Agboola Gambari’s Burning Grass

What should Nigeria expect from you as Chief of Staff?”

“I don’t report directly to the nation; I report to the president.”

“What should he (the president) expect from you? What can you assure him?”

“I think you should ask the president. I give him my loyalty, competence and support.”

“What will be your guiding principle as Chief of Staff?”

“To serve the president to the best of my ability.”

Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, in the interview above, tells the media that he reports to the president, not to Nigeria. That is very direct, brilliant – and reassuring. It means he won’t go to Germany to negotiate power projects on behalf of Nigeria; it means he won’t summon service chiefs to security council meetings and preside, sidelining the National Security Adviser; it means he won’t play one arm of government against another, subjugating all to his whims; it means he won’t award NNPC contracts and make himself director and commander-in-chief of the state oil company. It means he will simply be chief of staff to the president, not chief of ministers and ministries; not controller of governors and their broke states. It means he won’t start presiding over party and INEC affairs directing who would be candidate, who would win or lose elections. It significantly means, for the first time since 2015, the president will be seen as the true author of all presidential orders and directives.

In the last one week, we have dissipated so much energy abusing one another because a Fulani president from Daura appointed a Fulani from Ilorin as the chief of his staff. The thickest of the war is in Yorubaland. And you ask why? Is the chief of staff no longer a personal staff officer of the person making the appointment? How does the controversy help shake off the curse of Nigeria on the stunted growth and progress of Western Nigeria? I thought the feelers from that corner has been that Nigeria must be reset to how its manufacturers delivered it, not crying over who serves whom in Abuja. Or is everything now about posts and positions?

There is a bird in the Yoruba forest, when he is hungry he sings mournfully: “I’ll leave this forest.” Soon after he gets something to eat, his song becomes: “Whenever departure beckons, the thickets tie me down…” I am a Yoruba and in my very quiet moments I ask this question: What do the Yoruba really want in Nigeria and from Nigeria? The noise about that Gambari appointment, what fruit was it supposed to bear? Did the Yoruba desire the post? You were given a plate to feed on, you lament that it is full of miserable bones; you were asked to throw the bones away, you look at the plate lustfully again and shamelessly say the bones have some meaty parts. You cannot say you do not want Nigeria as it is and at the same time be grumbling about jobs and appointments. Let the unwanted die with its choices or your dilly-dallying fiddling engagements with Nigeria will be your own slow death. Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, warned long ago that spring water that flows desert-wards flows into extinction. That exactly is the geography of Nigeria’s political economy – a sapping, predatory system with no regenerative potential.

The appointment of Professor Agboola Gambari as President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff has reopened old, deep wounds, leaving one to wonder why. Since the announcement through official rumours on Tuesday, 12th May, the Internet has not been able to decide which is more troubling between COVID-19 and Buhari’s choice of the head of his personal staff. There was noise about the president coming from the North and the chief of staff also being a northerner. I have read Ambassador Dapo Fafowora’s deeply bitter personal recollections in his dealings with Professor Gambari. I have also read and heard attenuating counter-narratives from those who saw the subject differently, positively. I have friends on both sides of the argument. And, it is very intriguing and very important that most of the combatants are Yoruba with earned claims to ethnic patriotism. There are those who cited the Yoruba in Gambari’s identity and in his lineage names to counter the Fulani nepotism charge. His late uncle, Emir Sulu Karnayni (Dhur Qarnayn) Gambari’s oriki was Alabi Opo.  He was also identified as Aiyélabówó V. This insight was soon countered by those who say the family bearing Yoruba names is typical Fulani deception; that the incumbent emir dropped Kolapo, his Yoruba name, as soon as he was enthroned. There is, however, my professor friend in a top university abroad who would insist that Ibrahim Gambari is a comprehensively good man. There is also the Yoruba self-determination friend who told me Professor Gambari, outside the ‘usual’ Fulani/northern politics, is a decent man. And there is the other extreme that sees Gambari as the ultimate ‘evil’ and cites his shocking public stands on June 12 and Abacha’s execution of Ken Saro Wiwa.

A friend told me he never knew Professor Gambari could attract such virulence given his positive public image. I said I was surprised too. But Buhari has the legal right to choose anyone he likes as his chief of staff, which he has done by picking Agboola Gambari. The right the president lacks is handing over the people’s mandate to an unelected fellow –that would be treason. And, I think preventing that happening (as he did with Abba Kyari) ought to preoccupy our minds and thoughts now, not who he appoints. The chosen one also has the right under our laws to take up any job, say anything and express an opinion on any issue, knowing fully that the consequences of doing all these are his to bear. He did that in the past under Sani Abacha and has clearly seen how long-lasting the shadow of keeping bad companies could hang over one’s good sides.

