Searching for Nigeria’s next Chief of Staff

As President Muhammadu Buhari searches for a new Chief of Staff to replace the suddenly-departed Abba Kyari, we in BusinessDay ask: what kind of person would we like Mr. President to search for?

The phrase “Chief of Staff” derives from the military, a profession that functions through a staff system populated with officers possessing training and individual expertise in personnel, logistics, intelligence, operations and even religious affairs.

The person that coordinates the staff into one cohesive organisation is, obviously, the Chief or Staff. He ensures that his General’s strategic intent is translated into tactical plans executed by the field commanders.

The Chief of Staff system as we know it today was perfected by US President Dwight David Eisenhower, who was Supreme Commander of the victorious Anglo-American military machine that overcame German forces in WW2.

The greatest tribute to him is that every leader that professes to be effective has a chief of staff system in place. President Eisenhower arguably designed the job description of the modern day chief of staff. As a General leading military forces contributed by countries from almost every continent, Eisenhower learnt that what today we call “emotional intelligence” as much as technical competence is absolutely vital to welding together a capable, effective team.

A Chief of Staff is therefore a gatekeeper, a quarterback, who ensures that the team operates smoothly from defence to attack.  The Chief of Staff, by whatever name is called, is the position most heads of government fill once elected into office, sometimes before being formally sworn-in. They are also often the first to go, either when things go awry or when the pressure becomes physically and emotionally unbearable. Chiefs of Staff protect their principals, responsible first and only to the latter’s objectives. They protect him or her from undue influence, manage the flow of work and persons into and out of the executive office and serve as the eyes and ears of that leader. Anyone who takes the trouble to search on YouTube for the TV series, “The Gatekeepers” or read the book by Bradley Patterson, “The White House Staff”, will see in practice what we are trying to say here.

President Muhammadu Buhari did not invent the office of Chief of Staff as it is known today but it served him brilliantly during military rule. From his tenure as Federal Commissioner (Minister) for Petroleum Resources in 1976-79, battling the Chadians and chasing them back to N’djamena in 1983, as Head of State in 1984-85 or as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund in 1994 – 98, Buhari has always delegated authority to an explicitly trusted and able right-hand man who played the role of a Chief of Staff. Intelligent, very well read, capable, experienced and loyal, Abba Kyari had most of the skill sets for the role. President Buhari, who has said he appoints only those he knows, will not have a problem finding people with similar gifts. How much time it will take an overly deliberative Buhari to find that person is what we worry about.

The President’s glacial approach to decision-making, his staunch statist stance on economic development coupled with Kyari’s over centralisation of power are the frailties that have challenged the pace and quality of governance in the past five years. Therefore, whoever is appointed as the next Chief of Staff to the President must get the job done differently. The qualities we have highlighted, particularly the staff or collegiate approach, is vital. The President cannot afford a Chief of Staff who appears to cuddle power tightly or adopt the style of a Byzantine Grand Vizier, as we have seen in the past. The President needs urgently a competent and trusted adviser familiar with domestic and foreign policy, an able manager that can arrest Aso Rock from grinding to a halt, and above all who can ensure the timely, competent and coordinated execution of the plethora of bold socio-economic reforms Nigeria needs to survive the double onslaught of Covid-19 and the collapse of the oil market.

Nigeria has had outstanding Chiefs of Staff in both the military and civilian eras. Major-Generals Ekpo, Yar’Adua, Idiagbon, and Abdullahi Mohammed were quiet and unsung Chiefs of Staff in the governments of Generals Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari himself and civilian President Obasanjo. They helped their bosses run effective governments that set clear goals, pulled the personnel and resources together, ensured the group got the message and drove hard but with discipline for those goals, whatever they were.

The planting season is here and we need to protect our farmers from the ravages of COVID-19, even as we desperately seek to ramp up our anaemic healthcare system to deal with the disease. The war in the Northeast, security flashpoints heating up across the country, deeply worrisome socio-economic indicators, restless neighbours on our national borders. All complicated by the paramount importance of developing and executing plans and programmes for a post-Covid 19 recovery amidst an economic recession (perhaps even a depression) that we know will come. Nigeria’s domestic and foreign policy challenges can only be met by a team led by President Buhari assisted by Vice-President Osinbajo, with an excellent quarterback or midfielder, a brilliant Chief of Staff to the President.
The primary responsibility of the chief of staff is to ensure that the government has competent and well-resourced teams that can function optimally to deliver the president’s agenda. Every other thing is secondary.

The job of Chief of Staff is not to work for the lily-livered. It is not for one who is less than well educated, versed in both domestic and foreign policy issues, quick-thinking, team-building and –playing and of impeccable personal integrity. It is also not work for a Mr. Congeniality (regrettably we are certain the appointee will be male). The work demands focus, a measure of ruthlessness, always seeing the big picture and the corporate interest but never interjecting oneself into that picture. We wish President Buhari searches for his next Chief of Staff through this lens. We wish him well and pray fervently for him as he does so.

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