As Nigeria marks her 60th Independence anniversary today, a significant part of the discourse will centre on national development, President Muhammadu Buhari himself and, to some extent, his team. It has been some five tumultuous years since the President assumed office at a time of huge but unmet expectations.
For those five years, there has been no consensus on how steadily and progressively the government has steered the ship of state. There have been controversies about the representativeness and effectiveness of the cabinet, and there have been animated discussions about the patriotism of the President’s kitchen cabinet.
Also, there has been a greater and even more intense controversy about the direction of the Buhari presidency itself, with the late Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff (CoS) to the President, a central focus. It was in the midst of the search for regime clarity and unresolved questions about who or what constitutes the fulcrum of the administration that the then CoS passed away.
Kyari assumed a central role in the administration and indeed became its lightning rod. The President was thought to be very distant from the hurting populace, even somewhat ineffective and uninformed, and had in the general supposition of the public abdicated his responsibilities to Kyari.
Soon after the administration assumed office in 2015, the economy was never fully grounded, nor stable, in the first place. But it had hastily hurtled itself into the depths of a harsh recession. Buhari, naturally, was who was blamed. While the cabinet was not promptly constituted in the first instance, and never quite met the radical expectations of the public, a much larger problem of laxity and confusion enveloped the nation and cast doubts about the cohesion and readiness of the administration to govern about 200 million very energetic and boisterous peoples.
In short, it took a few years before the ship of state steadied, and even then it always seemed poised to keel over due to widespread animosities and internal struggles for influence within the administration and among appointees. Whatever progress was made came against the backdrop of these fierce and weird struggles, and that progress, most times, seemed worrisomely tentative.
After a while, the economy began to grow again, but it never seemed too far away from slipping back into recession. Railway lines were being constructed, but there was no consensus whether this was not at a dispiriting cost in external loans. Roads and bridges, long neglected by previous administrations, were also being built. But there were misgivings about their costs and geopolitical representativeness. The administration functioned as a modern government, but the internecine battles between functionaries gave it away as less cohesive and effective than it seemed or was desired.
While these demons and many other militating factors that plagued the administration have not been fully propitiated, new appointments in the past few months have appeared to mollify the centrifugal forces neutralising growth, stability and progress. Improvements have been slow and sometimes desultory, but at least there is evident and positive change of direction.
The heat and tensions of the past few years seem slowly to be giving way to tentative cohesion and administrative effectiveness. There was, of course, nothing inevitable about this change of direction. Indeed, everything seemed to be entirely fortuitous, particularly with the choice of and appointment of a new CoS, whose training and temperament are markedly different from his predecessor’s.
After the passing of Kyari in April, the President appointed Ibrahim Gambari, a professor of international relations, scholar and diplomat with grit and gravitas plus global reputation. Like his predecessor, the new presidential gatekeeper announced to a nation wary of the unaccustomed powers now inherent in that important office that he would be proudly loyal to the President and would work from the background, probably often seen but seldom heard. He would be the engine room, as well as the brain box of the Presidency, like his predecessor, he clearly matter-of-factly stated.
But earlier in April, close aides and friends of the President who were mortified by the passing of Kyari publicly wondered whether the late CoS had not left behind large shoes no one could step into. They suggested that Kyari had redefined that office, made it idiosyncratic to himself, and set the bar inordinately high, all but suggesting that he had set a benchmark which no one, let alone a mortal, could aspire to, ever.
Though it is too early to conclude, so far, what all that puffing really meant, Gambari has hit the ground running in probably the most unobtrusive and confident manner imaginable. He gives the impression that he understands the pitfalls of the office, the snares that made many Nigerians, including supporters of the President, fearful of the superfluous aggregation of power into that office to the point of seeming to be subversive of the Constitution.
Consequently, he has worked smartly to reassure both the Presidency and the public that, as a systems man, he understands the role of the CoS, and will play it effectively without causing offence. Not being a politician, nor at 75 someone ambitious for higher office, he has worked behind the scenes to streamline the operations of the Presidency, reconcile warring and sometimes egotistic appointees, and controlled access to the President on a need-to basis. There is still much work to be done, but at least a fair and profitable beginning has been achieved.
