“I am willing to admit that my two prior encounters with Prof. Gambari are not enough to judge his politics. They are however sufficient for me to hope that, at last, an affable human being who is interested in doing a good job wherever he finds himself has been given a key place in the Muhammadu Buhari Presidency. What he does with this appointment will become a matter of history.
I do not agree that we should write off Prof. Ibrahim Agboola Gambari even before he touches a file in the office of the Chief of Staff to the President, to which he was announced as head on 13 May 2020. I am concerned, like anyone else who means well for Nigeria, about the troubling allegations designed to sketch his character in the worst possible colours. I am. But, as in all things, I shall suspend judgement until I hear directly, or indirectly, from the accused before making up my mind what to believe.
That’s fairness, isn’t it?
Again, keep in mind that, apart from the documented contentions of the immediate post-Babangida era gladiators, what we’re being served here are allegations, none of which is criminal in nature. It is for this reason that I have decided to interrogate the three major accusations levied against the man.
The first allegation, from a respected former ambassador, is that Prof. Gambari is a turncoat and a snitch. His accuser used anecdotes of personal and official dealings between them to build the character of a betrayer as a peculiar Gambari trait. The crux of the former ambassador’s anger was that after helping the new CoS to enter the hallowed diplomatic circuit, he was serially betrayed by his protégé who, as his supervising minister, allowed his name on a list of those arbitrarily retrenched by the Buhari military regime. When he eventually learnt that his name was on the list, the former Minister allegedly claimed ignorance of the fact and promised to but did not follow up to reverse the deed.
Too many persons were touched by that infamous gale of retirements of diplomats by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in 1984. I recall that Buhari cooked up the “obnoxious Decree 4” to jail two of my former bosses in The Guardian, Messrs Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, for writing truthful reports that embarrassed him, a public officer, on the retirements. Years later, I was told by Mr. Tunde Thompson in an interview that this horrible retrenchment of seasoned diplomats was supervised by a career diplomat and a pioneer intelligence officer in the Ministry of External Affairs, Sokoto-born Mohammed Lawal Rafindadi. Thus, up until last week’s announcement of Gambari as new Chief of Staff, only few persons like the former Ambassador could have authoritatively claimed that Gambari was the unseen hand behind the retirements. To be fair, the respected ambassador did not also imply that he was, only that he must have been aware, if not part of, and did nothing to stop it from touching him, after all he did for the former Minister.
To date, I have not read any other Gambari bashing from among the hundreds of diplomats who were compulsorily retired.
The second charge is that of going overboard in praise and unsparing in excoriating Abacha regime’s “opponents.” What I could gather from those promoting this accusation is this: the problem is not that he was Abacha’s respected voice abroad but the things he said at the time and how he said them. Two examples put forward were that he once described late novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa as “a common criminal” and also justified the Abacha junta’s extension of the date for democratic rule by claiming that “Nigerians need food more than democracy.”
Anybody is free to call late Ken Saro-Wiwa “a common criminal” but that will not make him one. He was instead an internationally recognized activist for Ogoni economic rights, fighting a central government that was largely responsible for the economic devastation and utter deprivation under which his community was forced to exist. Saro-Wiwa could not understand why the federal authorities mined and siphoned oil wealth sitting under Ogoni soil to make Nigeria a rich nation while his people wallowed in extreme poverty and misery. Unfortunately, his agitation turned out not to be a united community project. Some other influential community brethren rose up in opposition to his movement and Saro-Wiwa found himself pitted against implacable local foes and a powerful national state apparatus. The subsequent and gruesome murders of his local rivals provided the excuse for Aso Rock to pounce. He was put on trial, convicted and hanged for being an accessory to the murders.
I will separate the issues in line with what I understand the accusers to be saying. Was Prof. Gambari right to describe Ken Saro-Wiwa as “a common criminal?” He was not; that was clearly an overreach, an unfortunate statement. Was he justified to be the voice of the Abacha junta abroad? The answer is not so straightforward, but we can locate it in a number of penetrating questions about Nigerian politics and the spokespersons and officials who are hired to prop up succeeding military governments and democratic regimes.
