President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Mr. Abba Kyari, is the most visible victim of the pandemic in Nigeria. By his stature, he should have been buried with a bit, if not a lot, of fanfare, but his burial on Saturday seemed less imposing than that of a man who was touted to have in his hands enormous powers, powers that no Chief of Staff in Nigeria ever had. Yes, many government officials showed up at the cemetery but it was like the burial of an orphan, a brisk ceremony, no formalities, just a quick dumping of the corpse in a shallow grave. Within minutes everything was over and everybody was gone. It was done and dusted. But that was because the pandemic has imposed all kinds of restrictions on people and obedience of these restrictions is the only way of ensuring that the spread of the pandemic is limited.
It is clear that Mr. Kyari was a well educated man. He studied Sociology at the University of Warwick, from where Yakubu Gowon got his Ph.D in Political Science after his overthrow as Nigeria’s Head of State in 1975. Kyari got degrees in Law from the University of Cambridge, England’s elite university. He also attended the Institute of Management Development (IMD), a high-profile training facility for young global leaders in Lausanne, Switzerland. He practised law at the law firm of Fani-Kayode & Sowemimo, where Fani-Kayode’s son, Femi, also was. But he did not stay there for long before he went to work for the Democrat newspaper, which was owned by Mr. Ismaila Isa, former president of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN). He rose to become the editor of the paper. He was also a Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in his state, Borno. He served on the board of ExxonMobil. So, he obviously had an impressive resume and considerable experience in the public and private sectors of our economy. When he was appointed by Buhari as his Chief of Staff in 2015, many people who knew him to be brilliant and experienced must have been happy that a man with such formidable credentials would be able to help the President take the country to an unprecedented level of development.
At his death on April 17, 2020, from coronavirus complications, the verdict on his legacy was a mixed yarn and his legacy uncertain. His tenure was unarguably controversial. The controversy actually started with Buhari telling ministers in 2015 to send their memos meant for him through the Chief of Staff. Last year, at a presidential retreat for new ministers, Buhari reinforced the directive. This made Kyari not just a conveyor belt of ministerial memos to the President but, more importantly, a formidable insider in the decision-making process because of his proximity to the source of power and his acclaimed membership of the President’s kitchen cabinet, codenamed Cabal. It didn’t take too long before this quiet operator’s power was on display.
In 2017 the then Head of the Civil Service, Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita, had disagreed with government on the return, promotion and re-absorption of the former chairman of the Pension Reforms Commission, Mr. Rasheed Maina, into the service after he was sacked for corruption by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. She said that, if the issue got to the public space, it would be bad for the government that was on a mission to curb corruption in the system. There was a spat between Kyari and Oyo-Ita over the matter. Mrs. Oyo-Ita’s position was unassailable because, when the story broke, the government had to save its face by mounting a man-hunt for Maina who is now being prosecuted for corruption. In February this year, a memo dated December 9, 2019, which was written by the National Security Adviser, retired Major General Babagana Monguno, to President Buhari, got leaked to the public. In it, Monguno had accused Kyari of overstepping his bounds by overriding presidential directives, holding meetings with security chiefs, interfering in national security matters, including awarding defence contracts. This caused an uproar in the public space and gave the public the impression that the Chief of Staff had probably gone beyond the customary mandate of holders of that office. This, of course, meant that he had the President’s ears, that the President rated him highly and trusted him exceedingly; so, if he interfered in the affairs of any department of his government, he must have done so in the overall interest of government. The President didn’t say so in words but his body language said it. If Monguno or anybody else complained about the excessive powers of the Chief of Staff and the President did nothing to restrain him, then it means that the President sanctioned whatever he was doing.
The First Lady, Aisha Buhari, an obviously outspoken woman, seemed to resent the apparently excessive powers wielded by Kyari and other members of the cabal kingdom. She questioned why they, who did not join in the presidential campaign, should be the ones selecting for appointments people that even her husband did not know. Some people interpreted this to mean that she was power-hungry and wanted more powers than a First Lady was ordinarily entitled to in the scheme of things. Others thought she resented the fact that some outsiders had consigned her to the margins and wondered why she could not resolve the problem by means of pillow talk with her husband in “the other room.” Things didn’t quite get sorted out properly because there was a blow-up between Aisha and one of Mamman Daura’s daughters over accommodation at the Aso Villa. Daura, an octogenarian, former editor of the New Nigerian, is said to be Buhari’s relation and sounding board. This was evidence that there was still some bad blood flowing in the relationship between her and the President’s kitchen cabinet. As evidence of Kyari’s extraordinary powers, he recently embarked on a trip to Germany to endorse an energy deal with Siemens on behalf of the Federal Government, where he probably contracted the virus. The questions to ask are: where was the Minister of Power within whose portfolio the energy problem appropriately lies? Why was he marginalised on the Siemen’s transaction? What makes the Chief of Staff a more appropriate person than the Minister to close that deal? This incident confirms the extraordinary powers of Kyari.