The CoS recognises that, in the past five years of the Buhari administration, many power centres had become inextricably interwoven with the highest office in the land, some of those power centres so implacable that it is pointless attempting to disentangle them from the seat of power. He has left these competing power centres alone to sleep into comatose mode, knowing full well that any threat to their existence could be met with such fierce, fratricidal response that would ensnare, stultify and slow down the Presidency.
He recognises that, if the President were to be left alone to fulfil his electoral promises, internal conflicts and competitions for influence must be considerably minimised and rigorously subdued. To a large extent, this arduous goal has been achieved in a matter of months. In his second term, quite fortuitously, Buhari is, therefore, moving more steadily and more rapidly to fulfil his objectives.
Indeed, in a more nuanced way, the President has now appeared to have a better grip on his presidency, and he has sensed this, and is delighted to share in the thrills of highgrade choreography of deft diplomacy.
There is hardly any accusation, anymore, against him of abdicating his Presidency or outsourcing his powers to any appointee. Gambari has, as it were, restored the Presidency, shifting censorious gaze away from any other power centre, real or hypothetic, and refocusing and redirecting the whole country to see the President as the Commander-in-Chief and Chief Administrator who has total control of all the levers of power, attached to his office. It takes a superlative diplomat and suave strategist to recognise the need and value of making the President to be, and be seen, in control even if others are doing the yeoman job.
The President conducts virtual conferences with his cabinet, gives orders for amelioration of public discord, and has a far more publicised grip on his cabinet and developmental issues, including infrastructural renewal matters. The National Security Agency (NSA) and the Ministry of Defence are gradually restoring control, including synergetic coordination, over military and other security establishments and issues.
The national organogram of the security services makes more sense today than obtained in the past, thus helping the President to worry less about issues of synergy between his security and law enforcement agencies. The ultimate goal of flawless coordination is still a long way off. But a helpful and synchronised start has at last begun. It shouldn’t take long for the President to wonder why he had not had this kind of grip on his Presidency than in previous years.
There are of course still many problems relating to coordination, whether in politics or administration. It is unlikely these logjams will ever be completely resolved. But unlike in the early years of this administration, these problems are now being deliberately ameliorated, with Nigeria increasingly enjoying some form of coordination.
There will continue to be problems relating to the acrimony in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), as the President himself has admitted, and there is nothing to suggest that he will in the immediate future get a better hang of the disarticulation, tearing members of the party apart. But with the enthronement of transparency and order in the administration, especially with respect to rules imposed to regulate the running of government, there is likely to be a positive spill over to the party as the months roll by.
A few powerful individuals will still bend or take advantage of established rules, if not the law itself, as indeed is still happening. But overall, the electoral promises of the Buhari Administration now stand a higher chance of being fulfilled.
No single individual can take credit for the order and absence of contentiousness now pervading the administration. It is, however, noticeable that in the economy, as troubled as it is, or the national response to the COVID-19 crisis, or the reinvigoration of the counter-insurgency operations, or the upgrading of national infrastructure on a holistic level, deliberate speed has become noticeable.
Relative order has expanded the President’s vista, energised his vision despite its controversiality, and freed him from the needless bickering that had assailed his Presidency. In the coming months, if nothing is allowed to overwhelm or undermine the process, the Presidency may yet function with the untrammelled idealism envisaged by the constitution.
It has helped that a diplomat of global distinction and a largely apolitical functionary unencumbered by primordial restraints now occupies the Office of the Chief of Staff, which enables the President to be in charge, and act in charge. That fulcrum upon which the Presidency must anchor its activities and ambitions has become quite indispensable.
In the coming weeks and months, the Presidency will face its severest tests yet. The increase in petroleum products prices, upward review of electricity tariffs, looming strikes, and inflationary pressures are certain to put a huge strain on the Presidency. The economy as a whole will also be stressed to breaking limits.
Nigerians do not have the impression that the President has an economic team that is top notch. Nor do they think that by his antecedents very astute policies would be introduced to get the economy revving again.
May the genuine counsel of the CoS to the Presidency is much better run today without the convoluting concerns of politics and ethnicity. The President will need this stability and resourcefulness at the home front as he confronts the political, economic and social exigencies that tend to complicate the twin objectives of reform and modernisation.
Buhari has with good sense made quite a trustworthiness and incorruptible nobility as his badge of honour. May the sublime combination of strength, subtlety, caution, imagination and empathy bathe both of you as you serve our nation.
*Dr Adeeyo, OON, is Chairman, Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria and member, Governing Council, Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State.