The death of Mallam Abba Kyari, the powerful chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, has generated mixed reactions of grieving and gloating from the Nigerian people. His death at 67 from the deadly coronavirus makes Kyari the most senior Nigerian government official to have died from the global COVID-19 pandemic so far. Expectedly, his close cycle of family, friends and associates are mourning a man they variously describe with such attributes as good, loyal and patriotic. Not unexpectedly, far from mourning the late Kyari, some other Nigerians outside his cycle of family and friends are gloating, if not celebrating, the death of a man they considered their biggest problem in the five years of the Buhari administration.
Born in Borno State, north-east Nigeria, in 1952 and educated at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, as well as Harvard University in the United States, Kyari had an accomplished career as a journalist, lawyer, banker and public administrator before his appointment as Aso Villa’s chief of staff.
An ethnic Shuwa Arab and devout Muslim, Kyari, over the years, emerged as a prominent northern Nigerian intellectual and politician who, along with some other leading members of the region’s influential conservative intellectual community, such as Ahmed Joda, Mamman Daura, Isa Ismaila Funtua, Sam Nda Isaiah and Adamu Adamu, helped galvanise the conservative Muslim North, the largest democratic demography in Nigeria, behind Buhari’s presidential ambition.
Having distinguished themselves as ardent champions and defenders of northern Nigeria’s interests against the intellectually hostile South, Kyari and others like him had earned the trust and confidence of the people enough to enable them secure for Buhari a strong political support base in Nigeria’s largest voting bloc, beginning from his first attempt in the 2003 presidential election.
Kyari’s appointment as chief of staff, following Buhari’s election in 2015 after four attempts, could be considered a reward for loyalty, fidelity and unwavering commitment to the Buhari presidential project, which began in 2003 and was actualised 12 years later.
To his family, friends and associates, the late Kyari was a good person and a hero of some sorts, whose immeasurable personal contributions in their individual private lives evoked lofty tributes and fond memories they will forever remember. To many others who were not his family or friends and who knew him only in his official capacity as chief of staff, Kyari was a nightmarish villain, a meddlesome, interloping power-monger who will be remembered for his excessive exercise of enormous power for mostly sectional and selfish ends.
However, Kyari was neither that villain who was believed by many to be Nigeria’s biggest problem in the last five years nor was he that patriot his close family, friends and associates are trying hard to make Nigerians believe he was. For someone who was praised for his loyalty to his principal, Kyari’s numerous instances of administrative incongruity as Aso Villa chief of staff were only a reflection of the incoherent policies and mostly ineffectual programmes of the Buhari administration.
Just as his often cold public demeanour was a reflection of President Buhari’s body language, so was his hawkish politics a personification of his principal’s overtly Machiavellian tendencies.
President Buhari’s failure to sanction his former chief of staff for his numerous administrative intransigencies and renewing his appointment following his re-election in 2019 was an indication that Kyari was serving at the pleasure of Mr. President.
To put it simply, Kyari was not Nigeria’s problem, as he was only exercising delegated powers and authority from President Buhari. Therefore, the gloating over his death is misplaced and misdirected.
However, inasmuch as Kyari was not the problem of Nigeria, attempts by his acolytes and associates to impress it upon Nigerians that he was a forthright patriot who served Nigeria selflessly is a hard-sell narrative that gives a strange meaning to the very concept of patriotism. Whereas, President Buhari inadvertently set him up as a fall guy for his administration when he directed his cabinet members to channel their correspondences to him through the office of the Aso Villa chief of staff, Kyari consciously made himself part of the problem of Nigeria when he accepted a lead role in an arrangement that could best be described as an administrative aberration.
The directive by Buhari that his cabinet should report to the unelected office of the chief of staff, an office not recognized by the Constitution, diminished the role of ministers and undermined the constitutional basis of the equality of states in the Federal Executive Council.
That Kyari from Borno State accepted to serve in an administrative aberration as the all-powerful Aso Villa chief of staff whom ministers from the 36 states of the federation would report to, and not directly to their elected President, made him an unpatriotic, meddlesome usurper of executive power.
Unfortunately, Kyari will be remembered less for his goodness to a few of his family, friends and associates and more for his legacies in public service. For his refusal to walk away from a thoroughly failed government, Kyari will be remembered more for lending his intellectual credentials to the clueless, ineffectual, inept, divisive, sectional, corrupt and underperforming administration of President Buhari, which reduced Nigeria in the five years he was in charge as Aso Villa chief of staff to one of the most corrupt, poverty-stricken and terrorised countries on earth.
President Buhari’s glowing tributes on a man he described as a loyal friend of over 40 years is a clear indication that Kyari performed his duties as Aso Villa chief of staff to his satisfaction, notwithstanding the dissatisfaction of many Nigerians who regarded him as the main villain in the plot of Nigeria’s administrative tragedy in the last five years.
The death of Kyari will not change anything in the current situation of Nigeria, except his former principal, President Buhari, changes his under-achieving style of leadership. And with no indication yet that President Buhari is willing to change his entrenched pattern of misrule anytime soon, those Nigerians gloating over the death of Mallam Abba Kyari should brace up for another “Abba Kyari” in the remaining three years of the current administration.