Hardly a day passed without the late Chief of Staff to the President, Mallam Abba Kyari and I exchanging calls or WhatsApp messages. I never failed to forward negative comments I received about him and he took them as graciously as he took my criticisms of the government he served. But three weeks ago, his response to my post was uncharacteristic. At 5.40pm on 28th March, I had forwarded a message circulating on social media: “With donations streaming in from international organisations, private individuals and corporate bodies to help government fight Covid-19 in Nigeria, you can expect figures of the ‘infected’ to begin to rise exponentially, as every state seeks a bite into the coronavirus cake. Mark my word!”
Kyari’s response came exactly 20 minutes later: “This is not charitable. Apart from Lagos, no other state has been supported. Even NCDC was given N5 billion. The budget for the country is being worked out by the task force. I doubt if we can get the preparedness, professionalism and details provided by the Lagos State Health Commissioner. We had an all-day meeting with him last Sunday and I did not hesitate in recommending the refund of the N4 billion the state has spent and the additional N6 billion needed for the next few weeks. I think you should meet and speak with him. He is the kind of public officer you need to support. It is a pleasure meeting and working with such a knowledgeable professional dedicated to public good.” He then forwarded Prof. Akin Abayomi’s number.
Immediately I received his message, I called Kyari to explain that he must have misread the post. And I felt bad that my message might have been insensitive. Five days earlier when Kyari had tested positive to COVID-19, I was one of the first persons he called. When he eventually concluded arrangements to go to Lagos, he shared his statement with me before releasing it to the public so I knew when he left Abuja. We continued to exchange messages until three weeks ago and when he was no longer reachable, I was in touch with some of his close friends and daughter, Aisha. They always assured me all was well. But in the end, we lost him.
My relationship with the late Kyari began upon my return to Nigeria in June 2011 when I was appointed chair of the THISDAY editorial board. In reconstituting the board, we brought in Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, Dr Eddie Iroh, Dr Chidi Amuta, Mrs Eugenia Abu, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Mrs Maryam Uwais, Bashorun Akin Osuntokun, Dr Okey Ikechukwu, Mr Waziri Adio, Mrs Uju Hassan Baba, Mallam Bashir Ibrahim Yusuf, Ms Ekanem Etim-Offiong, Mr Sonnie Ekwowusi, Mr Tony Uranta, Mr Bisi Ogunbadejo and the late Kyari. Messrs Kayode Komolafe, Emmanuel Onyejena, Nduka Nwosu and Peter Ishaka were co-opted from within to join us.
I delighted in chairing meetings of these distinguished Nigerians. Engagements were always robust and sometimes fiery. On independence day in the early years (up until 2014), we published a special edition where each contributed their personal positions on the state of the nation as a way of offering a diversity of voices and ideas that too often disappear into the anonymity of THISDAY editorials. Although many of these eminent personalities have left the board, mostly to take public service roles, I maintained close relationships with all of them. But aside Amuta who took me under his wing from the first day and has remained a mentor, none was more supportive than Kyari. In my column on 3 September 2015 following his appointment as Chief of Staff, I wrote how Kyari had been a moderating influence. “If the discussion of any issue (especially online) got heated and he sensed that some were crossing the line, Kyari would either call or send me a personal mail suggesting how he thought I should intervene. And his counsel always worked.”
A friend in government, as the old joke goes, is a friend lost. But that was not the case with Kyari who provided me access and never held my critical positions on public issues (which he sometimes disagreed with) against me. When news began to filter about power mongering and the allegations of corruption against him started to swirl, I always confronted him with whatever information I heard. I knew him to be a modest man and he was by no means poor before joining government, so I failed to understand what he would do with the kind of wealth he was said to be amassing. At every point, he took the trouble to explain his own side. I also never failed to tell him that as a public office holder, his accountability should not be to friends but to Nigerians; and that he needed to defend his name. His counter-argument was that he was not the real target of the allegations and that so long as he remained loyal to his principal and maintained a clear conscience, people could say whatever they liked. He operated under a very divided government and perhaps felt an obligation not to further compound the situation by joining issues with people he said were only trying to draw him out so they could get at his principal. He, however, believed he would have his say after office. That day will now never come.
