He told us he would be back at his desk soon. I believed it. But now, it would never happen. Not tomorrow, not next week, not forever. Chief of Staff to the President, Mallam Abba Kyari, has gone the way of all flesh.
Our last contact was on Friday, March 20, 2020. President Muhammadu Buhari was scheduled to meet with the chairman of ECOWAS Commission, Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, by 3 p.m. Such meetings hold in the diplomatic room of the presidential office complex.
The protocol is that aides invited to attend any meeting must be seated 15 clear minutes before the President walked in. I was in the diplomatic room at the required time. A seat had been designated for me, next to that of the Chief of Staff.
Few minutes later, Mallam Abba (as he was often called by us) walked in. I rose to greet him.
“Femi, how are you? They have said we should not shake hands again,” he responded. Rather jocularly, he extended his right foot. I touched his foot with my own, and we both laughed. Leg-shake, instead of handshake.
At the dot of 3 p.m. (he does it like clockwork, the grand old soldier) the President walked in. We all rose to welcome him, as we would normally do.
The ECOWAS Commission boss had come to discuss the ensuing constitutional crisis in Guinea Conakry, which was to hold election that weekend. After 10 years in office, and at 82 years of age, President Alpha Conde had insisted on running for another term in office, and he tinkered with the country’s Constitution to make himself eligible. The opposition was having none of it, and there was civil disobedience, in which some lives had been lost.
President Buhari is the immediate past Chairman of ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, and a highly respected figure in the sub-region. The ECOWAS Commission boss had come to consult him on the way forward for Guinea Conakry.
The meeting lasted for about 30 minutes, during which the situation in Guinea-Bissau had also come up briefly.
When we rose, I had my opinion on what to do about the matters discussed. I consulted with Mallam Abba, and he agreed completely with me. I took my leave, headed back to my office.
Walking right behind me was the Chief of Staff, flanked by Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, and my colleague in the media office, Mallam Garba Shehu. They were chatting.
After I passed through the security screening point that would see me turn off to my office, I looked back instinctively. Why did I do it? I didn’t know, still don’t know. But it turned out to be my last view of Kyari. He was laughing as he talked with the two people beside him.
That glance I took turned out to be the very final. About 72 hours later, Mallam Abba was diagnosed with the deadly coronavirus, which sent him sadly on a journey of no return.
Catching COVID-19 (as the inelegant virus has been elegantly codenamed by World Health Organization) is not supposed to be a death sentence. I had no doubt that Mallam Abba would beat the infection, and be back at his desk soon, as he had promised. I prayed for him a number of times in the following three weeks.
On Tuesday, April 15, the President was billed to receive a delegation from the European Union by noon. As I walked into the Presidential Villa, I met a personal staff of the Chief of Staff.
“How’s Chief?” I asked.
He told me he was doing well. And that was what we believed.
I’m not much of a dreamer. At least, not dreams with significance. Dreams come from a multitude of business, as the Good Book says, so if a man drinks a bowl of garri before going to bed, and he dreams of swimming in a pond or river, he actually started swimming right from inside that bowl of garri.
On Thursday night inward Friday, I dreamt. The President and myself were in a corridor in the Presidential Villa, and he was talking with me. Suddenly, by my right, I saw a figure waiting for me to finish with the President. It was Mallam Abba, clad in his usual white native attire, with the trademark red cap. But this time, there was no flowing Agbada, which I found rather odd. He never (or rarely) appeared without the flowing robe. He was heavily bearded, another surprise, and the beard was all white. I rounded off discussion with the President, and yielded space for the Chief.
I made nothing of the dream, but after he died, I shared my experience with my friend, Mallam Garba Deen Mohammed.
“He came to say goodbye to you, and you didn’t know it,” my friend said. I didn’t know till then that Garba Deen had the uncommon gift of interpretation of dreams. Well, I now know where to go the next time I dream.
On Friday, April 17, I uncharacteristically went to bed after listening to the 8 p.m. news. And off I went, for “He giveth his beloved sleep.” No dream, no kakiri kakiri (wandering) in my sleep. Till my phone fetched me from a far distance, out of that deep sleep. It was 12:05 a.m.
At the other end of the line was a senior aide of the President. He told me he was there with two other very prominent personalities, whom he named. Then he dropped the bomb.
