WEDNESDAY COLUMN by USSIJU MEDANER
Some time ago, on this platform, I did a summary on the role of the Chief of Staff to the president in relation to all other appointees of the president. That was in the early days of the second term of the present Administration when the president reportedly instructed the newly appointed ministers to literarily relate with his Chief of Staff. This was a fact and a standard practice in presidential democracies. In our usual characteristic manner, we translate it to an aberration without any consultation with precedence, norms and conventions – of such office – both here at home and overseas.
Without mincing words, every incidence, move, utterance and actions, even including inactions of the present Administration are immediately taken as a subject of political scrutiny for the purpose of establishing opportunity to create a dent somewhere in the administration. It has such become an attitude, an addiction, to ignorantly disparage the government of the day. That is more the reason why we have to spend every other day as a nation dangly around raising and discussing irrelevances that are not in any way adding to the prospects of a better and greater Nigeria.
The President intimated his all his newly appointed ministers of the Administration communication process and protocols, which is not in any way alien to the system, here in Nigeria or in any civilised nation globally, and we spent weeks arguing on why the ministers should pass through the office of the Chief of Staff and not go straight to the president. So much a time we all wasted focusing on that at the expense of productive and nationally benefiting discourses which has become increasingly a very rare attribute of our system, especially from the opposition and a large junk of organisation with perceived reach on citizens.
Today, it is the exaggeration of the political impasses between the Office of the Chief of Staff to the president and the National Security Adviser that we have all lapped on to create the next round of unproductive rhetoric. And so, it becomes necessary that once again, we define the office and potential lurking in it to facilitate policy coordination and good governance.
I will begin by taken us through memory lane before touching base on the Nigerian peculiarity. The office of the Chief of Staff was unheard of until in 1946 when the then President of the United States of America established it to assist the president directly but was later formalised to attain its current preeminent status in 1961. Labeled the “Gatekeeper,” obviously, the expectant objective was clear from the labeling; the holder of the office was to be a filter that shield the president from a lot of direct contact and communications.
A summary of the role of the Chief of Staff to the American President includes to manage the flow of information; protect the interest of the president; negotiate with the Congress, other members of the executive branch (inclusive of all appointees of the President, like ministers and NSA), and extra-governmental political groups to implement the president’s agenda; and to advise the president on all issues, including telling the president “what they do not want to hear.”
The Chief of Staff, at the requirement of the President generally works behind the scenes to solve problems, mediate disputes and deal with issues before they got to the president.
So currently, in the USA, the Chief of Staff is responsible for structuring the White House staff system, control the flow of people to the Oval office, manage the flow of information, and protect the interest of the president. These responsibilities even extend to firing of staff members; we all remember the solid case of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was sacked by the Chief of Staff, John Kelly, who stated that “the staff and everyone on the staff works for me and not the president.”
There is also the Executive Office of the President of the United States (EOP) that was formed on July 1, 1939 (80 years ago). It is a group of agencies at the centre of the executive branch of the United States federal government. The EOP supports the work of the president. It consists of several offices and agencies, such as the White House Office (the staff working directly for and reporting to the president, including West Wing staff and the president’s closest advisers), the National Security Council, and the Office of Management and Budget. Some of these play a very important role in the implementation and regulation of public policy. The Executive Office of the United States is overseen by the White House Chief of Staff. We can see how powerful and essential the office of the Chief of the Staff is in the US President’s office.
We should also remember Richard Nixon’s first chief of staff, H.R Haldeman that met with administration officials in place of the president and then report himself to President Nixon on the official talking points.
The positives that effective working of the office of the Chief of Staff to the president bring to the table were summarised in the words of former USA president Barrack Obama; he said “One of the things I’ve learned is that the big breakthroughs are typically the result of a lot of grunt work – just a whole lot of blocking and tackling. Grunt work is what the chiefs of staff do.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that we borrowed the use of the office which till now is not known to our presidential governance but which has become an integral part of our system across all tiers of government and political offices in Nigeria. President Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1999, instructed the then Secretary to the government of the federation, Chief Ufot Ekaette, to draw the module (schedules) for the Office of the Chief of Staff for subsequent approval and operation of the office. The schedule drawn in 1999 is still what is mostly operational in the country till now. That schedule mirrored the intentions of president Obasanjo for the newly created office (I am sure what the president admired most was the gatekeeping role of the holder of the office. The president want someone appointed who will decide who sees and do not see him; someone who deals with his appointees on his behalf).
