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The Gambari I know

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This is not one of those window-dressing pieces that many are used to in this part of the world. It is my humble attempt to call forth some tucked in facets of the persona of the recently appointed Chief of Staff to the President.

It is well known that Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari brings on board an intimidating resume that doesn’t need any more unveiling. He not only comes across as a well-trained diplomat but also a grand old technocrat. He is courteous and respectful without the usual airs that you find with men of his ilk.

Over the years (and more intensely between the years 2009-2016), I was a steady recipient of his publicly presented papers, besides my scholarly, intellectual and political discussions with him both here in Nigeria and elsewhere especially in places such as New York and Addis Ababa. This had been sparked when I learn that he was a proponent of concentric as a foreign policy tool. That’s a discussion for another day.

I thought for instance, that he demonstrated remarkable courage when he flayed the decision of former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to stay away from the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in October 2009, describing it as a diplomatic blunder, something too costly for Nigeria which at the time was bidding for a seat at the UN Security Council. Gambari who was at the New York headquarters of the global body as undersecretary-General blamed the decision on improper advice by Yar’Adua’s aides. Today, he is now one such aide and a very senior one at that!

As an illustrious patriot, his had been a leading voice on the high need for a “national rebuilding”, “national way forward”, “national reformation” or “national reconciliation” (the type desirable in Nigeria) Poring over professionalism in national development, he had at different times decried the lack of visionary leadership, gamesmanship and statesmanship in Nigeria, following this up by continuously drawing attention to the nexus between education, development, unity and democratic transformation of Nigeria. In one such instance where he presented a paper to a professional group, he postulated among others: “Professionalism as a concept speaks first and foremost to excellence. Built into excellence are merit and standards that underpin quality at its best. A true professional is not only a person of great technical competence and managerial ability, but even (being) political savvy-but also a standard-bearer of civic values and integrity”

In the same vein, at many other fora, Gambari bemoaned what he called “narrow ethno-regional calculations that had become so integral to national territorial administration and economic governance” which he lamented had now “flung the gates open for mediocrity to triumph in the national life, in the process”. His maturity in handling sensitive matters is another sterling quality. This was quite palpable when for instance he received in October 2017, the self-assessment report in his capacity as Chair of the African Union (AU) Verification Team-being a panel of eminent persons raised to ascertain the level of readiness of the ECOWAS Standby Force.

Although Covid-19 is the rage of the moment, Prof Gambari had by March 2016, come to certain conclusions on the way Africa should be handling China affairs. At the inaugural conference organised by Yale University, through its MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, in collaboration with Leading business schools in China and on the African continent, Gambari as chairman of Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, sued for greater awareness of “cultural clashes” in the course of forging a reinvigorated Sino-Africa partnership, with the impression being created that local sensitivities are being ignored and that African partners are not viewed as true equals.

He was of the opinion that “African countries need to develop individual, sub-regional and regional strategies promote greater environmental responsibility and environmentally-friendly technologies” while working against corruption in all its forms. Gambari has since hit the ground running, resuming on May 13, 2020, and immediately getting involved in a virtual Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting. And as reported, he paid a courtesy visit to the National Security Adviser (NSA), Maj. Gen. Babagana Monguno (Rtd) shortly after that first e-cabinet meeting. The latter activity indicates that a new chapter in inter-agency cooperation and intra bureaucratic services collaboration is being opened. Well, this is his turf. Afterall, Gambari had met his peace and reconciliation objectives in missions such as Darfur and Myanmar!

Professor Gambari once chaired the Niger Delta Peace Committee. When he was resigning from that Committee in July 2008, he wrote to President UmaruYar’ Adua at the time: “My appointment has attracted what appears to be a well-orchestrated and relentless opposition from some quarters, institutions, groups and individuals.”

Today, even with the smear campaign, he wouldn’t be needing to write such a memo. He has come to full cycle and should just be calling Aso Rock shots as a backroom boss. It may well be that he wants to lean close to President Buhari and tell him certain home truths while serving him. At 75, he has nothing to lose if he does that. His experience and exposure mean he can easily reach out. This, being a plus for the presidency as he takes the reins of what may be his public service twilight gift to the fatherland. Now, the misgivings hovering around the circus of columnists and critics all the more rightly or wrongly, shape the public opinion of him. But it is up to Gambari to conduct the brief of his business with his principal more quietly than hitherto, with the expected gravitas and sensitivity, such that those of us who knew him to a certain degree could say: Ah! Yes, we told you, that his artistry did not just come about because he is from Ilorin and dark-skinned with a slightly marked cheek, or an unrepentant Mohammedan or that he could speak softly over hard matters, and all of that, but because truly, the deeper values of his resume’s condiments, stick fittingly to him.

Obayuwana is a former Foreign Affairs Editor of The Guardian.


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