To be sure, I was concerned about the public image of Kyari which he was very much aware of (he actually forwarded more negative stories of himself to me than I did to him). But he never heeded my advice to set the record straight on many of these issues. On a couple of occasions when the allegation came from someone I knew, I would wait until I had an opportunity to speak with Kyari, call the person and then hand him (Kyari) the phone to explain his side that he had shared with me. The last time was two months ago, following the judicial abracadabra that toppled my friend, Emeka Ihedioha as governor of Imo State and enthroned the man who came fourth in the election (even when the figures did not add up). I had heard too many tales of the role allegedly played by Kyari. When I called him on the matter, he dismissed the allegation as ridiculous. One morning in February, Emeka was in my house and when he started naming prominent people who had told him ‘the role played by your friend in my matter’, I knew where he was going. While still talking, I sent a message to Kyari that since he said he had nothing to do with Emeka’s case, would he mind speaking to him? He called immediately and I handed the handset to Emeka. They spoke at length, though whether or not Emeka believed him is a different matter altogether.
From legislative matters to decisions of the courts to executive appointments, everything in Nigeria had something to do with Abba Kyari. If you believe the Nigerian rumour industry, Kyari was the ‘invisible hand’ in every bad decision taken in our country from September 2015 until he died last week. Last Saturday, I received a condolence message from the former PENCOM Director General, Ms Chinelo Anohu which said, “Thank you for showing me a different side of him before he passed.” It is an open secret that Chinelo, who currently runs the Africa Investment Forum at the African Development Bank (AfDB), was doing an excellent job at PENCOM before her controversial removal. Like most people, she also had a ‘Kyari story’ so I asked her last year when she came home from Abidjan, “should I arrange for you to see him?” She laughed and said, “He won’t want to see me.” That evening, I called Kyari to ask whether he was home and when he answered in the affirmative, I said I was bringing Chinelo to see him. I went to Chinelo’s house and personally drove her to see Kyari. After that encounter, Chinelo had a completely different view of the man. There is hardly anyone I know personally who told me a ‘Kyari tale’ that I did not put directly in touch with him either by phone or physical meeting. I felt I owed him that and he appreciated it.
As powerful as the late Chief of Staff was deemed to be, the access he gave me was such that I could see him anytime I wanted. He never failed to return my missed calls or reply to my messages. There are people who forever hold it against me that I was close to Kyari (because they knew) yet couldn’t ‘push’ the proposals they brought to me. A friend was in my office one day when a call came and I said, “It’s Abba Kyari on the line.” We must have spoken for about ten minutes. After the call, my friend said, “You mean you know Abba Kyari? You are laughing and gisting with the President of Nigeria and I am suffering like this? You are a wicked person.” There were boundaries I knew I could not cross. Kyari was not the kind of person to take requests for favour. If I had tried that with him, it would have soured our relationship and limited my access to him. And as a journalist, I valued that access. Besides, I took time to study him. Once Kyari lost respect for you, your chapter with him was closed.
Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor who ran the newspaper for decades, including during the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon, died in 2014. He was a close personal friend of John Kennedy before the latter became the President of the United States. Their friendship endured throughout the Kennedy administration due to their mutual respect and Bradlee’s professionalism. I was careful not to allow my friendship with Kyari cloud my judgement as a journalist. But he tolerated me essentially because he was fair-minded. There was an occasion in his house when a top government official said, “Abba, I don’t understand this your friendship with Segun. He criticizes the government all the time. He also has a powerful platform yet has never defended any of the allegations against you.” Before I could speak, Kyari interjected, “That is not the job of a journalist. His job is to defend public good, not personal friends.”
I was happy for his intervention that night even though I was concerned about his public image. But I am a journalist, not a PR agent. Even if I wanted to help, counter narratives had to be supported with facts that would dispel the ones in circulation and these were things he never wanted in the public domain. He was so protective of both the president and the government he was serving that one simply had to respect his position of not playing the media game, even at the expense of his personal reputation. But he valued my friendship and I have several messages to attest to that. Having also been in government before, I knew Kyari would need a sounding board, someone whose opinion he could trust. The way my friend, Waziri and other colleagues at THISDAY helped me when I was presidential spokesman. I elected to be his public eye so he could see beyond the Villa that I know can easily shield power holders from reality. To play that role effectively, I knew better than to discuss with Kyari transactional issues or take personal advantage of our relationship. I never did. He was aware of the damaging allegations about him—and I pleaded with him to offer a defence, to the point he became irritated by my persistence on the issue.
