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Published On: Mon, May 4th, 2020

In search of a new Chief of Staff

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By Abdullahi Malumfashi

Barely a week after the office of the chief of staff to the President became vacant following the death of the erstwhile chief Malam Abba Kyari (may his soul rest in peace), there has been lobbying by politicians amidst intense media speculations in the power capital as to who would replace him. Names being put forth by the media include serving ministers and governors, influential diplomats, powerful politicians, party chairmen and others. This hardly comes as a surprise, rather it shows how influential and powerful the office has to became recently. Many Nigerians seem to be aware of the office, thanks to the more visible role the office has came to play in recent years, the MTN bribery allegations, fake contract controversy and the increasing talks of the presence of a cabal of which the former chief of staff was allegedly part of. However, all these seem farfetched and are perhaps attacks due to the immeasurable trust put in him by the president, which is evident through his selection in NNPC board (unusual for a chief of staff) or the President’s recent directive that all Ministers pass their request to see him through the chief of staff’s office.
The office of the Chief of Staff originated during Dwight Eisenhower’s Administration as President of the United States (a role he borrowed from the military.) The role became perfected into a modern day template—which all subsequent Presidents have followed with the brief exception of Jimmy Carter with dire consequences—it during Nixon’s Administration when he appointed Bob Haldeman. The roles of the chief of staff include selecting key staff and officials, controlling the president’s schedule, negotiating with congress on behalf of the president and driving the president’s agenda. They also include the unenviable role of telling Presidents uncomfortable truths. These, and perhaps many other duties are likely to position the chief of staff as the most influential person in Washington after the president as once claimed by James Baker III who himself was an influential Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and of Treasury. Since the start of the fourth Republic, Nigeria has had five chiefs of staff and all the presidents used the office with the brief exception of Late Yar’adua who between 2008-2010—a time coinciding with frequent leaks in the Aso Villa, confusion and ill-health of the president—opted for a Principal secretary.
Responsibilities of the chief of staff in Nigeria include; Coordinating the activities of all Principal Staff, Conveyance of all directives and decisions of the President, Formation of ad-hoc bodies as well as stipulating their terms of reference in conjunction with SGF, Chairing of meetings of Principal Staff Officers to the President, Monitoring and Coordinating the day to day activities of the President, Clearance of all official military and civil matters as well as preparation of executives summaries on official issues, Arrangement of all official appointments and engagements of the President in conjunction with SCOP and ADC Arrangement and convening of all meetings sanctioned by the President, C-in-C as well as coverage of such meetings including provision of secretariat services and many others.
From the above, it can be deduced that the chief of staff is such a sensitive and important role that cannot be just occupied by anybody. Numerous qualities are needed to hold the Chief of staff’s office, qualities which all the previous chiefs shared. One of the most important —if not the most important—is loyalty. This is kind of apparent seeing how the late Kyari worked with uncommon loyalty to his boos, sometimes taking bullets not meant for him and becoming the subject of a vicious media attack. He was however neither the first nor will he be the last to feel the heat of his chair. Maj. General Abdullahi Muhammad (retd.) felt the wrath of some power brokers, when he was forced out of office and the post was abolished. Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s famous Chief of Staff defended his boss with relished loyalty and famously referred to himself as the president’s “Son of a bitch” SOB. This gusto of loyalty by chief will always make them the target of others.
The president needs someone who he trusts and whose advice he can easily rely on and one who can work his agenda without having any political ambitions himself, like the late chief did. They should also be able to understand the president’s intricate and complex thoughts. For that to happen, he knows someone who understands him and someone they go way back with. Obasanjo appointed his chief from the constituency he knows best; the military. Jonathan appointed a former deputy governor friend, from the South South. The president will likely appoint someone from the same region as the late Kyari, or his hometown region. After all, the office of the chief of staff is one of the few posts immune from the need for ethnic and religious balancing. It won’t be surprising if the president appoints a relatively unknown old friend or the son of a trusted associate.
While serving as Yar’adua’s chief, Abdullahi Muhammad once saved his principal from committing a political blunder. On the day of the PDP Convention of 2008, Obasanjo drove in to the Villa to convince him to endorse as candidate for chairman someone whom the governors oppose and hasn’t even bought a ticket. Just as Yar’adua was about to cave in to the request which would have unnecessarily heated the polity, Muhammad came to the rescue and ensured the conversation ended. This and many more decisions taken in loyalty of the country might have saved the country a great deal of trouble. So not only loyalty to an individual is needed, but also loyalty and patriotism to the country as a whole. The late Kyari was a Pan-Nigerian and a true nationalist from all ramifications who died serving his country, judging from the many encomiums showered on him by eminent Nigerians. A new chief of staff should not only fervently believe in the unity of Nigeria, but be patriotic at heart and in actions too not showing favoritism to one particular region or religion. Most aides find themselves torn between being loyal to their principal or to their country. In the event of such peculiarity, a new chief should be able to choose the latter. Ability to tell his principal the uncomfortable and ugly truths no one can and also acting to mitigate disaster should be a desirable trait to be looked for in a new holder of the office.
The role of the chief of staff requires knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy issues, as a result requires one well versed in both. Possessing adept negotiating and arbitrary skills is also important, because he gets, negotiate on behalf of the president, lobby NASS members for passage of bills and confirmation of appointments, and settle dispute between government officials. As the role is physically demanding—most chiefs are the first in the office and the last to leave— it is important a strong, consummate and vigorous hard worker that will be able to sacrifice both family and personal time occupy the office. Though old age might not be a factor (Abdullahi Muhammad maintained his incredible work ethics in his 70s, so did Kyari who worked hard even with ill-health), it won’t hurt to see a much younger person.
Familiarity with the rudiments and bureaucracies of government is also essential. As such, a seasoned administrator and an effective technocrat would most likely be the best pick. Even though it is mostly, a technocratic role, he should be adept in dealing with politicians. All but few chiefs have been politicians (mostly military generals and experienced administrators), and it is clear technocrats thrive well in the role and perhaps politicians themselves would be the worst pick.
For years the role of the chief of staff has been mostly an invisible one, usually pulling strings behind the scenes and ensure things are in order while not putting himself in the picture. The opposite seems to be the case recently. This can hardly be blamed on the occupants of the office, but to the habit of the president who increasingly delegate responsibilities to the occupant of the office. It is always said that, how powerful a chief of staff is, depends on the president through which the powers emanate from. While some like Obasanjo have an eye for even minute details, this president would rather the chief of staff handle most things and only the most important gets to his desk. Such is the case in the US, where only the most important of things get to the president’s desk. Perhaps the president should cut it back on the duties to avoid repeat of allegations of working for the cabal and so on. And in any case, not everyone who controls access the president in a country where access to the problem alone is power can be trusted not to misuse such influence. It is also clear from the over centralization of power in the office, (the late Kyari has been called a Prime minister —just like John Sununu Senior Bush’s Chief—, De-facto president, Vice president Administration and many other names.) that more deputy offices should be created to lessen the burden. One particularly needed is the deputy on National security affairs, in light of the recent spat between the Chief of Staff and the NSA.
Personal integrity should also be an integral component. Only one who has an impeccable character and is able to commandeer respect from the political elites and the business leaders alike should be appointed. He shouldn’t have any skeletons in his cupboards which might be available for cheap blackmail. Also, ability to cultivate the friendship of people, including media personalities is crucial. He should also work to shield the president from overbearing influence of others and also tried to be in the good books of the First Lady.
In all honesty, the president cannot find another Kyari— in whom he lost a loyal friend and confidant— he can only try.

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