imagination, empathy and God’s mercy to fill our President with sturdy encouragement and his collaborator, the CoS, with sound wellness and zealous wit as they calmly and astutely serve our dear nation.
I have no doubt that the genius and grand goodness of these good men shall burst, and succeed.
––Adeeyo, OON, is the Chairman, Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria and member, Governing Council, Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State.