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Abba Kyari: Eclipse of a political icon

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Encomiums have continued to pour in torrent on the late Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari. The deceased had tested positive for COVID-19 following a recent trip to Germany where he had led a delegation for negotiation of power agreement with Siemens and had been receiving treatment in an undisclosed location in Lagos. But he died on Friday, April 17.

Though with so many myths around him, the late Kyari has been described as a dedicated staff of the president, who sacrificed everything he had to the service of the nation.

As the Chief of Staff saddled with the responsibility of official programme and correspondences, he was the principal channel of communication between the president and the government. For this reason, he was seen by many political players as being too powerful, an allegation that alienated some of the bigwigs within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who were instrumental to the victory of the party in 2015, as well as subsequent re-election of President Buhari.

According to the constitution, the Chief of Staff is appointed by the president and does not require confirmation from the Nigerian Senate. Though the functions of the Chief of Staff vary from one administration to another, the responsibilities of the office include, among others, selecting key presidential staff and supervising them, structuring the staff system, controlling the flow of people to Aso Villa, managing the flow of information, protecting the interests of the president, negotiating with the National Assembly and other branches of government to implement the president’s agenda; and advising the president on various issues. In playing these roles, Kyari wielded considerable influence and power.

At a point in time, the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, became so uncomfortable that she had to raise the alarm over the hijack of power from her husband by a particular cabal in the presidency. The alarm by the First Lady came in the early part of the administration when she claimed that a group of people had held the Presidency hostage by dictating what happened in the Villa.

One name that had link with the said cabal was Kyari. There were insinuations that the President’s wife was not in good terms with Kyari following the substitution of her preferred ministerial candidate from Adamawa State, Brigadier Buba Marwa (rtd) by the CoS. Kyari was alleged to have unilaterally constituted the ministerial nominee list with very little contribution from the president.

The issue of cabal became a public concern at the height of the president’s ill-health and his medical vacation in London, as no one could take a decision without Kyari’s approval.

The latest in the chronicle of controversies that had trailed Kyari’s role as the CoS was the face-off between him and the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, over an alleged meddlesomeness in national security issues. In a warning memo to all Service Chiefs, the aggrieved NSA had told the officers to desist from taking further directives from Kyari, claiming that his directives were sometimes issued without the knowledge and approval of the president, a practice, which he said, had accounted for the escalation of Boko Haram attacks in the recent past.

It read: “Chief of Staff to the president is not a presiding head of security, neither is he sworn to an oath of defending the country. As such, unprofessional practices such as presiding over meetings with Service Chiefs and heads of security organisations, as well as ambassadors and high commissioners to the exclusion of the NSA and/or supervising ministers are a violation of the Constitution and directly undermine the authority of Mr. President.”

The allegation subsequently stirred up a series of debates on social media concerning the powers the Borno-bred man had in the Presidential Villa.

Early life

Unknown to many Nigerians, Abba Kyari was a retired Brigadier General. Born on November 17, 1938, he attended Borno Middle School and Barewa College, Zaria, after which he was enlisted in the Nigerian Army as an officer cadet. He also attended the British Army’s Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot from October 1959 to March 1960. He also served as a platoon commander and transport officer in the Nigerian Army’s 1 Brigade Transport Company.

Following the January 1966 coup and July counter-coup, Major Kyari was given command of the Nigerian Army’s 5th Battalion which was based in the northern provinces of the country. While addressing the battalion on October 1, 1966, some aggrieved officers largely of the northern origin, staged a mutiny against the command. And as a consequence, Kyari’s second-in-command, Captain Auna, and the regimental sergeant major were murdered. Kyari and the surviving officers were forced to flee the base at Kano.

Kyari later became commander of 1 Brigade at Kaduna and was subsequently second-in-command and subsequently commander of the Nigerian Army’s artillery. In July 1967, the then Head of State, Gen Yakubu Gowon (rtd) appointed Colonel Kyari Governor of North-Central State and he remained in this role until July 1974. As governor, he commissioned a master plan for the Kaduna metropolis, but in practice the plan was not followed by his successors. Towards the end of Gowon’s administration, Kyari became a cautious advocate of return to civilian rule.

Career as a technocrat

Regardless of whatever misgivings people might have against the 82-year old former CoS, he would be remembered as a quintessential technocrat. In 1980, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Warwick, and also a degree in law from the University of Cambridge. In 1983, he was called to the Nigerian Bar after attending the Nigerian Law School. In 1984, he obtained a master’s degree in law from the University of Cambridge. Thereafter, he attended the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and participated in the Programme for Management Development at the Harvard Business School in 1992 and 1994, respectively.

Other than his military career, Kyari had worked for the law firm of Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo for some time after his return to Nigeria from overseas training. From 1988 to 1990, he was Editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited Kaduna. In 1990, he served as a Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in Borno State. One of the major highlights of his professional career was his appointment as an executive director in charge of management services at the United Bank for Africa (UBA), and later 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. In August 2015, Kyari was appointed Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari.

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