A critical look into the 1999 schedule of office of the Chief of Staff says it all. The holder of the office will coordinate ALL activities of the principal staff officers of the president; convey all directives of the president to the SGF, NSA, CDS, ministers and other top functionaries of government; form ad-hoc committees as well as stipulate their terms of reference in conjunction with the SGF; chair meetings of principal staff officers to the president; monitor and coordinate the day-to-day activities of the president; clear all official military and civil matters as well as prepare executive summaries on official issuers; arrange all official appointments and engagements of the president, in conjunction with the ADC and SCOP to the president; arrange and convey all meetings sanctioned by the president; organise federal executive council meetings in conjunction with the cabinet secretariat; attendance of national defense and Security Council meetings; coordinate and attend the annual council/boards of defense, NA, NN, NAF, NWC, CSC, NDA, and NDF as well as follow up on all decisions reached at the meetings; serve as the link between the president and the Service Headquarters; maintenance and control of the president; and so much more.
From all indications, the current Chief of Staff has not meet up to fifty percent of his scheduled responsibility to his principal and we are turning the country upside down, creating unrest over irrelevances. It is unfortunate that a time like this, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo is expected to write letter(s) to correct the ignorance of the many supporters of the oppositions and to rein in his ‘boys’ in the opposition; when he is in the best position to protect the integrity of an office he gave birth to, and tell all that the holder of the office is still on course as per the expectation of his Commander-in-Chief.
From all reality, whether in Nigeria or the United States of America where we copied the system, the holder of the office of the Chief of Staff to the president at his/her maxima efficiency acts as the president alter-ego. What we should rather be worried about is the competence – and another important corollary, loyalty to the principal – of the holder of such office, who indirectly acts as the president’s gatekeeper and Chief of Administration. Nothing, with respect to official correspondences, goes out of or comes into the administration without passing through the holder of the office of the Chief of Staff. If we did not condemn the office all the way from 1999, it is baseless and not needed doing so now.
Given the monstrous responsibilities reposes on whoever occupies the office of the Chief of Staff to the president of Nigeria, it is safe to say the holder needs every support and assistance he or she can find to ease their job responsibilities. The office, like other serious, formal social organisations deal with people, humans who we all know are complex beings. Lack of familiarity with one another and most importantly, the schedules of assignments among top aides cannot be ruled out in making the office of the Chief of Staff difficult to the holder. Tools such as retreats, conferences and workshops presidential aides particularly designed to breakdown the schedules of duties of the members of the presidential team such that everyone gets to know his or her limits and expectations in their respective offices. In such events, away from the rigidity and high pressure work environment, policymakers would find it much easier to listen to each other, coordinate among themselves and to consider policies that would serve the nation better.
Though, it was reported the Presidency had a retreat when the second term cabinet members were inaugurated. A single retreat event cannot serve the entire life of policymakers for the considerations above. Workshops, retreats and joint agency conferences need be more frequent than what we currently have which will no doubt foster understanding and much is likely to be achieved in any given time. I have no doubt that in such events, presidential aides will become comfortable with the implication that whoever is beholden to serve a president as the Chief of Staff, in the American style, becomes the president’s alter-ego in the lifespan of the office.
The reported incident between the NSA and the Chief of Staff to the president should serve as a wake up call of the need for more off-site events such as retreats and workshops for those serving in the highest office of our land. For if they do not get along well or as some of them who may feel aggrieved but never get an opportunity to air out their concerns, say on policy matters and are there by demotivated to mute the many rich ideas and solutions they could potentially offer, or less we forget, understand their respective schedules of duties in the service of the Presidency and their common principal, it is the nation that will keep suffering.
Finally, APC’s government is getting more exposed. PDP, on the other hand, is getting more involved into the play; infiltrating sectors and units of government, functioning to the detriment of the Administration. All these rancors – and likely more to come – are handiwork of oppositions bent on creating cracks everywhere until the center hold no longer for the ruling party. When will APC wake up?
God Bless The Federal Republic Of Nigeria!