FeaturesFEATURES: Hon Femi Gbajabiamila: Burden Of A Chief Of Staff

FEATURES: Hon Femi Gbajabiamila: Burden Of A Chief Of Staff

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February 18, (THEWILL) – By virtue of their position, Chief of Staff to presidents are not much liked as you would a favourite uncle. Those in government or out of it, a minster, say, a spouse or relative, see them as unnecessary obstacles in getting Mr. President’s attention. As well as advising the president on policies, liaising between the executive arm and other branches of government, one of the cardinal duties of the CoS is sitting right in front of his principal’s office vetting those who gets the president’s ear and who doesn’t.

Aware of the need for his principal to catch a refreshing rest, however briefly, from an extremely busy schedule, a CoS may coolly rebuff a party chairman asking for an unscheduled meeting with Mr. President at 2am or thereabout. It is his prerogative, also, to turn down spontaneous and intrusive visits by troublesome relatives claiming blood kinship with the president. For all of that, the CoS comes off badly in the eyes of those denied access to his principal.

Since assuming duty on 14 June 2023 as Chief of Staff to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu after confirmation by the Senate on June 2, Hon. Olufemi Hakeem Gbajabiamila, erstwhile Speaker of House of Representatives of the 9th Assembly, would have had such encounters with sundry visitors to Aso Villa. There would have been the political lobbyists for ministerial appointments, the business elite hoping for favourable economic policies and so on. There would have been lobbyists from the international community, as well, representing multinational companies in and outside Nigeria. Some would have gone swimmingly. Some would have not, resulting in bellyaching for their inaccessibility to Mr. President and so laying the blame squarely at the door of the CoS.

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“Who does he think he is?” Those denied would invariably wonder privately, storming off in anger and promising to pay back in due time. Under such circumstance, Chiefs of Staff are often more reviled than those who appointed them. For instance, a disgruntled minister can badmouth an intransigent CoS but never the president who may have denied him audience in the first place via a “do not disturb” instruction only the CoS can decode, which he is not obliged to tell the public – party chair, minister or cousin.

Despite this dislike for the CoS, dozens of supplicants will naturally stoop to conquer. In other words, to get that ultimate gate pass to see Mr. President, you have to please the last man standing between him and the rest of us. Of course, there will be the obligatory groveling, complete with the perpetual smile that hurts cheek muscles. After all, didn’t the FCT Minister Nyesom Wike demonstrate his culinary expertise by specially inviting and cooking for Gbajamiamila and his entourage sometime back?

Unlike the president of a country whose allegiance is to defend the Constitution, the CoS pledges his loyalty to the president, to protect and be loyal to his principal in thick or thin, rain or shine. It is this loyalty, some analysts now insist, that has bound and strengthened PBAT and his longtime political and dependable ally Gbajabiamila together resulting in Tinubu settling for him as his Chief of Staff above many of his Young Turks while he was governor of Lagos state from 1999 – 2007.

True! There was Femi Pedro. Babatunde Fashola. Muiz Banire. Rauf Aregbesola. Lai Mohammed. Kayode Fayemi. Dele Alake. Tunji Bello. Yemi Osinbajo and, of course, Gbajabiamila. To a man, they shared Tinubu’s progressive and radical idea of politics for change. One became governor, some of them commissioners and even ministers and another rose to become number two citizen of Nigeria. Though politically relevant in the intervening years and morphing from a former state chief executive to national leader of a political party, Tinubu would only settle for one of them to be his CoS once he became president: Gbajabiamila.

It was not for nothing.

In a Viewpoint article by Charity Amayanvbo of 17 August 2023 for Vanguard newspaper, for instance, that unalloyed loyalty is central to the journalist’s piece headlined “Gbajabiamila: Unveiling the untold story of a Chief of Staff fluent in Machiavelli’s Italian.”

“One striking characteristic that sets Femi Gbajabiamila apart is his unwavering loyalty to President Bola Tinubu,” Amayanvbo wrote. “Often referred to as “Gbaja,” he earned the esteemed title of being President Tinubu’s staunch supporter. This unbreakable alliance was affirmed by none other than Asiwaju Tinubu himself, who declared that supporting Femi was tantamount to supporting him.”

In other words, support for one is akin to support for the other, a point even the president emphasised loud and clear when it seemed that enemies of his CoS were driving a wedge between them. In late October 2023, it was no surprise Tinubu came out categorically to declare his “absolute confidence” in Gbajabiamila, his main man who’d represented Surulere Constituency 1 six consecutive times since 2003 in the Lower House of NASS.

“First of all, let me reiterate to all of you the fact that a lot of stories are going around about what is happening,” President Tinubu said in a national address shortly before the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting. “I’ve told everyone in this country that I can make mistakes, they’re bound to air them out and correct them. Perfection is that of God Almighty. I have absolute confidence in the integrity of my Chief of Staff. All campaigns of calumny and insinuations should stop, the buck stops here.”

