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Abba Kyari and the narcissism of our middle class

Around 2012, the federal government initiated a Presidential Special Scholarship for Innovation and Development (PRESSID). Open only to first class graduates of mainly science disciplines from Nigerian universities and following a highly competitive selection process, the recipients were expected to study up to PhD levels at the top 25 universities in the world. They signed a bond obliging them to return to the country at the end of their studies to become effective change agents in Nigeria. Of course, the scholarship was to cover tuition, accommodation and heating, return flight tickets, living expenses, local travels and other special costs during the course of study. The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) and the National Universities Commission (NUC), joint-sponsors of the scheme, also wrote to all schools under the programme guaranteeing full sponsorship for all the scholars for the full duration of their studies.

The first batch of PRESSID scholars left the country in the third quarter of 2013. Expectedly, they excelled in their studies, finished their Masters and promptly enrolled for their doctorates. Then, in 2015, Goodluck Jonathan, the initiator of the scholarship, lost his re-election battle to Muhammadu Buhari. Suddenly, accusations that PRESSID was meant for the south and systematically excluded northern graduates became rife. Luckily, before the Buhari administration could settle in, the tuition and living expenses for the 2015/16 session was paid without issues.

However, without warning or even premonition, the payment stopped the next session. Worse, there was no word from their supposed sponsors – the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) and the National Universities Commission (NUC). The only rumour from the grapevine was that the scholarships had been transferred to the federal scholarship board. That was the end of the matter. No word from the NUC or even the Federal Scholarship Board, the new sponsors of the programme.

Suddenly, Nigeria’s brightest scholars became destitute in the countries they went to study. Instead of focusing on their studies, their main focus became survival and staving off harassment by bailiffs. Due to accumulated debts to the schools, most of them were served eviction notices from their accommodation, their access to university portals, laboratories, libraries, and facilities were limited and most of them eventually found themselves on the streets without accommodation or even food.

It is at that point they began a campaign to draw the attention of Nigerians and the world to their plight. They made representations to the Nigerian High Commission in London, organised protests on the streets of London, had interviews with television stations in Nigeria and got some of us at home to join the fight, calling out the government for reneging on the contract it signed with them.

For me also, the fight was personal. I had a bosom friend on the PRESSID scholarship studying at Cambridge. What was more, my friend was the face of the struggle and was the official spokesman of the group.

However, some months later, my friend stopped talking about their plight. When I tried to enquire, I got evasive answers. Not wanting to cry more than the bereaved, I let the matter be. I later got to know that many of the scholars were either forced to abandon their studies or look for alternative sources of funding. I never got to know how my friend was able to secure his funding to complete his programme until last week. After the death of Abba Kyari was announced, my friend wrote a beautiful tribute to the late Chief of Staff. In it, he detailed how he met the late Kyari in Cambridge and they hit it off from there. He gushed about how so approachable, humane and humble the late Chief of Staff was, the book gifts he received from him and even displayed the emails they exchanged thereafter. He also mentioned, as an aside, how Abba Kyari helped facilitate the payment of his scholarship funds to help him complete his studies.

It all made sense to me at that point. He has been sorted and all is now well even when the rest of the PRESSID scholars are wallowing in despair and some of us who joined the fight are still in the bad books of the Nigerian authorities with Femi Adesina describing some of our criticisms as “Satanic verses!”

This typifies the behaviour of the Nigerian middle class – a topic I’ve had to return to again and again on this page. That selfish and narcissistic streak in us that prioritises personal survival and prosperity over societal/group emancipation and progress is exactly the reason why we cannot make any progress as a society. It is why, despite our huge potentials and human capital, we remain rooted at the bottom of the world poverty index.

This typifies the behaviour of the Nigerian middle class … that selfish and narcissistic streak in us that prioritises personal survival and prosperity over societal/group emancipation and progress is exactly the reason why we cannot make any progress as a society

Since the death of Abba Kyari was announced, I have read many beautiful eulogies written by his countless friends and even critics. But like Cheta Nwanze beautifully puts it: “pretty much everyone who spoke glowingly of the late Abba Kyari either knew him personally, or benefitted from him, and therein lies one of the problems. No one appears to care for the country, just self.”

It doesn’t matter to them that in a country of over 200 million people, not everyone would meet Abba Kyari. Yes, he was only the Chief of Staff. But he was the most powerful Chief of Staff in the history of Nigeria. And with a boss in diminished health and mental capacity, he not only became the gatekeeper to his boss and the only channel through which communications to and from his boss is conveyed, but also became the engine room of the government and the brain behind all the disastrous policies of the government that has collapsed the economy and deepened poverty.

Besides, we are talking of a non-elected government official who successfully hijacked and wielded presidential powers without any accountability. Like Olu Fasan noted sometime back, “nothing undermines democracy and good governance more than shadowy people who wield so much power but are unaccountable.” In saner climes, parliament, who constitutionally performs oversight functions on the executive, will publicly name and quiz such individuals and protect the Presidency from being hijacked. But of course, this is Nigeria. And now at his death, we are being regaled with how excellent a human being he was!


Christopher Akor

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