Saturday, 2nd December 2023

Gbajabiamila…racing to beat Kyari, Gambari’s records as President’s Chief Of Staff

By Terhemba Daka, Abuja
30 September 2023   |   4:06 am
Barely four days after he was sworn into office, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, on June 2, this year, appointed former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, as his Chief of Staff.

President Tinubu (right) with Gbajabiamila

Barely four days after he was sworn into office, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, on June 2, this year, appointed former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, as his Chief of Staff. The Office of the Chief of Staff in any democratic setting is responsible for directing, managing and overseeing all policy development, daily operations and staff activities for the president.

This office coordinates and communicates with all departments and agencies of the administration. The staff of this office assists in that effort by organising the affairs of the Chief of Staff. This office is the primary coordinator of activities that seek to explain and promote the president’s policies.

In the United States for instance, this office communicates the president’s policies to the American public. The office also informs the president about the public’s concerns and interests by analysing and responding to the president’s mails, e-mails and telephone calls received over the Comment Line. In addition, the department performs individual casework and assists individuals seeking help from the Federal Government, oversees the White House Volunteer Programme, prepares presidential messages and proclamations and acknowledges gifts given to the First Family.

Thus, whoever is appointed as the Chief of Staff is usually seen as a trusted ally of the president, which Gbajabiamila actually is, having been in the inner caucus of Tinubu’s political family for over three decades. Unlike the late Abba Kyari and Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, who both held sway as Chiefs of Staff to former president Muhammadu Buhari, Gbajabiamila was active in the political arena before his appointment and seems to be at home with his roles in the Presidency. However, looking back to the Kyari and Gambari days as Chiefs of Staff, the tasks before Gbajabiamila appear to be huge and analysts are closely watching to see how he would address them.

Kyari, a Kanuri from Borno State, was first appointed as Buhari’s Chief of Staff on August 27, 2015. The appointment was renewed after Buhari won re-election for a second term on July 7, 2019. His office served as the engine room, providing routine checks and balances, and serving as a gatekeeper of some sort to the president. He was an influential figure within the Buhari administration and wielded so much power. No wonder he made quite a handful of political enemies, who even wished him dead.

Alas, Kyari contracted the ravaging Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and died on Friday, April 17, 2020, in a hospital in Lagos State. The remains of the late Kyari, a lawyer, journalist, banker and alumnus of both the University of Warwick and University of Cambridge were interred at the Gudu cemetery, Apo, Abuja, in a solemn funeral amidst tears from family members and admirers.

Before his sudden demise, Kyari would many of the time stop by to exchange banters with the State House correspondents and even acknowledge greetings from staffers he encountered along the corridor as he made his way to and fro Buhari’s office. He was always visible. He could not be missed in what became his uniform – a white agbada and wine coloured Kanuri traditional cap to match. He won’t be caught in any other attire or a different colour.

Writing about Kyari’s persona, a former State House correspondent, Lekan Adetayo, who covered the Presidential Villa for many years, said: “Despite being advanced in age, this presidential aide covers this distance as many times as possible in a day, crisscrossing his office and the president’s office, apparently because he does not want to leave anything to chance.”

In all of the short trips, Adetayo said, “Kyari was always accompanied by at least two security aides, one in front apparently to be sure no harm is coming near him from the front and the other in the rear to ensure that enemies contemplating coming from the rear are warded off. You will never see him release those closely clutched office files that may contain the nation’s top secrets to any of his aides.”

Kyari carried a tough and strict demeanour. These attributes notwithstanding, he found time to acknowledge greetings and sometimes cracked jokes with journalists whenever he found them at the corridor in front of the Press Gallery while on his way either to his office or the President’s office.

Sometimes he would be the first to draw the attention of journalists in the Villa by jokingly announcing “breaking news, breaking news” especially whenever he had a positive or favourable approval from his principal.

But once he noticed that newsmen tried to jokingly turn the encounter on the narrow corridor to an interview session, he quickly left the scene.

After Kyari’s death, Buhari appointed Gambari as his Chief of Staff. Gambari was received at the Presidential Villa by senior Presidency officials including the former Director of Protocol, Alhaji Yakubu Ahmed, now an Ambassador in Doha, Qatar; the former Permanent Secretary, State House, Mallam Tijani Umar and the former Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, who ushered him into the Aso Chambers of the State House, Abuja.