“Mallam Abba is dead, and we need you to issue a statement informing the public.”
I sprang from the bed, with my head almost touching the ceiling. Sleep fled completely from my eyes. Abba Kyari dead? How? When? Where? But he promised us he would soon be back at his desk. This was sad, sad, sad.
I put the statement together. And in the process, I had a feeling of deja vu. I remembered that day in September 2014, as I had typed the press statement announcing the death of Dimgba Igwe, my boss, my friend and brother, who had got knocked down by a hit-and-run driver as he jogged on the road in the Okota area of Lagos. I had worked under Igwe as a reporter for years, and as editor of The Sun Newspaper, while he was Deputy Managing Director/Deputy Editor-in-Chief, before retirement.
As I typed the announcement of Kyari’s death, I remembered that day in August 2015, when I’d been directed to announce his appointment as Chief of Staff. Ironically, the lot to announce his death also fell on me. The job of a spokesman!
From the time I issued the statement about 12:30 a.m. Friday, my phone never stopped ringing for hours. In this era of fake news, people want to reconfirm everything from source. Despite signing the statement, and putting it in different platforms of traditional and digital media, everybody who had access to me must call. My two phones rang simultaneously and ceaselessly, just as there was no let up on email, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and many other platforms. It was a burden I had to bear. Not a wink of sleep till the very next night.
I was home, planted in front of the television as Kyari was being buried at Gudu Cemetery. It all looked surreal. Yes, the man had a frail health at the best of times. But death? It didn’t sound probable, though nobody actually knows when the Grim Reaper could come calling.
As I watched Mallam Abba being consigned to Mother Earth, my childhood thoughts came roaring back. What if he had only lost consciousness, and he regained it after sand had been heaped on him? What if he felt so much heat, and he could not move or shout? Oh, the lot of mortal man. Doomed to die, whether he liked it or not.
I thought of Mr. President. I knew his pain, his torture, but which he would bear stoically, with equanimity. I’d seen him respond to the news of death of his allies, one of the most recent being that of Professor Tam David-West last November. I saw the silent pain, the grief, the total submission to the perfect will of God. That of Mallam Abba was not different, if not more poignant. A friend of about 42 years, and Chief of Staff for about five years. Now gone!
Mallam Abba headed the bureaucracy of the Presidential Villa, and we constantly had things to do together. Almost daily. He had his strengths, and his weaknesses. We all do. But my greatest plus for him was his loyalty to our principal. It was never in doubt. And for me, if you love Buhari, all your sins are forgiven. If they are like scarlet, they become white as snow. If they are red like crimson, they become white as wool. That is me, no apologies.
I have read majority of the things written about Kyari. Positive and negative. I love the balanced one by Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Raji Fashola: “I bear testimony to his dedicated execution of the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF) initiative, which guaranteed funds to cash-strapped projects like the Second Niger Bridge, the Abuja-Kano Highway, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Mambilla Hydro Project, and the East-West Road…
“Like all of us, Abba was flawed but he was not conceited. We disagreed but I never found Abba disagreeable.”
Infrastructure would be one of the strongest achievements of the Buhari government by the time it exits in 2023. There’s no way those great projects would be counted without the name of Kyari being mentioned. Or the rice and fertilizer revolution, and agriculture generally. He was the moving force behind most of them, translating the vision of the President into action. The good he did will live after him. The weaknesses have been interred with his bones.
Some people, particularly on social media, have rejoiced about the passage of the Chief of Staff. They are of all men most miserable. Really to be pitied. I recommend to them the poem, The Glories of Our Blood and State, by James Shirley:
“There is no armor against Fate;
Death lays its icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”
Those gloating are mere mortals. We all have our different appointments with death. May it only be in the fullness of time, is our prayer. But nobody has control over it.
I also point those misguided minds to the Good Book, in Psalms 62:9: “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie. In the balances they will go up; they are together lighter than vanity.”
Rejoice not at any man’s death, because all men, whether of low or high degree, are vanity and a lie.
Abba Kyari sleeps, till the great day of awakening, after what Shakespeare calls “life’s fitful fever.” He contracted the deadly virus on an official trip abroad. So, he died in the line of duty. He has done his own. You too, do your own. For God, for country, and for humanity.
•Adesina is Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Buhari