In his piece on Sunday, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2020/04/19/tribute-to-kyari-a-good-man-is-gone/, Waziri spoke about Kyari’s humanity, the role he played when my brother, Agboola was sick and how he came to my house twice within 24 hours after Agboola’s death. The second time, he even had to wait for more than an hour because I was out without my mobile phone. Those were not the only times he visited me. He was fiercely loyal to those he considered his friends. Ironically, for the Shuwa-Arab from Borno State who was robed as the ultimate ‘Fulani supremacist’ by his traducers, most of these friends happened to be southerners. Incidentally, I had dinner with Kyari on Friday 13th March, the day he arrived Abuja from his ill-fated German trip. He bought books for me as he did on every trip and he asked me to pick them that night. I met him at the dinner table with a friend (a Yoruba man) and joined them. We ate together. And we shook hands! So, when Kyari called to inform me about his COVID-19 status just ten days later, I self-isolated for several days as a precaution.
I have read numerous charges against him. The most painful is that of clannishness and nepotism for which the Buhari administration is notorious. Not only was I aware of Kyari’s own frustrations, I knew he did not command the kind of power and authority credited to him, even though he did have some influence. There were several things he could not do just as there were decisions that were beyond his control but had to live with. That is what loyal aides do. And he was fiercely loyal to, and extremely protective of his boss. Let me leave it at that! I am also aware of several competent southerners who are in government today on account of Kyari.
Obviously, there will be people who know Kyari more than some of us (after all, our relationship started less than a decade ago through THISDAY editorial board). And there are those who may have experiences different from mine. But interrogating his stewardship can be done without muck raking or peddling unsubstantiated allegations at a time he is no longer here to defend himself. In the system of government we practice, the executive powers of the federal government are vested in the president and exercised by others in delegated capacity. Reuben Abati made that very clear in his column of Tuesday.Whatever role Kyari may therefore have played or presumed to have played, fair-minded people can assume he was merely obeying orders. At all times, and in all circumstances, the buck stops only on one table: that of the president, commander-in-chief.
The question now is: Who succeeds Kyari? While the president is weighing his options, he must understand that the appointment of an overtly political person will complicate governance in a post-coronavirus Nigeria when we will be faced with very serious economic challenges. We run our country from proceeds of rent. “So, when the price now goes to $22 and we’re producing at $30, we’re out of business”, said the Group Managing Director of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr Mele Kyari last month. On Monday, crude was selling for far below that benchmark! The nature of the challenge ahead cannot be clearer. Besides, appointing a political person will also deepen existing divisions within the presidency and the entire nation. It is bound to further problematize Buhari’s transition politics that has been kicked off, even before the first year anniversary of his second term.
Yet, so strategic is the office that the cover of the latest edition of Harvard Business Review (May–June 2020 Issue) is titled, ‘The Case for a Chief of Staff’. After conceding that the role “originated in the military and government, and dates back centuries,” the magazine is making a case for every business leader to have a Chief of Staff. “Andrew Roberts’s ‘Napoleon: A Life’ describes the vital role that Louis-Alexandre Berthier played in assisting Napoleon at the height of his powers. Historians Ron Chernow and Joseph Ellis have described the CoS–like role that Alexander Hamilton played for George Washington. These people aren’t to be confused with the personal secretaries or aides-de-camp that each leader also had. Rather, they were close advisers who handled the most-delicate strategic matters and became trusted confidants,” the magazine wrote.
Trusted confidant. Exactly what the late Kyari was to Buhari. That much can be glimpsed from the effusive tribute by the president. While I am not for canonizing people after their death, I know most of the positive attributes many are now sharing about Abba Kyari to be true. But why did they not say it while he was alive? Prof Farouk Kperogi once tackled this question: “It’s one of the supreme ironies of our humanity that it is tragedies and traumas, more than successes and prosperity, that usually bring out the depth of the humanity in us”. Perhaps, as he explained, “it is because these tragedies remind us all of our own frailty, our own vulnerability, and own mortality.”
At the end, either Kyari had the absolute trust of his principal to have wielded the powers he did or he simply was filling a vacuum. There are people who believe the first and many who would swear by the second. There are also those who argue that the truth lies in-between. If Kyari therefore chose not to betray the trust of his principal by accepting blame for everything that went wrong in Nigeria while he was alive, the greatest disservice to his memory would be to reveal things that may lower his principal in public estimation, now that he is no more. So, Kyari carries all the blame to his grave and it is now left between him and his God as well as the judgement of posterity.
May his soul rest in peace and may God comfort the family he left behind.
Last week, I promised that my book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for grades in African Universities’ would be available from Monday morning. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown in both Abuja and Lagos, there were some unexpected delays. But working with MAX, the book is now available. Readers can order their copies at max.ng/NakedAbuse. Please enjoy the read. I will also love to get feedback.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com
This article was first published by THISDAY.