At the beginning of the appointment story, the honest question I asked myself was why would an accomplished international scholar agree to serve a provincial president. Then someone said it was blood proving once again that it was thicker than water; and then showed me the old caravan (slave trade) route from Daura to Ilorin. I laughed. Then all the pleasant and unpleasant contents of Gambari’s public service got raked up on the internet. It was perplexing and, I felt, unsettling. But again, what are we sweating and fretting over? An aged Fulani chief loses his kudol (walking stick), he decides to go to his father’s farm to get a better replacement for his lost instrument of balance and then there is so much uproar about his choice. What is our own? It would have been very different if it is the post of president that Gambari says he wants. Anyone appalled by his Abacha sins and other wrongs could then roll out the tanks and shell the ambition out of him. But the office he is offered is that of a potentate’s chief servant and we are working ourselves up because of that! My position is that a Hausa-Fulani president choosing an Ilorin-Fulani as his chief aide should not bother anyone. What should rather be a bother would be if there is any sign that the chief courtier would wield powers of the king as the last occupier of the post did. But the professor has made this clear and simple for all of us to handle. He did that very well at his maiden engagement with the media on Wednesday, 13th May, quoted above.

But someone said I should understand the apprehension. That because we have all along suffered from having an aloof, even absentee, president, we have become unlearned to the point of seeing the servant as the king. It is good that Gambari has reminded us of the pathway and limits of a chief of staff’s powers. Let us now sit back and, with vigilance, watch how decently his decency will endure amidst the glitz and gold of our lucrative presidency.

Now, what does Gambari’s appointment teach the South, especially the loud Yoruba, about group identity and unity? Can they see that the Fulani are one from Sokoto to Ilorin and that they see Nigeria as their inheritance and would do anything to keep it as it is and pass it on to their children and children’s children? The hybrid called Hausa-Fulani are a particularly very audacious strain. When they roll at the top with rock-solid confidence, I get reminded that we were taught in school that “beggars can’t be choosers.” These people are always the choosers in Nigeria because they are never power beggars. They do not cringe to get their rights – and even to snatch what belongs to others – they grab power and benefits without saying sorry. They take anything that would add to their power and prestige and leave the dispossessed to gasp for breath. They do not shoot and hide unless doing so would get them more booty. Read the bloody history of their engagements with all others since the beginning of Nigeria. That is the only reason a cosmopolitan diplomat of Gambari’s standing would be caught uttering those words about Ken Saro Wiwa and the tragic struggles of the Ogoni people. I think the Yoruba have to learn here: strategise, talk less. Nigeria is a deaf monster; it hears no howling about justice and fair play. Survivors are strategic cat ‘bellers’ – vulnerable creations who dared cats by taking charge of their destiny. Whining and wringing hands and, even, shouting won’t save any underling from Nigeria’s abusive marriage and its unjust structure.

Enough of wailing. Dysfunctional Nigeria is built of stuffs stronger than the Wall of Jericho; therefore, noise cannot breach it. If the Yoruba, and southerners generally, are not satisfied with the life they are living, the solution is not in carrying an elephant on their head and be hunting crickets with their toes. They should decide what they want and how to get it. The Hausa-Fulani, with the assistance of the British, did that a long time ago. That Buhari has appointed anyone as his principal aide should be the least of concerns at this moment of siege. That is a faint manifestation of ‘their’ own short and long-term strategy. Where is yours? If anything, the appointment should serve as a reminder that the Buharis of Daura and the Gambaris of Ilorin are kinsmen in everything and will remain so, forever. It also reminds the forgetful that these are very clear-headed, close-knit people who are consistent on matters of group identity, group relevance and survival and for whom all seasons are strategy sessions.

In ‘The Burning Grass’, Igbo novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Mai Sunsaye has a beautiful rendition of the Fulani panegyric: “We are Fulanis, sons of Dan Fodio, master magicians, we who fight like cats, who die a hundred deaths and live…” and for whom “the wish for better pastures” means “all else must succumb to that wish.”

Resisting that undisguised ‘wish’ to make your father’s farm their ‘pasture’ should be your priority now, not crying over a Fulani president’s choice of his scholar-brother as his chief of staff.



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