Tinubu’s predecessor was even more forthright about Gbajabiamila’s candour, loyalty and patriotism. At a book presentation MR SPEAKER: The Legislative Life, Service and Resilience of Femi Gbajabiamila in June 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari declared thusly through his Chief of Staff Professor Ibrahim Gambari: “For him what matters is not so much the party differences but what unites Nigerians and that is why he is a passionate advocate for a peaceful democracy and unity of Nigeria. And no amount of parliamentary maneuvres or differences between parties would deviate him from this.

“He introduced the term legislative diplomacy. When there were issues between Nigerian and Ghanaian traders, he went to Accra and met with his colleagues and tried to resolve the issue.

“It is also a fact that under the Speaker and leadership of the Senate, there is no automaticity of opposition and antagonism to the executive. The role of legislature is not to be antagonistic as a matter of routine, but to be partners for good governance for the people of Nigeria. They are working together to make Nigeria better.”

Pooling hands together to make Nigeria better irrespective of party affiliation or tribe has been the focal point of the man who is now CoS to President Tinubu. In the wake of the oil subsidy removal by the president last May, the labour unions called for and went on an indefinite strike to protest the effect on Nigerians. Through his skillful negotiations on behalf of the Federal Government along with the then Minister of Labour and Employment Simon Lalong, Gbajabiamila as CoS got NLC president Joe Ajaero and his counterpart at TUC to the table. Through gentle persuasion, cajoling and making concessions, what would have been a protracted labour war with the Federal Government was resolved amicably in a matter of days.

At the end of the negotiations, previously unyielding NLC and TUC officials gladly posed in a photo-op with representatives of the FG. It was clear who had done the persuasion for the relatively young administration of President Tinubu.

Gbajabiamila had similarly won another national battle that threatened the very existence of the country years before without firing a shot. Some people still recall his role as a staunch opponent of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s third term bid in 2007. As Minority Leader of the Lower House then, Gbajabiamila was in the forefront of the opposition to Obasanjo’s ambition to continue after his two tenures as president from 1999 – 2007.

Though the former military head of state and civilian president has denied ever having such ambition, Gbajabiamila has said that lawmakers who opposed it were offered money in support. “While they were offering members N50 million,” Gbajabiamila recalled at the book presentation in Abuja, “I was offered double, a N100 million at that time, and you know what N100 million was, which, of course, I turned down. I say that for you to understand the pressure; financial, mental and physical pressure.”

According to him, shooting down OBJ’s third term bid preoccupied the legislators pretty much at the time. “We had no other job in the House except Third Term, constitutional amendment. For me, as noble as that work was, the best time was the day it died, not the Third Term itself, but the day it was killed on the floor. My best moment as a lawmaker was the death of Third Term; the day it was pronounced dead because we had sleepless nights. We were meeting; we got a place in Asokoro, hidden somewhere. We would start our meetings sometimes at 11 at night and leave at 4am. I can’t remember how many of us. It was a risk to life.”

These days, Gbajabiamila does not much care about threats to his own life. For one, he has the president’s backing. Instead, he has devoted his time and resources to caring for the life of people in his Surulere Constituency 1 he represented in the House of Representatives for years.

Last December, for instance, Tinubu’s CoS facilitated an ultramodern 60-bed health facility named after him located on Iyun Road Surulere. Lagos State Commissioner of Health Professor Akin Abayomi was on hand to receive the General Hospital on behalf of the state, declaring enthusiastically that with the hospital’s state-of-the-art features including radiology, a large laboratory, paediatric, physiotherapy, surgical, and X-ray facilities, Abayomi sounded confident “in its potential to substantially enhance the well-being of the constituency’s residents.” He also thanked the CoS for his “immense contribution and foresight in facilitating the establishment of this hospital.”

Apart from the health of those in his constituency, Gbajabiamila has also shown considerable concern for the improvement of young people across Nigeria through his Legislative Mentoring Initiatives (LMI) founded in 2022. By his own account, his life is “a testament to the transformative effect of the right kind of mentorship. I have benefitted from the wisdom and guidance of mentors who took an interest in me, supported my aspirations and provided me with the resources to thrive as a lawyer in the private sector and in public service.”

So, LMI is to “try to do the same for others,” starting off as “a youth leadership development programme to identify, equip and empower a new generation of young people to lead in government and public service, particularly in the legislature. The Initiative will focus on training young people for the legislature because I believe that the legislature is the soul of the nation. Through law making and appropriations, the legislature defines the present and shapes the future of a nation.”

Of the importance of LMI, Gbajabiamila pointedly noted that “tomorrow is not the future, the future is now, and our young people are that future. I ask you all to join me in this Initiative to develop a new generation of public sector leaders who possess the character and demonstrate the capacity for excellence in public service.”

LMI targets persons between the ages of 16-20, 21 to 35 with a total of seventy two fellows, one male and one female, selected from the thirty-six states in Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory. Persons with disabilities are also part of the initiative.

Occupied thus with such laudable projects as LMI running thanks to his singular effort, as CoS Gbajabiamila will be more devoted in protecting his principal against intrusive politicians or relatives who may want to call at the Villa just for the sake of it. Polite brush offs will be inevitable. But it will be carried out in the line of duty and not as a personal grudge. More than any other person, Gbajabiamila sure knows it is a burden of being a Chief of Staff.

About the Author

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Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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Michael Jimoh, THEWILLhttps://thewillnews.com
Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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