By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
The announcement, this weekend of the death of Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari has put to rest speculations as to the state of health and specific whereabouts of one who in the better part of the last five years had almost literally captured ultimate power in the land.
And with his burial in Abuja on Saturday, the word out there is that a real vacuum of sorts has come into the nation’s power arena even as it is also being hoped that the Presidency would rise beyond itself to ensure that this vacuum is quickly filled.
Since emerging as Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, following the latter’s assumption of office as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in May 2015, Mallam Abba Kyari had indeed not rested.
A long-time ally of the retired military general, Kyari fitted very squarely into the hallowed circles of the ‘close loyalists of the President’ and had over time come to register in the power spectrum as indeed one of the staunchest pillars of the current administration. Some would argue that other than say, President Buhari, the President’s uncle, Mallam Mamman Daura and former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe (who is presently being touted as a frontline candidate in the emerging list of possible successors to the departed Kyari), there may have been no other more influential wielder of power in Nigeria until this weekend as Kyari.
Indeed, so powerful had Kyari come to register in the administration that his name has continued to feature in many of the highpoint moments of the administration. One such scenario took place in the MTN fine saga where he was named as one of the quite influential brokers that the South African Government and the Company had been advised by power watchers to ensure that they did everything to get him onto their side. And going beyond business lobbying, his name had also featured in periodic allegations of schemes to undermine the Office of the Vice President and its incumbent holder, Professor Yemi Osinbajo.
But if Kyari’s place in the Buhari administration during the first term could be described as high profile, some say that it may have been escalated to near-absolute in the current era. Without another visible election to contest for presently, the core drivers of the Buhari Presidency may have proceeded to throw almost every iota of political correctness and geopolitical compromise out of the window.
How influential Kyari featured in the current situation was almost all too self-evident. And this much was to be publicly bolstered and confirmed by no less a person than President Buhari himself when in the days immediately following his re-election and swearing-in for a second term in office in 2019, he had instructed that all appointed ministers wishing to have an audience with or make demands of him, should ensure that they route same through the Chief of Staff.
While the practice of routing correspondence to the President through his Chief of Staff by senior government officials has seemingly come to register as normal fare in some presidential democracies, some polity watchers were quick to raise their eyebrows that the fact that the president took the definite time and space to so publicly instruct on this specific course of executive consultation that early in the life of the administration was confirmation of their long-drawn conclusion that in Abba Kyari, Nigeria may have finally been saddled with an unelected Prime Minister.
A lawyer and banker, who had held top-rank positions in the erstwhile United Bank for Africa, UBA, Kyari, like his boss in many respects, was soft-spoken and relatively unassuming. This notwithstanding, the fuller view out there is that even when he carried himself with a seemingly innocuous mien, those with whom he had direct close brushes had indeed come out with the counter-image of him being a ruthless and determined wielder of power, and one who went to great lengths to exert himself in the course of carrying out his duties.
One such ‘victim’ was the former Cross-River born Head of Service of the Federation, HOS, who after a public brush with the Chief of Staff soon found that the office was too hot to handle and has since been forced out of service and replaced by another public servant from Kwara State in Nigeria’s North Central region.
A second celebrated brush had to do with the Chief of Staff’s role in directing and coordinating the nation’s security infrastructure. When the issue came to the public domain, the President did not utter a word, while most significantly, the security chiefs tended to publicly align with him.
Indeed, for many who are in the know, the power dynamic in Aso Rock until Kyari’s passage was sometimes akin to ‘the hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob.’ The logic then that followed was simply that if you wanted to survive in the corridors of the Nigerian power centre, it was better that you aligned with the one who held the keys to virtually all of the rooms that dot the pathways of the corridor.
A COVID-19 Break
Recently, however, Abba Kyari was halted in his workaholic streak when it became public that he had tested positive for the Coronavirus.
Instructively, while word had not formally come out as to where exactly the Chief of Staff’s defences were broken into, the street talk is that it is likely connected with his last publicized trip to Germany where he had led a Federal Government delegation to go and negotiate a Power Sector Agreement with Messers Siemens AG and the German authorities even after that European country had publicly announced that it had already been afflicted by the Coronavirus infestation.
Perhaps on account of his closeness to the President or his own long-noticed personal penchant for being reticent or even the seeming cultural streak ‘to not embarrass influential people in society,’ news of his status was initially shielded for as long as possible. However, when it became very clear that disclosing the true and full information about his status was going to be far more helpful to the government’s overall goal of bringing the incidence of COVID-19 in Nigeria under much better control, information about his status was then permitted to be formally disclosed in limited bits, and then accompanied with a personally signed statement from Kyari himself, affirming not just the veracity of his status, but also reaffirming that he was seriously and anxiously looking forward to putting this whole incidence behind him and returning to work as soon as possible.
But that was not all as hard habits die hard. When the media asked questions from sundry government officials about the exact isolation location and treatment centre where the Chief of Staff was, the system once again went into defence gear. As at the time of going to press and even after his death, this state of confusion was yet to be cleared even as the administration’s spokespersons had gone on over-drive to pooh-pooh insinuations that the Chief of Staff may have been replaced by the President even before his death. Other insinuations that the Chief of Staff may have indeed passed on before now had equally been countered by publicized alternative reports of his doctors affirming that he was responding to treatment but still needed to rest some more. Alas, that was not to be the case.
Between dependency and inevitability
While some see the excessively large space that was occupied by Kyari in the workings of the incumbent administration as an unwholesome demonstration of excessive presidential dependency which the framers of our constitution may not have envisaged, others explain that it is indeed the inevitable outcome of the current power structure in the country which has enthroned variables like the ability to win elections over and above capacity to do the job in itself. In such situations they argue, the nation is then inevitably saddled with the reality that winners of elections would then only be left with enough elbow room to cobble together any kind of governance arrangements that can then at best only minimally satisfy the public need.
‘It is a Catch-22 situation that approximates the idiom that the nation gets the leaders it deserves. We cannot build systems and structures in a vacuum. We build them in tandem with the operating environment. So if we want to get something better, we will need to comprehensively overall our political ecosystem,’ Akin Ayanfe, a political scientist, remarked.
For another polity watcher, this state of affairs is indeed quite toxic and does not allow the nation to get the best possible leadership that it needs.
On his part, however, the journalist and commentator, Chukwu Opara would prefer to be more pragmatic in his assessment and response.
‘Let’s remember that like Dr Ndi Okereke-Onyuike and several others, Alhaji Abba Kyari had organized some of the resources that had made it possible for General Muhammadu Buhari to run and win the 2015 Presidential election. Ever since then he has been quite instrumental in most of the major policies of the APC government. It is said that the fear of Abba Kyari is law precisely because he nominated most of the ministers and other major federal officials. The information available to me says that the now-departed Chief of Staff to the President had to account for all the missteps of PMB. A big example is his role in the fine imposed on MTN by the NCC. He allegedly single-handedly reduced the fine. It was also said that the President’s uncle Alhaji Mamman Daura introduced Abba Kyari into the political fray but he may have now outsmarted the older Daura in the power play and is, without doubt, the head of the Aso Rock cabal that is behind the successes and failures of the PMB administration. Even the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari has severally accused the cabal of being in charge of her husband’s government when according to her some of them played no real role in the man’s ascendancy to power. To say the least, Alhaji Kyari is instrumental to PMB’s government and even the President’s comment that nobody should see him without clearance from his COS validates this,’ Opara remarked, airily.
So where does this leave us? Heads, tails, Abba Kyari ruled the land. So what happens now in his absence? We wait.