Ibrahim Agboola Gambari: A Presidential Babysitter Who Won’t be as Powerful as Abba Kyari

Professor Farooq Kperogi

On paper, Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari’s choice as Buhari’s Chief of Staff is so far the regime’s most luminous appointment. Gambari is undoubtedly one of Nigeria’s most credentialed and globally visible citizens for whom the position of Chief of Staff to the President is actually a positional, even symbolic, downgrade.

Ordinarily, the office of the Chief of Staff to the President is informal, discretionary, and of no consequence. Its inconsequence is underscored by the fact that the constitution does no recognize it and does not require the president to appoint anyone to perform its duties. That was why Umar Musa Yar’adua didn’t have one.

The only reason the position of CoS to the President has become uncharacteristically visible in the last five years is that Buhari is both too cognitively incapacitated and too splendidly incompetent to function as president, so he needs a proxy or, as I pointed out in my April 22 status update, “a babysitter, a political and intellectual babysitter.”

As a military dictator, Tunde Idiagbon was Buhari’s political babysitter from 1983 to 1985. The late Salihijo Ahmad’s Afri-Projects Consortium (APC), was “the sole manager of the PTF projects,” according to Ray Ekpu’s June 5, 2018 article titled, “Petroleum Trust Fraud.” In other words, Buhari couldn’t even manage a government agency as small as the PTF without needing babysitting. Of course, most people know that since 2015 until his death, Abba Kyari was Buhari’s proxy.

Mamman Daura, on whom Buhari is intellectually and emotionally dependent, “created” Abba Kyari for Buhari but Kyari later grew into a Frankenstein that almost devoured his “creator.” Daura wants no repeat of that and sees a potentially dutiful factotum in Gambari who was Buhari’s external affairs minister from 1984 to 1985.

He seems like a person who would do a good job of concealing Buhari’s cognitive and mental infirmities from the public and from government officials, which is what the position of CoS to Buhari has now been reduced to.

Although Gambari has intimidatingly impressive academic and professional credentials, he has no reputation for lofty, high-minded principles, which explains why he would even accept this position, which relegates rather than elevates him.

He defended IBB’s ruinous invalidation of the June 12 presidential election, justified Abacha’s heartrending judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists, and, according to the New York Times of Oct. 5, 1997, opposed something as innocuous as a planned renaming of a New York street after the late Kudirat Abiola who was murdered in cold blood by Abacha’s junta, which Gambari served.

He also evinces what I call the overzealousness of the identitarian periphery, by which I mean people who are on the margins of a desired identity tend to go overboard to assert their membership of that identity in order to impress people who are rhetorically constituted as the core of that identity.

Gambari is an Ilorin prince, but his middle name (and the name by which his close family members call him) is Agboola. “Ibrahim” is just for show. Although he traces patrilineal descent from the Fulani, he is culturally (and obviously genetically) Yoruba and doesn’t look anything like a Fulani man, yet Yoruba people won’t accept him as one of them.

He’s on the geographic, symbolic, and cultural fringes of western and northern Nigerian identities, but he identifies as, and indeed is, a northerner. People who know him say he works excessively, if quietly, hard to prove his “northernness” through exaggerated subnationalist gamesmanship of the kind that someone from Kano or Sokoto with a similar educational and experiential exposure as he would find a little too extreme.

People like that are often happy and willing tools of puppeteers who come from the identity they want to be seen as central to but to which they are marginal. My sense is that he won’t be nearly as powerful and as influential as Abba Kyari was for as long as Mamman Daura is alive.

The only silver lining I see is that he probably won’t be as lazy as Abba Kyari was. Kyari was an indolent, self-absorbed presidential gatekeeper who allowed files that required urgent presidential attention to gather dust and who attended only to issues that feathered his nest.

I hope Gambari would at least bring his considerable experience to help lubricate the rusty wheels of governance even while doing the bidding of his benefactor(s).

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