Ibrahim Agboola Gambari: Chief of Staff or Economic Policy Tsar?

President Mohammadu Buhari, on 12 May 2020, appointed Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as his Chief of Staff, replacing Abba Kyari who passed away on 17 April, 2020. Professor Gambari’s predecessor, described by the newspaper Daily Trust as “de factor head of government” was widely vilified. He was believed to have usurped the powers of a reticent and frail President and was held responsible for real and perceived crimes of   the administration, from human rights abuses to fostering an agenda of sectional domination. The late Abba Kyari definitely had a big impact on shaping economic policy; his daughter’s public tribute unwittingly reveals how he overrode the legally-backed and exclusive powers of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to influence electricity tariffs. The new Chief of Staff will wield enormous influence given President Buhari’s well-known preference to delegate power. How will Professor Gambari use these powers in the sphere of economic policy making and what is the appropriate role of a Chief of Staff regarding economic policy making in a Presidency?

“Who is the Presidency?”

The question above should have been what is the role of the Presidency in policy development had a former Secretary to the Government not posed the now famous question  “Who is the Presidency”.

His question confirmed to many Nigerians that in the Buhari Presidency power is dispersed; the President is not always the unquestionable source of Presidential orders. Rather than actively leading the coordination of Ministers and the vast bureaucracies under them, President Buhari has, as a result of a mix of old age, personal preference and frailty, ceded the control of government to aides who only have to report to him. There has been a great latitude in determining the content if not the overall direction of policy.

This will not change. The new Chief of Staff has been appointed to coordinate government for the President. This is why the role could be given only to an old ally that the President can really trust and who is deemed, in the estimation of President Buhari and his closest advisers, to have the required intellectual heft (preferably far in excess of the collective brainpower of the Federal Cabinet).

The Presidential Gate under Gambari’s Watch: A Wider Funnel?

The expectation was that if someone like the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu got the Chief of Staff job, the policy making process would have become more collegiate with Ministers and heads of agencies having more input. The late Abba Kyari whom friends have invariably described as cerebral, despite very scant evidence, fancied himself a development policy guru. He had a great incentive to centralise policymaking. The late Chief of Staff had decidedly antiquated leftist economic views which aligned with President Buhari’s perspective but contrasted completely with the more pragmatic views of Ministers who understood and agreed some of the reforms Nigeria had to implement to attract foreign exchange and investment in sectors such as power. The Ministers understood where power laid and adjusted their views to the statist policy directives from Aso Rock to keep their jobs. A Chief of Staff less convinced of his own genius would communicate and seek to clear collective viewpoints with President Buhari. At the very least, the President would be made aware of diverse viewpoints and the discretion over policy design and execution used more to advance collegiate viewpoints.

There is no evidence that President Buhari’s antipathy towards the free market and multilateral development institutions has changed. There is also no evidence that Professor Ibrahim Gambari, unlike the late Mr. Abba Kyari, shares these views. Will the new Chief of Staff therefore seek to lessen the influence of his principal’s worldview, which has had ghastly consequences, on economic policy?

A genuine academic, rather than a presumptuous dabbler and ideologue, the professor could be more conscious of the limits of his specialisation. Considering that the Professor has had a career in which negotiation and persuading others on the basis of evidence is a requisite skill, he could be more open to evaluating the evidence and advice presented by economists, specialists and expert advisers. He could be a wider funnel – collating these evidence and expert information and in turn presenting same to the President.

But Professor Gambari could also choose not to be the adviser who presents unwanted evidence, seeing his job as strictly supporting and executing President Buhari’s views on policy. Afterall, some of the bold decisions that need to be taken, such as floating the naira or trimming the nation’s civil service, are reforms which will meet with public opposition. Those who seek power like Professor Gambari, a former lecturer who since the early 1980s has gotten a series of government appointments, are also keen to preserve it. Professor Gambari defended the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections and the human rights abuses of the late General Abacha enthusiastically and perhaps a little beyond the call of duty, as the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations.

