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In high places

Twenty years ago, a friend [?] accused me of having the natural story-telling instincts of an Oriental Jew. I am sorry to vindicate him on this occasion. The misunderstanding, to put it mildly, among top officials of the Buhari administration that burst into the open last week with the leaking of a letter that National Security Adviser Major General Babagana Monguno sent to the military service chiefs, reminded me of several stories all at once.

The first words that I uttered when I read about the leaked memo were, “In High Places.” This was the title of Arthur Hailey’s 1962 novel, about Canadian politics. From far out here, we see Canada as the most placid of Western nations but Hailey’s novel indicated that very dirty things occur within its top political circles. What about Nigeria, which no one ever accused of presenting Africa’s most placid face?

Canada’s leaders do not love journalists very much. In one scene in In High Places, the Prime Minister of Canada read a short editorial in one newspaper, which said in simple terms what should be done in a complicated immigration case that was giving his ministers and himself sleepless nights. The Prime Minister told his wife, “I think we should hand over this country to editorial boards. They seem to have the solution to every problem.” Probably, Nigerian leaders are thinking of handing over this country to columnists who poke their noses into every complicated issue, even though most of them have never so much as peeped through the window into the corridors of power.

Over the years, Abba Kyari has been variously attacked by Mrs. Aisha Buhari, by Kaduna State governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i, by former Minister of State for Petroleum Ibe Kachikwu, by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s aides and by countless newspapers. They all left him still standing. Before General Monguno joined the queue and fired off his memo, he should have remembered the first rule in bureaucratic squabbles, that one ought to first study the situation and see where the wind was blowing.

It reminded me of the Watergate burglar, ex-FBI agent and ex White House aide George Gordon Liddy’s 1980 book, WILL. Liddy was so fond of his boss, veteran FBI director J Edgar Hoover that when Liddy worked under him, he began writing his name as G Gordon Liddy. Anyway, when Richard Nixon became US President in 1969, Liddy worked in the Treasury Department for a man called Judge Pierce. I think he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary.

Liddy wrote that during previous US administrations, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF] was transferred from Treasury to Justice departments. His boss wanted it back, Liddy wrote, “but there is a problem because Justice wanted to keep it. That means he was up against John Mitchell.” Mitchell was the Attorney General, former Campaign Manager, Nixon’s close friend and law partner in the firm Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell. Liddy added, “In the Nixon administration, no one wins against John Mitchell.”

Presidents are supposed to make decisions after examining the logic, reason, evidence, insight and wisdom of arguments. Quite often however, arguments are won by the person making them, not necessarily by their own merit. To paraphrase Gordon Liddy, in the Buhari Administration, no one wins against Malam Abba Kyari’s trademark red cap.

The concentration of power that Buhari placed in his Chief of Staff’s hands favourably compare with H. R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, German-American Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon. American newspapers described Bob Haldeman and another German-American, Domestic Affairs Adviser John Ehrlichman, as the “German shepherds” that fiercely guarded President Nixon’s door. The two Germans were also accused of erecting a “Berlin Wall” around the president.

But for a good reason. Haldeman often saved President Nixon from himself. In his 1979 book White House Years, Henry Kissinger told the story of how President-elect Nixon invited him to a meeting in 1968. Kissinger was an aide to New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller, who lost the Republican primaries to Nixon. Kissinger turned up at the meeting, met Nixon in his office and they spoke generally for a few minutes. When he came out, Haldeman asked him, “Have you accepted the NSA job?” Kissinger said Nixon never offered it to him. Haldeman said, “Damn!” He walked into Nixon’s office, soon came out and said, “The NSA job is offered to you! Do you accept?”

Monguno made the important point that Kyari should not be inserted into the military reporting line because he has no security experience. Yet, there are situations in which the president has to be saved from military service chiefs because the military is full of intrigues. President John Kennedy’s assistant Philip Kenneth O’Donnell, a member of the so‐called Irish Mafia around Kennedy, did just that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. O’Donnell believed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were misadvising the president and were nudging him to strike Soviet missile bases in Cuba, an action that could lead to all-out nuclear war. So he intently pursued Kennedy through White House corridors and urged him to disregard the Joint Chiefs’ advise. The world is grateful to O’Donnell.

I am not saying that our own service chiefs are misadvising Buhari and he needs to be protected from them. In any case, Buhari was a Major General when the current service chiefs were Lieutenants and Captains. In many cases they think alike, 35 years in civilian life not having changed the president’s military instincts. Personally, I do not believe the allegation by some Nigerians that our Generals want the Boko Haram war to last longer so that they could continue to rip off the country. In Nigeria at least, as much if not more money could be stolen in peace time as in war time. Civil servants at all levels are ripping off this country everyday even though they are not in charge of a war. The need to buy expensive military equipment could be made just as effectively during peace time.

You see, government is not always a placid affair. Every government should have some rancorous officials such as Walter Hickel, Secretary of Interior in the Nixon Administration. In a small 1970s book titled Watergate [my copy is so old that the cover has fallen off with the names of the authors], there was this opening passage in a chapter:  “Before the mantle of sanctimony settled on the Nixon Administration, Walter J. Hickel could be entrusted to liven up proceedings. Back in 1938 he won the welterweight division of the Kansas Golden Gloves boxing championships, before going on to strong-arm his way to a fortune in the construction industry and to political prominence as Governor of Alaska. As a businessman and a politician, he was a throwback to a more rugged, pre-Organisation Man era. Loud-mouthed and shrewd, if he believed in something, he made sure that everyone knew it. In conference he would pound the table, laugh raucously and lace his points with lurid profanities. Generally he was not demure. Washington did not change him.” There is a vacancy for this position in the Buhari Administration.

Some people are appointed to high positions in government precisely because they are cantankerous. In 1981, US President elect Ronald Reagan’s transition staff shortlisted wealthy businessman Malcolm Baldridge to be Secretary of Commerce. Reagan did not know him so during a meeting, a phone call was placed through to Baldridge’s ranch in California. His aide answered the phone and said Baldridge had just climbed a horse and could not answer the phone. “Tell him it is the President-elect!” Baldridge’s aide said, “He rides horses for two hours every day. He cannot come down for any reason.” Reagan, a Western cowboy himself, said, “Appoint him! He is my kind of guy!”

Was Major General Babagana Monguno riding a Borno mule when President Buhari phoned to make him National Security Adviser?

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