Abba Kyari: Master Strategist Who Loved and Hugged Power to Death

Abba Kyari

By Senator Iroegbu

“In the world today, however, it is dangerous to seem to be too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves.”
“Do not build fortresses to protect yourself–isolation (COVID-19 style) is dangerous”, Robert Green, ‘The 48 Laws of Power’.

Mr. Abba Kyari, the reclusive yet powerful and intelligent Chief of Staff (COS) to President Muhammadu Buhari is dead. Even though death is inevitable and provides a moment of sobriety for the living but that of those with an intriguing personality like Kyari often provoke reflexive introspection.

Moulded in the realist school of thought and could be likened to the American diplomatic enigma, Dr. Henri Kissinger, in terms of Presidential influence. Even though he is a more confined personality than Kissinger, the late COS died woven in a web of power play. He literally loved and figuratively hugged power until death. He will however, remain an invaluable book to be studied in the annals of Nigeria’s socio-political power dynamics.

Abba Kyari ignored both the administrative protocols and social distancing rules in the era of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic to hug the energy and ‘power’ industry players in Germany. He did this in place of the official Minister of Power who ought to broker the deal with German company that was being conscripted to help exorcise the demon of darkness, occasioned by incessant power failures across the Nigeria. Kyari was able to usurp the administrative duties of the infamous ‘Minister of Darkness’, because he felt extremely powerful to do so. On return to Nigeria, even though he was honest and transparent enough to publicly declare his status as a Coronavirus patient but he was also unmistakably powerful to bypass the official channel of treatment for COVID-19 patients. He in deed, exercised his acquired power for privacy and exemption from the norm while in public office till his dying days.
But let’s dive a little deeper into the personality of the late COS to President Buhari.

Kyari outsmarted his competitors

Abba Kyari, was a Chief of Staff to the President like no other before him and may never will be. He is one of a kind, an enigma and intriguing character who outsmarted his competitors in the game of power.

Speaking on AIT this morning, Public Policy Expert, Dr. Sam Amadi summed up Kyari’s understanding, love and use of power.

“He is a member of Kaduna mafia and has been in the media and finance. He took power, he loved the power and exercised it. He made the appointments, made all the appointments and this is not what is expected from a Chief of Staff. Look at the last cabinet (Ministers) appointment, Abba Kyari had up to four and that is extremely unusual. He was politically powerful.

“In the office of the Chief of Staff, President Buhari has not acted illegally but has perhaps acted in a manner that concentrated power in a man that it is to the detriment of the official power holders-like the vice President, some ministers and others. Again he was a member of the NNPC board and we never had that before, he ruled himself in and perhaps as the face of the President who has not had the time and energy to perform as a member of the board. I think it is an elaborate strategy by the group to ensure that they govern (on behalf of the President) of which we do not begrudge them but you have to do it in such a way that you are held accountable.”

There is no doubt that the late COS to Buhari was a committed disciple of the Machiavellian style of leadership and mastered the arts of power as encapsulated in Robert Green’s famous book; ‘The 48 Laws of Power’.

His mastery of power helped him to appropriate for his base, the control of a collegiate Presidency that oozes flagrant loopholes for power grab. He ensured that the infamous cabal were effectively and totally in control of the presidential powers leaving competing blocs in helpless derision. He mesmerised his supporters and intimidated his detractors. His charismatic and mystic disposition reduced the stature of his opponents with less or no effort.

Mr. Fredrick Nwabufo in his piece; ‘Who will tell Abba Kyari’s story?’, enacted a succinct but point-blank imagery of how Abba Kyari’s personality gave him an edge in the Aso Rock battle for the control of lever of power as an undertaker propelling symbols of authority.

“He played in the background so well. Abba Kyari was the mystery of the presidential villa. Unobtrusive and self-effacing, yet his influence was palpable beyond the cloistered Aso villa. He understood his job as the president’s right-hand man and never did he outshine the master. He capered as the unseen but dutiful connoisseur of the throne; greatly misunderstood, uncelebrated, but feared,” Nwabufo wrote.

Unfortunately, Abba Kyari was not infallible as in his quest for more control, he outdid himself by failing to heed one of the holy grail of power. While Kyari noted religiously that: “it is dangerous to seem to be too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves”, but failed to heed the warning: “Do not build fortresses to protect yourself–isolation is dangerous”. He paid the ultimate price for his lapse in concentration. He was a human after all and prone to mistakes.

Kyari is an intellectual and professional giant

Love him or hate him, what you cannot deny is the fact that Kyari is an accomplished intellectual who dutifully earned his worth in the professional world.

In addition to his impressive academic and professional experience, Abba Kyari is a very diligent, skilled and smart man, which should the core attributes needed to shine under the notoriously boring Buhari’s Presidency. An objective observation is that it takes such a brilliant (but in a Machiavellian way) for someone to successfully manage what is largely seen as an absentee President in such a way Kyari has done. If he is dumb or not doing his job the President and Presidency would have unravelled, especially with Buhari’s undisclosed ill-health and frequent trips for treatment abroad. His master was barely around but he made coordination and running of the Presidency seamless.