It can be argued that whatever powers he had were given to him by the President who probably saw him as a trusted and trustworthy superman. Some people think that Buhari is purely a ceremonial President and that there was power lying unused in the Presidency, which Kyari greedily gabbed. But that caused quite a lot of friction and disharmony in the system, which, at the end of the day, was bound to be more disruptive than constructive. Throughout his stay in office, the issue of corruption dogged his steps unceasingly. During the appointment of ministers last year, it came up and accusing fingers were pointed in his direction but no proof was offered. A few years ago, the telecommunications giant, MTN, was fined $5.2 billion by the regulatory authorities for flouting extant regulations on the registration of subscriber identification modules (SIM). Mr. Kyari was accused of receiving bribe of N500 million from MTN in order to cause a reduction of the fine. There was no proof of the allegation and, curiously, Mr. Kyari did not defend himself and did not go to court to defend his reputation. Now he is dead without any clear evidence whether he did it or didn’t. He may have thought that there was no need defending himself because the President trusted him and didn’t believe the allegation. Or that even if he defended himself the cynical public may still not believe him. Or that since his conscience did not convict him he didn’t need to bother himself, that that was just a price to pay for public service. We may never know the truth.
Since the man died, a lot of nice things have been said about him by the President, Minister of External Affairs, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, and other prominent Nigerians on both sides of the political divide. A few nasty things have surfaced too but, on balance, there have been more positive messages than negative. He is largely seen as brilliant, loyal, dedicated, hardworking, dependable, patriotic and pan-Nigerian. If he was all of these, then he was a good man for Nigeria, a country that is obviously in need of men and women with such ennobling attributes in its public service. Since I did not know him well, I am in no position to confirm or contradict these assessments.
However, one thing is intriguing: if he had all of these qualities and a possible hefty influence on his boss, what effort did he make in the last five years to reduce the high level of insecurity, instability and the discriminatory appointments that have reduced our federation to the personal fiefdom of the ruling elite? Where was his pan-Nigerianness? It would be nice to know from those who knew him what his true, authentic and indisputable legacy is, beyond the customary notion of their being nice to the dead. The handling of his infection and the process leading up to his burial leave a lot to be desired. He returned from Germany to Nigeria on March 13 and did not self-isolate. He simply continued with his duties, met with some governors and other officials, until he tested positive to the virus nine days later. Meanwhile, on March 21, he had issued a memo warning members of the National Assembly returning to the country to immediately submit themselves to screening and testing, following reports that they were refusing to go through the prescribed procedures. Two days later, he tested positive for the virus. His family members claimed that the NCDC had not listed Germany as one of the high risk countries at the time of his return so that is why he did not self-isolate or go for testing. Fair enough. But when he tested positive he was not taken to the Gwagwalada isolation centre in Abuja but was flown to Lagos. In Lagos, he was not taken to any of the officially designated isolation centres. He was taken to a private hospital, which the Federal Ministry of Health, Lagos State government and the NCDC had said was forbidden. At a media briefing some days ago, the Lagos State Commissioner of Health, Professor Akin Abayomi, was asked where Mr. Kyari was in Lagos. He said: “I am not aware of the Chief of Staff’s itinerary, so I don’t know where he is; we chat on WhatsApp but I cannot tell where he is from our chat. We are exchanging information but I haven’t asked him for his location.”
You didn’t ask him for his location eventhough you knew he tested positive and was in your territory! This must be professorial tales by moonlight. The same question was posed by reporters to the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, during the Presidential Task Force briefing in Abuja. He said: “Kyari’s location is not important. He had a right to privacy.”
Really? He had a right to privacy when people who escaped from isolation centres were hunted down and taken back into those public facilities! This must be ministerial tales by moonlight. And when the man was buried at the Gudu cemetery on Saturday in Abuja, there was a huge crowd, no social distancing. Are we serious human beings? This double standard will come back to bite us. Believe me.