The Urgent Need for a More Centralised and Professional Cabal

Professor Gambari can promote economic reforms and keep his job. He may even end up achieving the highly unlikely – securing for President Buhari a legacy of economic policy achievement. He may solve a problem which the late Abba Kyari’s critics have neither recognized nor acknowledged – the extreme weakness of policy development, coordination and execution capacity of the Nigerian Presidency. Ministers, especially under former President Goodluck Jonathan, have been too free to carry on as they pleased.

Policy development move very slowly and frequently encounters all sorts of obstructions and mishaps because Nigerian political parties have and campaigned upon very weak policy agendas. When the parties win elections and start to run government, everyone headbutts each other-Minister versus Minister, the Executive versus the Legislature, Agencies and Parastatals versus Ministers etc. because there is no centrally agreed policy agenda.

The Presidency which ought to play a policy coordinating role is sometimes a helpless observer , sometimes a tool to manipulate and sometimes a participant in the melee. Ministers working with consultants and advisers develop policies which may not have the full buy in of important actors in Presidency or powerful cabinet colleagues. As Nigerian economic policy watchers such as Ayo Teriba, a leading macroeconomist and Sam Amadi, the former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission have argued, the Nigerian Presidency ought to take the lead in developing economic policy, leaving the Ministries to execute, and must develop the required capacity.

The Nigerian Constitution cedes significant economic policy powers to the Vice President. This is not only an international anomaly, it is also completely incongruent with the reality that politics and power are structured on ethnic basis in Nigeria. A President’s closest advisers anywhere, almost always ethnic kin in Nigeria , are likely to resent the exercise of enormous powers the Vice President’s office try to gain over policy. The Vice-President and his advisers also lack the authority or prestige to coordinate reforms and drive ministries and agencies to execute.

Former President Obasanjo did not sign off critical reforms because his aides told him they were designed to benefit the businesses of his Vice President, Abubakar Atiku; his aides also sometimes sabotaged the reforms promoted by Nzogi Okonjo-Iweala, his Minister of Finance and the main driver of reforms in his government. The 2012 attempt to eradicate the fuel subsidy under former President Jonathan was announced while Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala was on Christmas holiday and the public communications handed to the Minister of Aviation. This is a perfect example of unswerving internal sabotage. Vice-President Osinbajo has built a team of policy experts in his office but they have been completely ineffective, save for aggressively promoting largely cosmetic reforms, because everyone understands where the real power is.

In her memoirs, Downing Street Years, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in office initiated revolutionary economic reforms, wrote about William Whitelaw “he was an irreplaceable Deputy Prime Minister, an office which has no constitutional existence but is a clear sign of political precedence and the ballast that helped keep government on course”. Presidents, or Prime Ministers, empower whom they wish to drive their agenda. The current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has chosen to empower Dominic Cummings, his Chief of Staff, to drive his agenda. Cummings’ vast power led to the resignation of the Chancellor of Exchequer (usually the most powerful cabinet position) who resented being controlled by the CoS.  Delegated power over economic policy is not the real issue; what is important is the agenda it is used to pursue and the quality of the machinery it is exercised through. An amateur interest in economic policy or development should never be a substitute for expert analysis and experience.

Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s greatest legacy would be to set up a first-rate Policy Development and Coordination Unit in the President’s office. This could first take off as a small team of specialists, probably incorporating the Vice President’s current policy team- the lightweights should be sent somewhere else. It should be simple to argue that the Presidency requires a single, united policy unit. The high quality of the team-recruited for technical excellence rather for being friends and family as is the norm-would be a reflection of and testament to Mr. Gambari’s brilliant record.

As the team expands, Nigeria should see an end to policymaking by committees; the Policy Development and Coordination Unit should have the answer to Nigeria’s economic problems and quietly carry out any consultation that may be required.  They should prize the capacity to design and communicate policy reforms in a way that maximises public understanding and support. Professor Gambari may have the skills, in addition to the integrity and courage, to present ideologically unpalatable policy evidence to President Buhari and process it into concrete policies. Trust in him may boost the President’s “ownership” of the Policy Unit’s work and its recommendations.  At least, Nigerians would remember Professor Gambari as a CoS who tried to offer honest advice that would improve their lives, based on solid evidence rather than dangerous and outdated ideas.

Courtesy: Abiterze

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