What could anyone in Gambari’s shoes have done after accepting to serve a government in any position? In the specific case of Abacha, did we lack eminent and revered Nigerians – from all the regions including from MKO and OBJ’s South West region – who not only served but also forcibly spoke up for the dark goggle-wearing General? Was this the first time that we witnessed public officials – from all regions of Nigeria – “defending the indefensible,” using curse words and inventing destructive negative labels to finish off “opponents” of a repressive, incompetent or corrupt regime that they accepted to serve? Has this aberration changed in Nigeria even during this democracy that we have had since 1999? Has there been any brutal or underperforming regime in Nigeria that did not raise and allow us to see and hear from their apostles of misspeak? Is this tendency peculiar to Nigeria – to see public officials vigorously and unabashedly strive to walk back on actions and remarks of their employers after each political or diplomatic faux pas? Are we living in the moon right now, not to notice the gang of misspeak apostles, including a Kwara State Minister, an Osun State spokesperson, and an Anambra State adviser serving in Lagos who, for example, have made us accept that unarmed youths protesting injustice in the South East are “terrorists” but herdsmen destroying farm crops, kidnapping the rich and wealthy on highways, and raping women in the farms of middle belt and southern Nigeria are not? Between them and Ambassador Gambari as spokespersons, who should we fear more?
As voices from the streets would chorus, “na today?”
I can’t pretend to understand the third charge, which has to do with tales from the Ambassador’s family history, woven around bitter memories of its hostile takeover of Ilorin and its forcible conversion into an emirate of the Sokoto Sultanate. Because Gambari is a prince of the Ilorin Royal Family, so the logic goes, he must have been born or schooled in the art of duplicity and subterfuge practiced by his forefathers, which they employed to take over the ancient town. The personal story told by Pa Fafowora further feeds into and somehow justifies this narrative for the accusers.
I am not worried about whether this sentiment can endure. We have seen and dealt with princes and noblemen from the northern emirates before now. A couple of months ago, we were praising one of them who was deposed as Emir. We even speculated whether he would run for president in 2023, at the same time that muted alternative voices were heard from the East and the West, reminding us about an Igbo man who was beheaded and his severed head hoisted on a spike and carried aloft in a triumphal war dance along the streets of a famous northern Nigerian city.
This is Nigeria. A former diplomat or technocrat who misbehaved or misspoke yesterday could tomorrow become a possible presidential contender, depending on what he does today in a given position. It is also human to err and divine to repent and seek forgiveness. Knowing this, I would rather ignore the tales of yesterday and focus on what Prof. Gambari will do between 13 May 2020 and 29 May 2023 – if he is able to survive the machinations of the Aso Rock Cabal, aka “Kitchen Cabinet.”
Let me end by saying that I have encountered Prof. Gambari twice in the course of my career as a journalist and that I do not believe that he is as bad as he’s being painted. The first was a 1996 group chat in Lagos arranged by a good friend, the late Chief Ike Mbonu of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN). The second was in New York City when the United Nations invited 15 senior journalists from the African continent for a six-day understudy of the UN system. Yours sincerely and Ms. Kadaria Ahmed (who was then working for the BBC) were the two Nigerians who made the trip. In the first (Lagos) encounter, I was struck by Gambari’s calmness, his charm and wit. He was constantly smiling and effortlessly handled very awkward questions we put to him. On my second (New York) encounter, what struck me the most was the tremendous respect that other senor staff of the UN system accorded him – as they addressed him directly, or spoke about him in his absence. Apart from the Secretary General himself (Kofi Annan), he was clearly the African Star.
We can therefore appreciate why the first thought that flashed to my mind when I heard of the surprise announcement was this: At last, a world-renowned diplomat and public policy expert has come to help a dithering Buhari Presidency! However, after reading all the negative things that have so far been written, I began to entertain doubts and to ask myself: will he be able to wean the Presidency of its fixation with nepotism and constant romance with policy inconsistencies? This is what the power of suggestion does to even the most rational of beings – create doubts in the minds of those who should be open-minded and ordinarily willing to suspend judgement until all facts are in and properly analysed.
I am willing to admit that my two prior encounters with Prof. Gambari are not enough to judge his politics. They are however sufficient for me to hope that, at last, an affable human being who is interested in doing a good job wherever he finds himself has been given a key place in the Muhammadu Buhari Presidency. What he does with the appointment will become a matter of history.