Chief Of Staff: Much Ado About Nothing

By Ahmed Musa Husaini

The office of the chief of staff was created in 1999 by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Previous Nigerian administrations did not use it. Our constitution did not even mention it. It was modelled after that of the US (which also evolved in a similar extra constitutional way) to provide the president with a filter and a gatekeeper in order to insulate the president from unnecessary tasks and coordinate his activities.

According to Hadelman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, the office of the chief of staff is the second most powerful job in government, only below that of the president and more powerful than even the vice president. Richard Cheney, Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff usually gets into a shouting match with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller because of his attempt to control the VP’s access to the president.

Ideally, it is one of the three first appointments to be made in every administration. The chief of staff’s major roles include helping the president select presidential aides (from media aides, economic advisers national security advisers, ministers), developing the presidential reporting structure, controlling the flow of people and paper to the president, advising the president on issues of politics and policies, and negotiating on behalf of the president with other local and international groups.

However, the extent to which a chief of staff wields his powers depends on the style of the president he is serving, his personal relationship with the president and the availability of resources (human and material) at his disposal. This is what gives birth to the strong versus weak chief of staff models.

The office is at the intersection of politics and governance. The idea is that the president makes tough decisions which are difficult to execute. It is the chief of staff that execute them. That’s why all effective chiefs of staff are unpopular. As US Congressman Zack Space said ‘you don’t want someone in the position who’s everybody’s friend. That’s not the job. You need a prick.’

A chief of staff is expected to be the perfect representation of the president’s policies and principles. He’s the filter, the person the president has total confidence in. In effect, the chief of staff is the president’s alter ego. That’s why they are given the free reign to hire and fire presidential aides on behalf of the president.

During the Bush Snr’s presidency, the media referred to Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Counselor Karen Hughes and Snr Adviser Karl Rove as troika of equals. Andrew Card protested to Bush that ‘I should be the chief of staff and not one of the chiefs of staff and Bush obliged. Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff who succeeded Mack McLarty, developed a reporting structure making sure that key presidential aides like ‘press secretary, national security director, head of economic council, OMB, counsel to the president – all reporting directly through him.’

Even recently, we have seen how Trump’s immediate past chief of staff General Kelly asserted his authority after his appointment by firing some Trump people like Scarramucci and Omarosa from the White House. It is strongly believe that chiefs of staff should have a say in who the president appoints because they are the ones who are going to work with those appointees. Richard Nixon made it a duty to inform his chief of staff about every meeting he held behind his back and George Bush ensured that an aide to the chief of staff is present in every White House meeting.

Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with President Buhari’s directive that ministers should channel any scheduling requests and reporting through the chief of staff. That’s the traditional role of the office of the chief of staff, coordinating all cabinet reporting and managing presidential scheduling. Whatever people may say about ABBA Kyari, he’s eminently qualified for the position he’s occupying. He may have his weaknesses and excesses, but these come naturally with that kind of role.

In Nigeria, we have the added conundrum in the office of the SGF and that of Head of Service of the Federation. The SGF is merely the secretary to the federal executive council and the permanent secretary at the villa could effectively do that job. But we like over doing things in Nigeria and that gives the impression that the chief of staff is doing the SGF job when in effect there’s little need for the office of the SGF in the first place.

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