Professor Ibrahim Gambari: Chief of Staff to the President


The appointment of Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, a scholar-diplomat, as chief of staff to the president has been widely hailed as one of the best appointments made by President Buhari. He has had an illustrious career in the academy, where he was a leading professor of international relations for decades. He then went into international diplomacy, where he rose to the position of the first United Nations under-secretary-general and special adviser to the secretary-general on Africa (1999-2005). He was the chairman of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid (1990-1994) and on Peace-Keeping Operations (1990—1999). He was head of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (2005-2007) and also operated as UN secretary-general’s special envoy on Cyprus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar and special representative in Angola.

Before engaging on his United Nations career path, he had served Nigeria earlier as director-general, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (1983), minister of External Affairs (1984-1985) and subsequently ambassador and permanent representative of Nigeria to the United Nations (1990-1999). Professor Gambari was also a well-respected professor in the Political Science Department at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, where he was instrumental in establishing the international studies programme. He had come to Zaria after teaching in some American universities. 

I have known Professor Gambari for decades as an urbane and cosmopolitan gentleman, with friends and networks all over the country, the continent and indeed the world. He is a firm believer in rules and procedure, and throughout his life till date, he has resisted being pooled into any faction, cocoon, cabal or cartel and has been ready to engage with all comers based on what they bring to the table. As gatekeeper to the president, therefore, I believe that he would seek to be open and fair to all comers, even if he has to stick to his mandate of protecting the president from frivolous and self-centred visits. 

Professor Gambari has both personal integrity and a national outlook and has always sought to promote Nigeria’s national interest. His nationalist outlook would serve as an asset at this time when President Buhari is regarded by many to have a provincial outlook. Having someone by his side who would always draw attention to the national perspective and imperative would be useful and I think that is one of the reasons so many people are excited about the appointment. Gambari’s doctoral thesis was on the domestic basis for successful foreign policy, so he is in the school of thought that sees the projection of a country’s foreign policy as a reflection of the strength of its economy and assets and has therefore always campaigned for a focus on economic and social development as the base for the strength that can be articulated at the international scene.

Professor Gambari is best known for his concentric circle’s approach to defending the national interest, with Nigeria being the inner circle projecting to West Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, with the core objective of always getting the best for the country. At this time in which petroleum prices have collapsed, at the same time that COVID-19 is ravaging the country’s health and economy, a focus on rebuilding the nation’s strength is urgently needed and his focus on this would be extremely useful. The present conjuncture also calls for sophisticated negotiations with major international partners of Nigeria and his diplomatic skills would be an asset in leveraging opportunities in the international system for Nigeria’s benefit.

When the news broke out about his imminent appointment as chief of staff on Tuesday, a major campaign of calumny against Professor Gambari broke out almost immediately. This may not be surprising, given the over-inflated perspective on the office in the minds of many Nigerians. Indeed, most people have been unwilling to accept the obvious fact that the office has no inherent powers, with all powers being in the hands of the president. The first salvo in the campaign was the resuscitation of Omoyele Sowore’s 2005 article, “Prof. Ibrahim Gambari and June 12: The ‘un-disgraced’ collaborator”. Sowore makes the point that Gambari has escaped public opprobrium for his actions during the regime of General Sani Abacha and now that he has a new appointment, the time to disgrace him has come. The basic allegation is that he defended Nigeria while he was the country’s ambassador to the UN during the Abacha regime when numerous human rights violations were carried out, including what we unanimously consider to be the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Many of us that fought the Abacha regime were not happy about defending Nigeria at that time. For a diplomat, however, the primary responsibility is always to defend the country against all attacks. It is also important to recall that Nigeria at that time had become an international pariah nation and for diplomats, their concern is always the survival of the country, so what he did should be understood within that context.

The other dimension of the attacks on Gambari is related to his origin. I have seen comments in the social media suggesting he is a Fulani prince of Ilorin and therefore carries the burden of the defeat of Aare Afonja’s Yoruba army by Shehu Alimi’s Fulani forces. Yes, Ibrahim Gambari is a Fulani prince from Ilorin but he has no responsibility for what happened in the Jihad of two hundred years ago. Excerpts from O. O. Fafowora’s biography Lest I Forget have also been circulating where he accuses Gambari of being a religious bigot and the minister in office when he was retired from service. I do not know the distinguished diplomat but I have seen comments from people who know the dossier well pointing out that there were objective reasons that led to his early retirement. His apparent self-belief of being the best diplomat Nigeria had produced and the removal of whom would do great damage to the country’s interest has also been questioned.

I think the attempt by certain ethnic jingoists to paint Ibrahim Agboola Gambari with the Fulani “cabalistic” identity brush does a great disservice to the country at this time where the expectation is that he would struggle for more inclusive governance in the national interest. I always say that we should be careful about what we pray for. My prayer is that Professor Gambari would remain faithful to his core value of commitment to the nation of Nigeria and would do all in his power to promote more inclusive governance. I am proud to call Ibrahim Gambari my friend. I know that since his return to the country, his work has centred around the activities of the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, which he founded and chaired. It is a non-governmental think-tank focusing on research and advocacy on the nexus between conflict prevention and resolution, democratisation and development. The Centre has been on the forefront of promoting violence-free elections in 2015 and 2019 and its records on democracy promotion are available for scrutiny. I wish Professor Gambari the very best as he serves the president and the nation.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here