Since the death of Abba Kyari, Buhari’s Chief of Staff, there have been speculations on who will succeed the man famously regarded as Nigeria’s de facto President and the Head of the ‘cabal’. We are told that intense lobbying for the position has started, not just among certain individuals but also among the various contending centres of power within the presidency. A crucial question is whether the appointment of a new chief of staff could fundamentally change the trajectory of governance in the country?
There are several issues involved here:
One, was Abba Kyari an epitome of ‘cabalism’, an evil man who usurped the power of an elected President?
The German sociologist Robert Michels in his book Political Parties (1911) told us that rule by an elite or oligarchy is inevitable in any modern organization, regardless of how democratic the organization was initially. He called this the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. He argued that since no large organization can function purely as a direct democracy, power will necessarily be delegated, which in turn opens up the space for various contending groups to capture the organization and exercise disproportionate influence. For governments, it is all about state capture through access to the critical decision makers, essentially the President in our type of system. This means that every organization or government is controlled by a cabal – a small group of people who are Conscious, Cohesive and Conspiratorial. For instance under Obasanjo, Andy Ubah, a ‘common’ Assistant to the President on Domestic Affairs and Members of the Economic Management Team were believed to enjoy disproportionate access to the President. Under Yaradua, Tanimu Yakubu Kurfi, Abba Ruma and Dahiru Mangal were believed to have the listening ears of the President while under Jonathan, the late Oronto Douglas, Diezani Alison Madueke and Patience Jonathan were believed to enjoy tremendous influence on the government.
Two, a major difference between Abba Kyari and the cabal in previous governments was that while the competing centres shared power or were not completely emasculated by a hegemonic faction, it would seem that Abba Kyari managed to outcompete and neutralize other contending centres of power. In this, the personality and style of the President appeared to have helped him a lot. Buhari is known to outsource governance to whomever he trusts and he seemed to have full confidence on Abba Kyari. Additionally, with Buhari relishing his mythical image of ‘Mr Nice’ among his followers, he appeared satisfied outsourcing governance to an Abba Kyari who had both the requisite intelligence, stamina and the necessary rough edges to do the ‘blocking’ and ‘tackling’ as well as the taking of the bullets on his behalf while he stood aloof pretending not to know what went on. Besides, the implicit trust on Abba Kyari must have been buoyed by the way he efficiently managed Buhari’s prolonged hospitalization in the UK in 2017, which not only ensured that the vultures were kept at bay but also that Buhari came back looking even healthier than he was before he was hospitalized. Additionally, the mode of pugnacious media protest by the other contending power mongers who lost out to Abba Kyari undermined the image of the government and helped to reinforce Kyari’s power by making them seem untrustworthy.
Three, there is the wrong assumption that whoever becomes Abba Kyari’s replacement as the Chief of staff will necessarily be as powerful as him. This wrong assumption is perhaps because Buhari, on becoming elected as President in 2015, decided to make the office of Chief of Staff as powerful as you have in the United States from where we substantially borrowed our presidential system of government.
In the USA, the position of White House Chief of Staff was a successor to the position of the President’s Private Secretary. The role was formalized as Assistant to the President in 1946, and acquired its current title of ‘Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff’ in 1961. The position does not require Senate confirmation and the appointee serves at the pleasure of the President. The responsibilities of the position are both advisory and managerial and include selecting White House Staff and supervising them as well as controlling the flow of people to the Oval Office.
Though not a legal requirement in the USA, all American Presidents since Harry Truman, America’s 33rd President (1945-1953) have appointed Chiefs of Staff. In his book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency (published in 2017), Chris Whipple, argues that the critical role of Chiefs of Staff as gatekeepers involves ‘blocking’ and ‘tackling’. H.R. Haldeman, the first Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon, America’s 37th President, reinforced the image of the position as poisoned chalice when he referred to himself as “the President’s son-of-a-bitch”. With some people who claim to know the late Abba Kyari at close quarters writing very glowing tributes of him after his transition, the jury is still out on whether Abba Kyari’s other, less flattering reputation was inherent in the job he was appointed to do.
In Nigeria, where the Constitution again does not explicitly recognize the office of Chief of Staff, and not all Presidents appointed one (the late Yaradua did not have one), the critical question is often where the locus of power resides in the government.
Four, some of the common denominators among those who paid glowing tributes to the late Abba Kyari and felt he was misunderstood included that he was ‘a good and compassionate man’, ‘very well educated’ (Warwick and Cambridge education) and a cosmopolitan who made friends across our traditional fault lines. But these attributes he was said to possess rather raise a fundamental question: If, as his critics argued, he was the de facto President, why was the quality of governance from such a brilliant and cosmopolitan man quite disappointing, with the government he allegedly ran from behind- the- scenes dogged with accusations of nepotism, parochialism and sectionalism?
Elsewhere I talked about ‘system dynamics’ – the tendency for otherwise decent people to commit ‘class suicide’ and adjust themselves to the way the system functions once they find themselves in positions of authority. We saw this portraiture vividly in Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease (1960). In that novel, Obi Okonkwo was such an independent-minded character that when his community sent him to England to study law – at a time the voice of the elders approximated the voices of the gods – he disobeyed them, followed his heart and read English. Obi Okonkwo also had the courage to stand alone on several fronts, to the disappointment of his community: he married an ‘osu’(an untouchable) – which was an abomination among his people in those daya, he refused to use his position in the civil service to favour ‘his people’ in employment and he hated to his marrows the deeply entrenched corruption in public life. However, despite Obi Okonkwo’s moral puritanism, he was forced by certain societal pressures to take his own bribe – and was caught. In this work therefore Achebe demonstrated how system dynamics could compromise an otherwise upright person. In essence, if Abba Kyari, despite his intelligence, education, cosmopolitanism and experience in public and private sectors, ran a lacklustre government that was routinely accused of nepotism, corruption and sectionalism, it may be perhaps more useful to shift the conversation from who will succeed Abba Kyari to why good men tend to underperform when they are in government.
Five, will it make any difference who succeeds Abba Kyari? It is possible that the President may move the locus of power to elsewhere such that the office of Chief of Staff becomes denuded of its current power. In fact people who accuse Buhari of not knowing how to use the optics of governance to forge unity in the country say a more suave politician would use the opportunity presented by the vacancy to change the narrative of his parochial orientation by appointing someone from an ‘unfriendly’ geopolitical zone as Kyari’s replacement while moving the locus of power to elsewhere. I do not see this happening.
If the office retains the sort of influence it had under Abba Kyari, it is possible that a new Chief of Staff may choose to share power with other contending groups which will then give a semblance of unity of purpose in the government. If the new chief of Staff chooses to neutralize other contenders as Abba Kyari was accused of doing, then we will also be back to square one.
I do not see Buhari changing his style of literally outsourcing governance to whomever he trusts implicitly. It is also unlikely that he will suddenly find the stamina and intellectual strength to impose himself on the governance architecture of the country. The Igbo say it is extremely difficult for a person to learn to be left-handed at an old age.