Buhari and his kitchen cabinet


Kayode Komolafe  

For five years now, the kitchen cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari has been in the news for various reasons.

This kitchen cabinet is markedly different from the cabinet that the President would preside over its meeting in Aso Rock this morning.

A recent report that the President’s nephew, Mallam Mamman Daura, expressed (personal) preference for “competence” over “power rotation” in electing a Nigerian president has generated so much heat and less light in the public sphere.

Daura does not hold any official position. He is simply described as a member of the “cabal” controlling the presidency. The public reaction provoked by Daura’s view is a measure of how much weight is assigned to the power of the “cabal.”

To be sure, Buhari did not invent the political category called kitchen cabinet, which some prefer to call the “cabal.”

Unlike the modern usage of the word, cabal, as a power-grabbing clique, the original cabal didn’t operate in the secrete.

King Charles II actually had a Ministry of Cabal in England, which had tremendous influence on power. Cabal became an acronym formed from the combination of the initials of the original members of the group which operated openly. They were Thomas Clifford, Anthony Ashley -Cooper, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers), the 1st Earl of Arlington (Henry Bennet) and the 1st Duke of Lauderdale (John Maitland).

If there is an element of conspiracy theory in the modern usage of the word, cabal, the alternative political term, kitchen cabinet, was initially used derisively. It has, however, become more elegant in use in modern times.

Kitchen cabinet was originally used to mock the “informal circle of advisers” of the 7th American president, Andrew Jackson. According to Robert McNamara, the “ real power in Jackson’s administration rested with a circle of friends and political cronies who often did not hold official office.”

Among the members of Kitchen cabinet of Jackson were cronies, old politicians, formal appointees, newspaper editors, childhood friends and supporters of the administration.

McNamara himself was the Secretary of Defence in the administration of President John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy had his own kitchen cabinet on whom he relied heavily for informal advice. A prominent member of Kennedy’s kitchen cabinet was George Kennan, reputed to be one of those who framed the policies of the Cold War. He was a link between some intellectuals outside power and the president.

In fact, McNamara puts it this way: “In modern usage, the kitchen cabinet has generally lost the suggestion of impropriety. Modern presidents are generally expected to rely on a wide range of individuals for advice, and the idea that ‘unofficial’ persons would be advising the president is not seen as improper, as it had been in Jackson’s time.”

So, instead of members of the public developing bugbears about Buhari’s Kitchen cabinet, some pertinent questions should rather be asked: Are the activities of the members of Buhari’s kitchen cabinet serving the public purpose? Are they acting in the national interest in advising the President? Do they even have a national outlook of things? What governance ethics are they bringing to the presidency? These and many more important posers ought to be posed instead delegitimating the existence of a kitchen cabinet.

Come to think of it, Buhari’s predecessors had their own kitchen cabinets in one form or the other. Since by definition, kitchen cabinets are usually informal, things might not have congealed enough in the loose arrangements to assess the operations of some of the kitchen cabinets of the past.

Power brokers have always been part of Nigeria’s presidential politics. For instance, it is too early to forget the conspicuous bright stars of the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. While even the harshest critic of Obasanjo could not accuse him of lacking the grip on his government, some ladies and gentlemen wielded so much power in the administration to influence the course of history. Some of them even went outside their remit to make certain things happen or to prevent some other things from happening. These compatriots represented various parts of the country and different religions. They posed as “technocrats” at the time, fairly sharing a common right-wing ideology in driving policies. Some of them have since become rugged politicians.

Perhaps things have become so problematic with the Buhari kitchen cabinet because of its manifest lack of diversity in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity. So, the kitchen cabinet is not benefiting from multiple perspectives, backgrounds and orientations.

It is particularly unhelpful that Daura has unwittingly put 2023 on the agenda at the most inappropriate time. Even those who casually observe the dynamics of power in Nigeria are not going to take seriously the clarification from Aso Rock that he didn’t speak for the President.

Daura’s critics have interpreted his advocacy for “competence” to mean that the northern faction of the ruling class would not agree that the southern faction of the class should produce the next president. The material irrelevance of the ethnic or regional origin of the president and his team to the condition of the poor people is remarkably ignored on both sides of the debate.

