Sanya Onayoade reviews the first year of Prof Ibrahim Gambari in the saddle as the Chief of Staff to President Ibrahim Gambari
Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, CFR, is one of the greatest diplomats that have shaped the international status of Nigeria since independence. But restricting his influence to the diplomatic circle will be a disservice to a man whose towering status straddles many spheres of life. He is simply an enigma venerated home and abroad.
Away from his perpetual global shuttles as an envoy with multiple portfolios, he berthed in Aso Villa, Abuja last year armed with the Presidency’s most strategic task: Chief of Staff to the President. As he marks his one year in office, the reflections since his time in the saddle will be an admixture of the pleasant and the not so pleasant. His stint has never been a stroll in the park, and may not be in the near future unless the insecurity pervading the nation is nipped. But men of steel are produced at times like this.
He came in at the most testy time in the annals of the nation, and has managed to keep his head above the turbulent waters. So far, he has exhibited the nature of his profound calling: less visibility but more strategic actions. A year ago, the rationale for his choice after the sudden demise of Mallam Abba Kyari couldn’t have been far-fetched. Prof. Gambari understands politics and diplomacy; he has in his pouch top level bureaucracy, administrative sagacity and ingenious people skills that had been deployed previously in hostile environments. President Mohammadu Buhari needed loyalty and he found it in a man wired by long diplomatic service to be pathologically loyal to the government of the day. He needed a close ally, someone he would be most comfortable with and in whose hands he could literally hand over his soul. He found it in a man he had crossed path with during the Military Regime, and who had been the perfect fit to handle the nation’s diplomatic shuttles at the time. Prof. Gambari gave insight into the relationship when he served as Foreign Affairs Minister in the Buhari Military regime: “We would meet one-on-one every working day” during which he would brief him and hand over summary of official telegraphs from all the diplomatic missions and necessary documents to him. And “within 24 hours, I would get a response in his handwriting to category one.”
Abba Kyari expanded the frontiers of his office, becoming the heartbeat of the Presidency and the de facto Emperor of the Presidential Bureaucracy, leaving behind big shoes at his transition. Gambari filled those shoes without fuss. Did he? His appointment was dogged with controversies in some quarters, not borne out of his competence to hold the mantle of the office, but the politics of it. He had been in circulation of the country’s political diplomacy since time immemorial and is seen as a recycled figure to hold the reins at the twilight of his career in 2020.
Some saw him as too old for the position, that he was a spent force seeking to hibernate and spend time in a “Retirement Home.” And for others, the office of the Chief of Staff demeaned the weight of his decades-long achievements. But also poignant was the opposition raised against him on the bill of his alleged role as Nigeria’s envoy to the United Nations in 1995 when the Ogoni leader, writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight others, were hanged by the Sani Abacha Military junta, with the aftermath global outrage and protests against international oil companies.
Political gladiators in the Opposition flank, in joining the fray, also saw in their crystal ball a personality that was more like a compromise candidate from the North Central region being warmed up for the 2023 presidency.
Whatever the permutations and ventilations then and now, the pedigree of the Super Diplomat cannot be underrated and the office he currently occupies is too strategic to be sacrificed on the altar of political sentiments.
Born of the aristocratic Fulani Royal Emirate on 24 November 1944 in Ilorin, Kwara State, Gambari attended the Provincial (now Government) Secondary School, Ilorin from where he moved to the King’s College in Lagos. His scholarship gained ascendancy after he obtained a B.Sc. in Economics (with specialty in International Relations) at the London School of Economics in 1968. He obtained an M.A (1970) and PhD (1974) degree in Political Science/International Relations from the Columbia University, New York, USA.
He began his teaching career in 1969 at City University of New York, had a stint at the University of Albany before joining Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He was a visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University and Howard University between 1986 and 1989.
Also, Professor Gambari had served as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and was a Resident Scholar at the Bellagio Study and Conference Centre.
Little wonder that these academic laurels earned him a well deserved place as an MVP in Nigeria’s diplomatic space.
Besides serving as Minister for External Affairs between 1984 and 1985, he was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and was twice President of the UN Security Council; Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs in UN; Head of the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur; Chairman of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid and UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Cyprus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
As a renowned envoy, he is a tactician, peacekeeper, negotiator, mediator, go-between, PR expert, moderator, all qualities that will help him moderate the complexities of the office of the Chief of Staff to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.