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Vol 61 No 9

Published 30th April 2020


Abba Kyari, 1952-2020

Chief of Staff to Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari

Abba Kyari was neither an administrator nor a politician. So, he was not an obvious choice for the post of chief of staff to the president, a job that requires formidable organisational skills and an obsessional interest in the mechanics of partisan politics.

But in that role, the understated and almost reclusive Kyari became one of the most important figures in the Nigerian government over the past five years. His demise is a heavy personal and political blow to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Suffering from underlying health issues, Kyari died on 17 April in a private clinic in Lagos. He was then the most prominent victim in Africa of the coronavirus pandemic, having contracted the disease a month earlier while on an official visit to Europe to sew up deals to promote power sector reform.

After five years as Buhari's Chief of Staff, Kyari had achieved a mythical status as the all-powerful man behind the throne, the invisible hand in a shadowy cabal that guided government policy and made key appointments in place of an absentee President.

On the contrary, Kyari would tell friends, his job description was simple: to serve the President, who had been his friend for more than 40 years. Given the high premium Buhari puts on loyalty, their friendship and common suspicion of Nigeria's business and political elite, Kyari got the job.

As chief of staff, he tried to honour election pledges to end conflict, fight corruption and diversify the economy, while devising a coherent programme of government. 

It brought him into conflict with vested interests and rival factions who tried, with some success, to steer his championing of due process and anti-corruption measures into a cul-de-sac.

They complained he was too left-wing, too abrasive and too uncompromising. 'Apart from my boss, I sometimes feel I am fighting with everyone,' he would say.

In fact, Kyari espoused an eclectic range of political and economic views. He would often refer to the ideas of Arthur Lewis, a Nobel prize-winning economist and advisor to Ghana's founding President, Kwame Nkrumah, and Vijay Joshi, an economics professor at Oxford with whom he maintained a lively correspondence. And among more conservative voices, he would cite the works of Louis Brandeis, the US Supreme Court justice who promoted the country's anti-trust laws.

'Nigeria cannot change until it stops incentivising corruption,' Kyari said. And he was sceptical of the IMF's push for liberalisation. 'Those who advocate the benefits of the market refuse to see how it works in Nigeria … in too many areas of the economy, a genuine private sector is stifled by contractors trading favours with friends in government,' he said.

In contrast to popular Nigerian perceptions of his omnipotence in the government, Kyari found political trench warfare deeply frustrating. He focused the energies of the presidency on core issues of power supply and distribution, transport infrastructure and agricultural revival. 

Buhari's tortuous attempts to deliver oil sector reform, first promised 15 years ago and where three governments had failed, was almost complete when Kyari died. It was to have been the signature reform of the Buhari government, one that could cut out the corruption and patronage that has hobbled the oil and gas industry and distorted the national economy.

Those efforts are all the more urgent as the crash in the global oil market could force further sweeping changes in the organisation and ownership of Nigeria's production and its exports. 

Kyari was born in Bama, in Borno, north-east Nigeria. A Muslim, he went to a Christian school in Zaria and then university in 1979 to study social sciences at Warwick University in Britain in the wake of the former head of state, General Yakubu Gowon

His fellow students remember Kyari as a voracious reader and a regular attendee at meetings to discuss international politics and issues such as Morocco and Western Sahara, and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. After that, Kyari switched to law and won a place at Cambridge University's first fast-track LLB course.

He was always proud of Nigeria's diversity and shared Buhari's sense of what its place in the world could and should be. As security problems intensified across the Middle Belt, Kyari tried to build a coalition of faith leaders and progressive thinkers to ease tensions between nomadic cattle herders and settled farmers. He also wanted to challenge what he believed was a partisan attempt to present a complex environmental and economic challenge as a religious conflict.

He vigorously championed the President's reluctance to compromise on high-profile corruption cases, notably allegations in court in Italy, denied by Shell and ENI, that they had paid $1 billion dollars in bribes to secure an oil licence in 2011, or an attempt by Process and Industrial Development, a British Virgin Islands company, to secure billions of dollars in compensation for a power plant that was never built.

In Nigeria, the chief of staff's role is to ensure the head of state's agenda wins the day – Rahm Emmanuel to Barack Obama or perhaps, Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII. Despite the accolades of his supporters and the brickbats of his critics, Kyari was neither. Yet he was the most determined promoter of the Buhari line on Nigeria.

The vacancy he leaves behind will prove difficult to fill. According to a serving state governor who clashed frequently with Kyari, 'We would argue with the chief of staff, but knew the President had his back. He understood what Buhari wanted – the only latitude he had was over execution of policy, not direction.' 

Now, Nigeria faces a new set of challenges: its main cities are closed, the market for oil, almost its only significant export, is in freefall and the world beyond is in meltdown. Projections vary as to the toll the disease to which Kyari succumbed may take on the country, which has little or no formal social security safety net and a woeful health care system, further eviscerated by corruption.

Events have already dictated significant policy decisions: plummeting oil prices have eliminated the corrosive architecture of fuel subsidies, the removal of which governments for 20 years had dodged. The looming prospect of a sharp recession has equally triggered an end to a complex exchange rate policy that was open to political manipulation.

What Buhari intends to do on other parts of his programme is unlikely to change. How he does so is certain to, after Kyari. 

Buhari displayed a rare sign of emotion in his own tribute to Kyari, praising his self-effacing style, personal loyalty, capacity for hard work and commitment to changing Nigeria. Kyari was, he said, 'The very best of us. He was made of the stuff that makes Nigeria great. Rest in peace, my dearest friend.'

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