Opinion: Abba Kyari (1952 – 2020): A man, and his legacy

Kenneth Ikonne

In a tribute that has now gone viral, Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, has memorialized his deep and very rewarding friendship with Mallam Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to the President, who passed away recently, after a brief battle with the lethal coronavirus. It is indeed a moving homily, and a testament to Onyeama’s fealty to a friendship that spanned 43 long years, and which was forged in the tranquil ambience of two of the world’s foremost Universities: Warwick and Cambridge. In these famous centres of learning, the departed Kyari took degrees in Sociology and Law.

Cambridge University in particular has been pivotal in shaping English political thought, and its evolution. It is a philosophic heritage that has sired such defining and uplifting bequests to political thought as the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, Separation of Powers, and the principle of checks and balances. It was also at Cambridge that the17 year old English physicist, Isaac Newton sensationally demystified both motion and astronomy, and gifted the world with the laws of gravity. Cambridge offers not just its undoubted tradition of deep scholarship and intellectual rigour, but a spirit of libertarian enlightenment against which its alumni will be eternally judged. A failure to live up to that lofty ideal would simply mean that a particular alumnus passed through that lofty citadel, but the citadel did not pass through him.

For both Onyeama and Abba Kyari, the litmus test came with the advent of the Buhari presidency. In an administration in which these two Cambridge alumni have been key functionaries for close to six years, hints of aspirational philosophy have been faint indeed, with no effort whatsoever to enact equity as the touchstone of governance. Ironically, Kyari himself was allegedly the moving spirit behind most of the administration’s most appalling travesties: he was fingered in the brazen daylight attemt to invade the National Assembly to force a leadership change, the assault by the security forces on the Benue State House of Assembly to procure an illegal impeachment of Governor Ortom, the brazen refusal to cede power to the Vice President to act during some of the President’s health vacations, the bizarre reinstatement of the accused felon, Maina, to the Federal bureaucracy, the unlawful removal of the Chief Justice Onnoghen by dint of a mere ex parte order, the brazen midnight invasion of the homes of judges aimed at overawing and intimidating the judiciary into subservience, and the uncertainty over whether power – shift, APC’s very fundament, would remain an article of faith come 2023!

Kyari, whose vision unmistakably shaped and defined the present administration, should have been the velvet glove of Buhari’s instinctive iron fist, by virtue of his high education and libertarian enlightenment. On the contrary, he fed, and reinforced the President’s instinctive preference for force over consensus as the lightning – rod of governance, and was even accused of deliberately stunting the President’s metamorphosis into a transcendental and far – looking leader. The result has been the reinforcement of Buhari’s impulsive insularity, and the tragic mismanagement of Nigeria’s diversity. It has led to the unprecedented exposure of the nation’s fault lines, the exacerbation of tension, and the diminution of unity.

My perception of Kyari is that of a ruthless leviathan, a deft and shrewd power – player who disdained transparency and due process. He may have been imbued with native charm, and a samural idea of loyalty to the leader, but the suspicion was also rife, especially in the Tinubu faction of the APC, that he harboured a political ambition that was going to unsettle solemn understandings and commitments.

Kyari’s final days attest to his unnerving inclination towards impunity – a COVID vector who refused to promptly self – isolate, and who almost took the dreaded bug to the highest seat of governance. When he was eventually diagnosed, he broke the established NCDC treatment COVID protocol by opting for private treatment, thus opening the floodgate for wealthy COVID stricken Nigerians to defy the same protocol by opting for private treatment as well, with dire consequences for public health and safety. His burial yesterday followed the same contumacious pattern, breaking not just the established self – distancing strictures, but every other safety standard.

That the times are turbulent and filled with foreboding is due in no small measure to the designs and machinations of the smooth and nimble Kyari. Kyari’s legacy will be defined more by objective factors, critically dissected, and not by the subjective ululations of friends and fawning courtiers! May the Lord receive his illustrious soul with mercy!