By- Olanrewaju Smart.
In the keenly contested 1976 presidential election in the United States, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia campaigned as an outsider in Washington politics. He tried as much as possible to distance himself from the stain that the Watergate Scandal brought to the American Presidency.
He came down hard on President Gerald Ford and his Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney. His promise to Americans upon electoral victory was to scrap the office of the chief of staff, due to the tendency to confer immense powers on unelected officials. This resonated with the American people and contributed to his victory.
In his first two and a half years in office, President Carter stayed true to his promise; he personally ran his own office and implemented a system, which guaranteed direct access between him and his cabinet members. However, he soon became overwhelmed and was forced to appoint 39-year-old William Jordan as his Chief of Staff. Jordan himself eventually became the target of attacks.
Despite his good intentions, President Carter has been ranked low among other American Presidents for his failures, many of which emanated from the way he managed the White House, which ultimately cost him re-election.
In his bestseller titled: “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency”, journalist and documentary filmmaker, Chris Whipple, gives the world an insight into how the President’s Chief of Staff can make or mar the administration.
Also, in his book titled, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, former Presidential Spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi, speaks glowingly of former Chief of Staff, Major General Abdullahi Mohammed, who served President Olusegun Obasanjo for eight years and was retained by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Adeniyi, in the book, said President Yar’Adua acknowledged that General Mohammed even saved his political career. But not everyone was happy with his influence.
The chief of staff is the chief executor who supervises the execution of policy and the administrative drive of the President. Twenty-four years after the office was created by President Olusegun Obasanjo, it remains one of the most envied and talked-about offices in Nigeria. The Chief of Staff combines administrative and political powers which he derives directly from the President who has the power to define limitations of the office. He ensures that the President concentrates on state functions with minimum distractions.
If a President does not want to see an influential person for whatever reason, the Chief of Staff runs interference on both sides; from his principal to the recipient – in a manner that still preserves relationships.
As a Chief of Staff in the legislative arm, I have had assignments that could potentially set me on a collision course with politicians, businessmen and others. Some wanted things done their own way only, but I had a duty to protect my principal. I received knocks for doing the exact job I signed up for, some weighty enough to make me lose same job I sought to protect.
Internally, co-workers of the same principal, try to out-do and undermine each other, despite working towards the same goals. Some principals adopt a deliberate ‘divide and rule’ approach to their own staff, due to its potential to create healthy competition of ideas, opinions and perspectives. Proponents of this approach believe unity among staff, is uncanny and could breed a lazy and unstimulated system where staff are prone to head in just one direction and united in guiding their principal in that unprobed direction. Principals are at liberty to adopt whichever approach that works for them.
The job of a CoS is a thankless one – when it is well done, the credit goes to the principal. The CoS takes the blame when things do not go well, especially for every in-circle decision that does not satisfy the interest of colleagues, political associates, opposition and the public.
The era of the late Abba Kyari has created a fixated narrative in the minds of many – that the CoS is a cabal, and the function is to be a cabal. One may ask questions regarding the action of a ‘cabal’. The likely answer would be that a cabal is a ‘powerful person or group of persons who makes life uncomfortable for people’. This is the retrogressive narrative many have come to associate with that office. Not even the pedigree of the current Chief of Staff to the President, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, a celebrated head of an arm of government, man of means and modest lifestyle will change that fixated narrative soon.
Before the 2007 elections, an uncle had shared his thoughts with me on why then governorship candidate in Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola (BRF), would be unable to win the heart of Lagos politicians. His basis was that BRF ruffled a lot of feathers, especially of politicians, while he was Chief of Staff to then Governor Bola Tinubu. He described BRF as a core technocrat who rarely bent to the whims of politicians – they may want him to present payment files of certain contractors to the governor for his signature, even if the contract job failed to meet required specifications. He said, BRF was one who would not do that – he would not mislead his principal. To date, my uncle believes BRF won that his first primaries due to the popularity of his principal. This makes one believe the place of pride for a chief of staff may reside only in the heart of his principal who enjoys his loyalty.
As a leader with experience in legal practice and public service, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila does not underrate or overrate challenges that come his way. His core strength lies in his capacity to place the right people, policies and programmes together.
Constructive criticism and shades of opinion breed positive reforms. The mind of a true progressive must be open to opposing views at all times. I know Gbajabiamila’s 39 years cumulative experience in law and legislative practices in Nigeria and international jurisdictions will count in keeping the Presidency safe for these positive reforms.
_Smart is a former Acting Chief of Staff to the Speaker of Nigeria’s 10th House of Representatives._