Shortly after being presented at the Presidential Villa, Gambari told journalists that he would be reporting directly to the President in the course of carrying out his official duties.

“I thank the President of the Federal Republic for giving me the opportunity to serve him and of course, the country,” Gambari said.

On what Nigerians should expect from him as Chief of Staff, he said: “We have not started; I’ll have to find out. I don’t report directly to the nation. I report to the President.”

On what he would offer the President, Gambari said “my loyalty, competence and support,” adding that his guiding principle as Chief of Staff would be “to serve the President to the best of my ability.”

Gambari was almost every time, curiously too, sandwiched by suited security aides attached to him from the Department of State Services (DSS) as he walked through the corridor to see the president and back to his office. He acknowledged compliments without uttering a word, with his countenance always looking like a senior military officer inspecting a guard of honour mounted by troops. Villa staffers would, without prompting, give way along the corridor anytime Gambari passed by. However, whether Gambari acquitted himself well in the office is left to conjecture.

Now, Gbajabiamila is in the saddle and has started creating his own impressions. Currently, there is this perception among observers within the seat of power that he is the head of the new cabal. There are even talks that he played a major role in the selection of members of Tinubu’s cabinet. While these remain in the realm of speculation, whether he will leave a positive or negative impression in the minds of Presidency watchers and Villa officials would be seen in due course.

However, many Nigerians who have institutional knowledge of the workings of the office of Chief of Staff to the President in a democratic setting said no two persons are alike in style, adding that the characteristics of Gbajabiamila as Chief of Staff were still unfolding.

Analysing the days of Kyari, Gambari and the few months of Gbajabiamila in office, Chesa Chesa, said: “From the viewpoint of a correspondent, one would say that Abba Kyari was quite powerful and seen to be powerful. It was obvious. And despite that, he was very friendly, he related well even though he brooked no frivolities. Ambassador Gambari on the other hand was quite friendly too, but the circumstances of his arrival made him take a little while to get used to the Villa unlike his predecessor who stayed quite long.

“Nonetheless, he also exhibited friendliness towards other staff members; probably because there were things he could not take on before the government left.

“Gbajabiamila has started well. He is a known ally of the president. While it might appear too early to judge, he has taken a few steps and if he continues in that trajectory it will be good. But one cannot really conclude for now; it’s just about two months, but with those few steps things might just go down well for the government.”

For Mrs. Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, the office of the Chief of Staff is a sensitive one that requires the assistance of some experts to acquit oneself well.

“Abba Kyari had the ears of Mr. President and his principal had confidence in him. The President allowed him free hand to operate. The way things ought to be done was strictly adhered to. You will see him always interfacing with the president; he was strict but approachable.

“For Prof. Gambari, I really did not understand his style. But he had two aides that were seconded to his office and those people did very well by projecting the president’s work. Under him, they had a lot of media interaction. It was courtesy of those aides. But honestly I don’t think I truly understood his style.

“He had no relationship with the media. The only time he had interaction was the day of his farewell. But I will give it to his aides who worked with him; they tried.

“As for Gbajabiamila, the advice I have for him is to carry the media along. I want him to retain that interaction we used to have with ministers. Particularly, I will advise that he works with the Minister of Information so that there will be synergy of purpose,” she said.

A veteran, Johnbosco Agbakwuru, also said: “The current Chief of Staff, having been a seasoned politician, having been a Speaker of the House of Representatives, he appears to be a man of the people. He has that disposition that tells staffers that he relates cordially.

“I remember Abba Kyari. He used to exhibit a
friendly disposition towards staff members. Coming from the background of journalism, he tried to associate with everybody. Sometimes he may crack jokes with you, but then he is serious with his job.

“When he (Kyari) left, there was a diplomat and professor as his successor, Prof. Gambari. He was someone that looked withdrawn. He looked strict and shrewd in his role and disposition to duty.

“Many times he would crisscross the corridor as he goes to see the president and returns to his office without uttering a word to anybody when he passed by.

“People may say that Gbajabiamila has started very well. But what many do not know yet is whether he would continue the way he has started. Currently, he is friendly with everybody. If he continues like this, it’s going to be a plus to the government.”