Because I know Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari rather well, I had initially decided not to participate in the conversations marking his taking of the office of Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari.
But I know Nigeria even better, and it would be wrong to pretend that the former minister, former ambassador and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General does not factor very much in the evolving Nigerian story.
Some people say that Mr. Gambari is too old for the position of CoS. While Buhari is clearly uncomfortable with younger people, I do not think that the issue with Gambari’s choice is age. He is an older Nigerian, but there are many younger people he could have chosen who would not have had the preparation that Gambari brings.
The question is WHY Gambari took the job and whether he will bring to it his patriotic intellectual and administrative best—and perhaps his final flourish—as a public servant.
As someone who, 20 years ago, spent a considerable amount of time with him from a distance lamenting over the Nigerian situation, the question is why he walked through those gates into Aso Rock.
Because I know he knew that to many, the news he was taking the position was not going to sound good. Going back to the Sani Abacha era, he has not enjoyed a good image domestically.
So why did he take it?
I have a best-case scenario. In 2008, at the First Anniversary Lecture of the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation, he provided an extensive overview of the terrain into which he now sets foot.
His subject was “The challenges of nation building: The case of Nigeria,” of which he identified five. The fifth, in a case of saving for the last the most important, was: leadership.
I quote him:
“Leadership is a critical factor in nation-building and it should be understood in two important but related ways. Firstly, there are the personal qualities of integrity, honesty, commitment, and competence of individual leaders at the top. Secondly, there are the collective qualities of common vision, focus, and desire for development of the elites as a whole.
“The standards for recruitment and the performance of our individual leaders over the years have left much to be desired. We do not need leaders who see themselves as champions of only some sections of our population. We do not need leaders who do not understand the economic and political problems of the country, not to talk of finding durable solutions for them. We do not need leaders who are more interested in silencing their opponents, than in pursuing justice. We do not need leaders, who preach one thing, and do the exact opposite. We do not need leaders who place themselves above the constitution and the laws of the country, but leaders who lead by upholding and respecting the law. We do not need leaders who have no sense of tomorrow, other than that of their private bank accounts.
“If we are to succeed in nation-building, we must have a leadership that is committed to the rule of law and has a demonstrable sense of fairplay and democratic tolerance; a leadership with ability and integrity; above all else, we must have a leadership that can see beyond the ostentatious pomp of office. We must have leaders who have a vision for a Nigeria better than the one they inherited; leaders who will lead by deeds and not by words; achievers, not deceivers…
“Leadership is not everything, but it is an extremely important factor. Unless we have leaders with ability, integrity, commitment, and vision, we cannot succeed at nation-building…
“When a Nigerian leader, by words and deeds, is able to convince a large enough section of the Nigerian elites and the wider public about a vision for a greater tomorrow, then Nigeria will truly be on the way to national greatness…nations are built by men and women who have the will and vision to accomplish greatness, not for themselves, their immediate families and friends, but for their country…”
It is this definition of the concern that makes me hopeful that perhaps Gambari did not stumble out of sleep into Aso Rock.
As backup for this evaluation, I cite what appears to be his evolution in the 10 years that followed the Justice Akanbi lecture, in his considerably more sarcastic tone during the 10th Wole Soyinka Centre Media Lecture Series in Lagos in 2018.
He described Nigeria’ ruling class as “audacious hypocrites,” pointing out how they proclaim the values of truth, accountability, transparency and anti-corruption but do not practise them, and outlining the attributes of good governance.
That was just two years ago, and he clearly was also referring to the leadership he opted to join just weeks ago. Could he have made the decision merely to become one of them, or to inspire a nation that has been extremely good to him?
The key, for me, is in his preliminary observation at that Justice Akanbi lecture, where he noted: “In today’s world, skills, industriousness, productivity, and competitiveness are the determinant factors of national greatness. Not even the possession of the nuclear bomb is enough to make a nation great without reference to the industriousness and creativity of its citizens.
Since the time of Adam Smith, every serious nationalist and politician has come to know that the wealth of a nation is not based on the wealth and opulence of its rulers, but on the productivity and industriousness of its citizenry.”
I have no doubt that Gambari believed in what he was saying, and that he was right.
Which leaves only two problems. The first: whether, in his new role, and knowing this government has three years left and lacks credibility, he arrived with a plan to steer his principal in that direction, and quickly.
Because Buhari, we know, neither shares this perspective nor does he believe in merit.
The second is the carnivorous Nigerian elite. Carnivorous because it eats for breakfast talent—alias industriousness, creativity and productivity—unless it comes in the shape of its own son or daughter.
In the years in which I have had the terrible fortune of meeting many members of this so-called elite, I have rarely encountered any with genuine concern for the talented Nigerian unless he can be exploited, and the failure of governance is easier to understand. Away from the cameras or the microphone, they have no compunction taking the milk bottle from the baby. If it dies, it dies.
These are the reasons why talented Nigerians rejected at home often become celebrities abroad. And why, if any example was required, coronavirus has taken it upon itself to point out how porous our health sector is after 60 years.
So, is it a coincidence that the most important job in Buhari’s government became vacant during the coronavirus pandemic, and on the edge of the first anniversary of Buhari’s declaration that he would conquer poverty in 10 years?
I don’t know. But Gambari is about to strap into presidential jet travel. Maybe that talented Nigerian child will get his chance.