Impressed by Abba Kyari’s Curriculum Vitae, a certain Gee Kay wrote in his Facebook page on March 31: “For the first time, I took an extraordinarily good look at Abba Kyari’s CV. Warwick, Cambridge, HBS and IMD. The man is loaded with Ivy League education. From Undergraduate to Postgraduate Law and Business Schools at Harvard and IMD. Very few Southerners parade this kind of CV. When you look deeply, two names matter in his career profile: Mamman Daura and Fani Kayode.”

Baffled at such level of intellectual and professional achievement, Kay arrived at erroneous conclusion. “So how come Nigeria is in so much mess when there is a Warwick, Cambridge and Harvard alumni so close to the President,” he queried. But responding to his state of confusion, this writer noted: “You cannot outshine the master. So the personality and quality of the leader you serve matters a lot. The man’s brilliance is being dulled by Buhari’s personality but looking at his role as COS with the situation he is faced, the man has been brilliant so far. Put this man under a leader like Obj and you will instantly notice his strategic brilliance. Tell me unlike in the past, any shinning stars or outstanding Minister in the past five years of Buhari’s administration?”

A brief background of Abba Kyari as aggregated by Wikipedia and culled from Blueprint online noted that he was a Kanuri from Borno, who in 1980 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Warwick, and also received a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Cambridge.

He was called to the Nigerian Bar after attending the Nigerian Law School in 1983 and 1984 obtained a master’s degree in law from the University of Cambridge. Afterwards, he attended the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and participated in the Program for Management Development at the Harvard Business School, in 1992 and 1994, respectively.

Kyari worked for the law firm Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo for some time after his return to Nigeria. He was Editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited Kaduna, from 1988 to 1990. Afterwards in the same year, he served as a Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in Borno state.

In addition, Kyari from 1990 to 1995, served as the secretary to the board of African International Bank Limited, a subsidiary of Bank of Credit and Commerce International. He was also an executive director in charge of management services at the United Bank for Africa, and was later appointed the chief executive officer. In 2002, he was appointed a board director of Unilever Nigeria, and later served on the board of Exxon Mobil Nigeria.

Finally in August 2015, Kyari was appointed Chief of Staff to President Buhari, a position which he held after Buhari was re-elected in 2019 until his death on Saturday, April 17, 2020 having tested positive for COVID-19 on March 23. He was married to only one wife and has four children.

Kyari was the power centre

Modelled after American Presidency, the history of Nigeria Presidents are replete with one or two individuals who wielded enormous influence throughout their tenure. Despite the fact that President Olusegun Obasanjo was a hands-on leader who adores adulation and aura that comes with power, many ministers and appointees shone bright like diamonds under him. However, there were few ones with exceptional influence including his domestic aide and now Senator Andy Ubah, who was a smooth fixer of all sorts at their time. In the same vein, the former First Lady Turai Yar’Adua and the infamous Kano-Katsina cabal held sway under late President Umaru Yar’Adua; while former President Goodluck Jonathan had certain influences bestowed on ex-Minister of Finance, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , former Minister of Petroleum, Mrs. Diezzani Allison-Madueke, and ex-National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Mohammed Sambo Dasuki (rtd), as well as his Principal Secretary, Amb. Hassan Tukur, as powerful figures and fixers.

As stated earlier, Nigeria’s experience mirrors that of the United States where President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Mr. Jared Kushner, wields enormous influence; President Barack Obama also had the Clintons’ men running the show especially in his first term; while President George Bush had Ms. Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and his then Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld as the cabal of his administration. A step further revealed by Ronald Reagan’s wife/First Lady was at the top of her game, while the already mentioned master strategist and diplomatic icon, Henry Kissinger, defined Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford’s Presidency.

Nevertheless, as powerful and influential as above individuals appeared in the case of Nigeria, they were nothing compared to the imagined and real powers at Abba Kyari’s disposal. He was different things to different people depending on which camp you belong. However, the under listed roles and decisions Kyari was accused and alleged to have taken to the chagrin of some Nigerians will shed more some light on the man.

Exercised Presidential Powers: In addition to his traditional role as the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari was accused of issuing and allegedly signed Presidential orders without the knowledge of Buhari. The controversial memo leaked by the NSA, Maj-Gen. Babagana Monguno (rtd) alluded to this fact. Also recall the famous quote from the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Babachir Lawal, when he was informed by the media that the ‘Presidency’ has relieved him of his duties. He retorted: “Who is the Presidency?” Kyari equally queried the former Head of Service of the Federation, Mrs. Florence Oyo-Ita in a brazen display of power, which came months after the duo had a public spat at one of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings.

Acted as the Vice President/Prime Minister: The late COS was alleged to have effectively cornered the job of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. The controversial memo sacking more than half of Osinbajo’s aides, which was even signed by Kyari himself is still fresh in our memory. If not for the intervention of COVID-19 pandemic, he almost succeeded in steering away the management of the nation’s economy from the Vice President who was once ridiculed as an “ordinary commissioner”.