Yes, Buhari is currently taking the northern turn in what Daura disapprovingly describes as a “turn by turn” political arrangement. Pray, of what relevance is this northern presidency to the victims of banditry in the President’s home state of Katsina or northwest states of Zamfara and Kaduna? From the sad news from Katsina state, there appears to be ungoverned spaces in the home state of President. What is the benefit of the northern turn at exercising presidential powers to those children who are out of school roaming northern streets and their parents living in mud houses without potable water?

Some of the Buhari appointees who hold important security and defence portfolios are from the north east. What does that mean to the lives of anguish of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from that zone who have been living in camps for years while Boko Haram continue to kill defenceless people and destroy villages? Even the convoy of the governor of Borno state, Professor Babagana Zulum, was attacked last week. Soldiers are still losing their lives in the 11-year old war.

So, has the “northern presidency” (as politicians erroneously call Nigerian presidency) made northern Nigeria more secure than southern Nigeria? No, the climate of insecurity pervades the whole nation while poverty and inequality which define socio-economic existence are realities all over the country.

Worse still, the question of who would succeed Buhari is not the urgent question of the moment. The urgent question is how Buhari would fulfil his promise to the Nigerian people by ensuring security, reducing poverty and honestly fighting corruption. Consciously promoting national unity could be added to the tasks before the President.

The highly cerebral Daura should rather directly or indirectly be stimulating national debates about these life and death issues for the purpose of harvesting ideas for solutions.

The Kaduna Mafia, of which Daura was a core member, was respected for its rigour by even its political opponents. To be sure, the Kaduna Mafia wasn’t a mafia of felons; it was a conservative network of strategically thinking elements based mainly in Kaduna, the political capital of northern Nigeria. The name was probably given to the group by its critics like many other things in life. Their claimed mission was to protect northern interest. Among members of the informal group of the elite were intellectuals, bureaucrats, military elements, businessmen etc. The positions of the Kaduna Mafia elicited spirited responses across the political and regional divides. Such was the intellectual influence of the Kaduna Mafia that a group of progressive scholars from the north came up with a 1987 book in response. The book, edited by Bala Takaya and Sonni Tyoden, is entitled The Kaduna Mafia: A Study of the Rise, Development and Consolidation of a Nigerian Power Elite.

There is hardly any evidence of rigour of ideas in what is on display in Abuja as governance. Even the elementary factor of cohesion is lacking. To have a grip on things, at least there must be unity of purpose in government. It doesn’t appear there is a grip on the security situation when the National Assembly has to join other patriotic forces in calling for the change of service chiefs. Yet, the Commander-in-Chief would not bulge.

Maybe, the political anxiety about the operations of Buhari’s kitchen cabinet would not be rife if competence is glaringly demonstrated in matters of governance.

To be fair to Buhari, he once lamented that he wished he had got the opportunity to govern in his younger days. The deficits in capacity implied in such an honest statement are usually filled by a competent team including, crucially, the members of the kitchen cabinet advising the President.

For clarity, presidents elsewhere had deficits in their capacities to govern to the optimum. It was post-humously reported that the ailment that the former French president, Francois Mitterrand, died of had been diagnosed while he was in office. But the impact of the alleged ailment did not make the government to suffer a moral collapse, much less policy confusion.

Even before former American president, Ronald Reagan, was diagnosed of a terminal disease, he was never a man of details. His forte was not the nitty gritty of governance. But he had a big vision of what direction he was leading America. He was an inspirer who had the knack for assembling a competent and coherent team.

The powerful kitchen cabinet of Buhari (however informal or covert it may be ) owes Buhari and the nation the responsibility for bridging the huge governance deficits plaguing the administration.

To start with, the kitchen cabinet should advise Buhari to bring cohesion into the administration so that there would be coherent policy formulation, articulation and implementation.

It should ordinarily be a good thing that the President delegates power and trusts appointees absolutely with responsibilities. It is said that even as an officer in the army delegation of powers was Buhari’s administrative culture. A deficit arises when there is no proper coordination.

Buhari has constituted the federal cabinet according to the constitution. That’s where the constitutional obligation ends. It’s the president’s political choice how he assembles his kitchen cabinet to generate ideas.

The challenge of the moment is how the combination of the workings of the Federal Executive Council and the kitchen cabinet would make Buhari fulfil the promise he made to the electorate during the election.

What the public should, therefore, demand is the delivery of competent governance from the President.


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