The Chief of Staff in Government


A lot of folks, particularly digital natives who do not know much history and how presidential executives function, lived comfortably and  didn’t understand the noise surrounding the work of the late Abba Kyari,  former chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, in Aso Rock. Many even became agitated when the president, at the start of his second term in office, last year, reeled out the job schedule of his chief of staff which included handling of his appointments; mails meant for him were to be routed through the chief of staff, and ministers were directed to clear with the chief of staff before accessing him.

Incidentally, those are simply and, truthfully put, the most basic roles of the chief of staff in the system. The fact that those who served presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan in that capacity were not quite visible did not detract from the fact that they performed those responsibilities.

In the case of Obasanjo, he is a very strong personality and drawn to the limelight as moths to light. There was no way he could have been overshadowed by any appointee and he is not a man to live under the shadow of anybody except during his years in the military with its well-known strict command structure.

 Occupants of the enviable position under Yar’Adua and Jonathan were not loud executives given to throwing their weight around. They were subdued and, like chameleons, adjusted to the colour of their operational environment.

Enter the old soldier, Buhari, a man who leads by delegating his powers. And so whoever served him in that role was going to be powerful and controversial because they must soak in all the tantrums and absorb the blows, brickbats and dirt thrown at the boss. Now, that comes within the territory of that assignment.

During the administration of Governor Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom State, the permanent secretaries in Government House served in that role. The first was Mr Sunny Akpadiaha, presently the chairman of the Civil Service Commission; he was succeeded by the late Mr Effiong Akpanenang. Both were seasoned bureaucrats, even though their formal designation of permanent secretary and chief of personal staff to the governor (PS / CPSG) were carried over from the military dispensation. However, their office served as the clearing house for mails meant for the governor. They decided on who met the governor officially. They determined events the governor attended. They recommended who represented the governor at functions that the governor would not attend in person. They managed the budget of Government House, the infrastructure and personnel. Though civil servants, they also acted as close advisers and sounding boards for their boss especially on public service matters.

In the government of Chief Godswill Akpabio, a retired director-general, Cornel Udoh got the slot but he sailed into troubled waters by embarking on ethnic cleansing of staff of Ibibio origin. He did not last long. The occupant of that office should be politically correct all the time. He has to sail in the same boat with his boss, in the same direction. He has to be trustworthy and avoid creating problems for his principal. Mr Godwin Afangide succeeded him and was in turn replaced by Sir Etekamba Umoren who later served as the pioneer secretary to the nascent administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel.

There was a yawning gap in the government of Governor Emmanuel, until recently when the vacant office of chief of staff in Government House, Uyo, was filled.

The chief of staff must be steely, courageous, have contacts all over, possess executive and emotional intelligence, be in top physical condition, a consummate workaholic and a go-getter. He must know the mind and character of the boss and must understand public policy.

The chief of staff is expected to work miracles around his boss, for his boss and in the overall interest of his boss. Let nobody be carried away, the interest of the state comes distant there. It is the responsibility of the chief of staff to manage the trips of the governor and see him to the airport when he is travelling. He should know exactly when the boss is due back and arrange to receive him on return. It is sheer eye service by non-personal aides to leave their schedules and waste man-hours as well as fuel and cause a jam in a bid to escort or welcome the chief executive at the airport, except on very special occasions.

The chief of staff is the face of the leader, his minder and monitor, but he should be faceless!  He serves as the overall enforcer of the directives of the governor. He must mop up things and tie up loose ends in government. 

The demand here calls for 100% loyalty and devotion from the appointee. Nothing less. The chief of staff must be ready to serve and save his boss often from indiscretion or miscalculation on all fronts especially politics.

 The chief of staff must be one who shares the vision of his boss completely. He must embody the agenda of his boss because if he doesn’t know the vision and has not bought into it, he won’t be able to read the game nor understand the mindset or body language of the leader. In this, he performs the functions of a captain in a football team who communicates the game plan of the manager/coach to the players on the pitch while the game is on.

To achieve results, such a person must believe in the supremo and refuse temptations to undermine or be disrespectful or disdainful to the leader. He must shy away from competing with his boss for the limelight or for the success of the administration. Though he is the spine and face of the governor, he should try to be faceless, work quietly but effectively.

 The chief of staff is in a good place to help reshape the present the Akwa Ibom State government and Government House for beneficial outcomes now and sustainably for future generations. This is an invitation to keep faith with the vision, agenda and ultimate political direction of the governor. 

There is a proclivity and temptation for powerful appointees to be brash in dealing with colleagues, former colleagues, subordinates and members of the public in the discharge of the responsibilities of high office. But, at 55, the new chief of staff to the governor of Akwa Ibom State is mature and should be able to earn rather than command the respect of those he has to interface with daily. It is required of occupants of such an office to be good team players so they could organise and coordinate all the aides of the governor to work in one accord, with a view to stemming the tide of discordant voices and messages from the government. 

Hitherto, some aides carried on as sheep without shepherd. There is a shepherd now at the front-line. The sheep must follow his lead or be shipped out of reckoning in the overall interest of the governor.

This writer has interacted with the brand new chief of staff to the governor, and some immediate takeaways include his strong conviction as to what is right, capacity to work under pressure, his energy and equanimity in the face of challenges,  his uncompromising spirituality, his gift of discernment, his willpower and capacity to deliver on set targets. Just look at the miracle of Ituk Mbang as an example.

His training and experience as a senior staff officer in a para-military Nigeria Customs Service has imbued him with the aptitude and attitude for his new role in the service of the governor, because he has had the command of men and materials.

 Just one tip: no subordinate, no matter the skill set in their possession, must outshine the boss. That is why the new kid on the block should call a halt to the din around him so he can immerse himself at work. It is pertinent to appreciate that the ultimate source of executive authority is always the governor. Nobody should be mistaken about that.

As the most visible surrogate of the governor, he must follow the example of apostle Peter who, in defence of his master Jesus Christ, brought out a knife to cut someone’s ear. The chief of staff must be a reliable and dependable ally.

 The final hurray for a successful outing on that schedule, however, would only resound if the chief executive delivered on his mandate and succession.

*Dr Nana, an Uyo-based Mass Communication scholar, served as adviser on media & public affairs to both governors Victor Attah and Godswill Akpabio from 1999 to 2008.

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