Kyari was the face, spokesperson and enforcer of the cabal: Kyari is said to be the third leg of the dreaded cabal–the infamous triumvirate that were alleged to also include Messrs Isa Funtua and Mamman Daura. It was rumoured that it was this trio that actually run the Presidency. While he was the face, the other two are the powerful hands that controls the Presidency. We cannot forget easily how the Wife of the President, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, raised the alarm how two to three men have hijacked the Presidency.

He was the ‘Coordinator of national security’ and NSA: As Monguno’s memo exposed, Abba Kyari whose background had nothing in common with defence and security was calling the shots. He was alleged to superintend series of national security meetings with heads of defence, security and intelligence agencies in attendance. To this end, the NSA accused him of usurping both his powers and those of the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Kyari was Minister of Special Duties and Senior Special Adviser/Assistant to the President: Kyari as exposed by his last assignment in Germany that eventually sealed his fate, was in many ways the Minister of Special Duties as well as a Senior Special Assistant to the President. He is always assigned to critical assignments that dwarfs the position of the Vice President, Ministers and made mockery of some SAs.

He was the Acting Minister of Petroleum: The late COS to the President imposed himself as a board member of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as well as representing the absentee Minister of Petroleum (President Buhari).

Kyari was the alternate leader and chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) as he was alleged to have nominated a number of current ministers. This was a responsibility that was the privilege of State party Chairmen and chieftains.

The list could be expanded but the above roles and responsibilities either assigned or usurped by Abba Kyari is enough indication of his colossus stature in Buhari’s administration. He had his tentacles in all spheres of influence and power in the government within the five years he was at the helm.

Kyari left enormous administrative void

There is no doubt that Abba Kyari’s super imposing influence and coordinating abilities will leave a gaping hole in the Presidency. Even though it would be assumed that his power bloc also known as the cabal will have possible replacements but their seemingly unimpeachable position and influence maybe threatened by rival interest except for fact that like the Game of Thrones, their base is made up of men horned in the stealthy control of power.

Notwithstanding, finding an appropriate replacement for Kyari may be challenging but not impossible. This is also coming at a time the nation needed a focused and united front to combat the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic.

Also speaking on the possible impact of Kyari’s death, Amadi said: “This is Buhari’s government and he has chosen to trust one man, which is Abba Kyari with power and he has used it to the best he can. Unfortunately at this time he is not with us and we have a vacuum. I will say that he is a powerful guy who knows how to play power. Even though some of the decisions he made were wrong, he probably would have allowed more official operations and stay behind but give and take, he has the strength and the energy to help the President that is struggling for competence and energy.

“Perhaps Abba Kyari is a man that understood his principal very well. He knew his shortcomings. He knew what he could withstand and what he could not withstand and he effectively filled that void.”

According to him, Kyari is a strong influence within the Presidency and this is not the time to have a vacuum especially with the President’s state of fragility, stressing: “he is actually the reservoir of both the energy and activities of the government that is not running on full throttle and hijacked by few”.

Possible lessons from Kyari’s eternal departure

The first vital lessons of Kyari’s death is that man is nothing but a dust and powerless to the inevitability of death. Again, his demise is an indication that the prevalent danger of Coronavirus pandemic, which calls for concerted efforts.

More importantly, it teaches us that no matter how powerful we may assume we are, all men will eventually be demystified by death. The only difference however, is in the legacy we would be dedicating to posterity.

This essence was well captured by Mr. Emmanuel Ogbeche, who in a brilliant piece entitled: ‘Abba Kyari and Morality of Power’, opined:
“In the end it is the verdict of history that matters. The legacy one leaves is what endures after the silver lining is severed from mortal body. The conclusion can be telling and leave a stain of ridicule, derision and scorn. It is for this reason those who wield power – elective or appointive- should strive to gauge public feelings and respond appropriately.”

Ogbeche asserted that it was imperative then as it is now, and stressed that the demands of public office include being honest, transparent and accountable however inconvenient. His conclusions were also given seal of approval by the former Director of Public Relations and Information, Nigerian Air Force (NAF), Group Captain Sadeeq Shehu (rtd) in his Facebook commentary on inevitability of death exemplified by the deceased.

Shehu agreed with the school of thought which says it is immaterial whether a man died through HIV, COVID-19, car or air crash, what matters is how he lived, which we have more control than when and how we will die.

But departing from the norm, a public affairs activist, Mr. Aminu Muhammad Ofs gave some soul searching posers to Nigerians gloating over the death of Abba Kyari. The central message of his nine-point questions was that no matter how we feel about his controversial roles in the political history of Nigeria, Abba Kyari died at a ripped age and a fulfilled man. He also noted that his death should remind us of the existing danger of COVID-19 and for the fact that we do not know if President Buhari would appoint a worse replacement.

After all said and done, one unshakable fact is that when the history of Buhari’s Presidency would be written, Abba Kyari’s name will feature prominently. He came, he saw, and he conquered but eventually bowed to pangs of death. Rest in Peace Mr. Kyari.

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