Abba Kyari: The high-profile casualty of Nigeria’s theatre of misrule
First, my condolences to the family of Mallam Abba Kyari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff, who died on 17 April 2020, aged 67, after a coronavirus illness. His death is particularly sad because contracting the coronavirus is not an automatic death sentence. As of 24 April, last week, there were 2, 753,627 Covid-19 infectees worldwide, according to the global statistical organisation, “Worldometer”, and only 192,326 (about 7 percent) deaths. Sadly, Kyari was one of the unlucky few. Tragic!
But while, on a human level, one mourns Kyari’s death, no individual is greater than a nation. So, it is right to examine Kyari’s legacy, given the dominant role he played in the running of this country.
The truth is, Abba Kyari was, for five years, Nigeria’s shadow leader. Officially, he was President Buhari’s chief of staff, but, in practice, he was not only the president’s gate-keeper, determining who had access to him, he was also the gate-keeper over the policy process. No policy idea reached Buhari without Kyari’s imprimatur. Recently, in a face-off with Kyari, Major-General Babagana Munguno, the national security adviser, accused him of usurping presidential powers.
Some have argued, in Kyari’s defence, that a presidential aide can only be as powerful as the president wants him to be, suggesting that Buhari facultatively supported his power-grab. But when a president is intellectually weak, a power-hungry aide, who is well-educated – Kyari had degrees from Warwick and Cambridge universities – could run rings around the president and turn him into a pawn in his power game.
Take one example. In 2017, President Buhari was going on medical vacation and sent a letter of transfer of power to the National Assembly. But the letter referred to the vice president as “Coordinator” instead of “Acting President”, and described his role as “coordinating the activities of the government” instead of “performing the duties of the office” of the president, in accordance with S.145 of the Constitution. This was a deliberate attempt to undermine Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who received local and international kudos when he was acting president during Buhari’s previous absence.
But who drafted the letter for the president and who got him to sign it? Or did he knowingly relegate Osinbajo’s role from “Acting President” to “Coordinator”? The truth is, Buhari signed the letter, but the content was Kyari’s idea. A president can be so dependent on an aide who professes to be protecting his interests!
Indeed, Buhari was dependent on Kyari. His gushing tribute to the late chief of staff betrays it. In the tribute, Buhari described Kyari as “the very best of us”, adding that “he was made of the stuff that makes Nigeria great.” He said that Kyari derived satisfaction “solely and only from improvement of the governance of this great country”.
If Kyari had extended his passion for infrastructure to health infrastructure and Nigeria had the “world-class” hospitals that Buhari’s party promised, maybe, given that many have survived serious Covid-19 illness, he would still be alive today.
But if Kyari was that good, the question is: what has happened to the governance of Nigeria since 2015? Where is the robust economic growth? Where are the jobs? Where is the reduction in poverty and inequality? Where is the security of life and property? Where is the political stability and social cohesion? Indeed, where are the badly needed structural economic and political reforms? How exactly did Kyari improve governance in Nigeria?
Last week, somebody wrote a piece – in fact, a hagiography – on Kyari. The writer said that when Kyari first heard about the outbreak of the coronavirus overseas, he expressed concerns about Nigeria’s preparedness, and posed the following questions: “How many intensive care units do we have ready to admit acute cases? How quickly can we increase the numbers if the virus spreads? How many nurses do we have to deploy immediately and how quickly can we increase the numbers? How many ventilators do we have and how many should we ideally have and how quickly can we increase the numbers?”
Really? How could someone who had shaped Nigeria’s policies for five years ask those questions? President Buhari said Kyari’s “true focus was the development of infrastructure.” Clearly, that did not include health infrastructure. In fact, it was speculated that Kyari’s interference in the Federal Ministry of Health under the then health minister, Professor Isaac Adewole, prevented critical procurements for the health sector. When Bill Gates, the US billionaire and philanthropist, criticised Nigeria in 2018 for not investing in human capital, including healthcare, he was lambasted by Buhari’s henchmen like Kyari.
Of course, we know why, despite his professed passion for infrastructure, Kyari did not push for investment in Nigeria’s health infrastructure: he never used local health services. As an article on the BBC website put it, Nigeria’s ruling elite like Kyari “normally jet off to the UK, Germany or the US as the slightest headache”. Then, suddenly, Covid-19 struck and the opportunity for medical visits overseas disappeared. For instance, when Kyari returned from an official trip to Germany and then proved positive for Covid-19, he would have gone back to Germany or go to the UK immediately for medical treatment. But he could not as those countries, fearing the spread of Covid-19, stopped welcoming foreign visitors, including medical tourists!
In an article on 12 April, Britain’s Sunday Times said this about Kyari: “When Nigeria’s all-powerful presidential chief of staff tested positive for the coronavirus, a doctor treating him in Lagos had to apply to a private London hospital for a copy of his medical records.” The inference was that, prior to that time, Kyari was not using the Nigerian health system. The paper added: “Abba Kyari and his friend, President Muhammadu Buhari, have always flown abroad for medical attention rather than risk their own chronically underfunded local hospitals.” It was a damning indictment on Nigeria’s ruling elite.
Recently, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who had serious Covid-19 illness, was discharged from the intensive care unit. When he left St Thomas hospital, he said: “The National Health Service, NHS, has saved my life – no question”, adding that “things could have gone either way” without the NHS, which he described as “the best of this country.”
But Nigeria runs down its own health system. In 2015, the manifesto of the All Progressives Congress, APC, on which Buhari ran for president, said: “We will increase the quality of all Federal Government-owned hospitals to world-class standard within five years.” So, what happens to that manifesto commitment? Of course, it is a broken promise.
Today, Nigeria has one of the worst health services in the world, with 1.95 nurses and doctors per 1000 people, according to the World Health Organisation. It also has one of the world’s largest medical brain drains. A report submitted to the UK Parliament last year said that 2,000 of the doctors in the UK initially qualified in Nigeria. Few want to waste their medical career in bog-standard hospitals in Nigeria when they can train and practise in reputable medical institutions abroad.
In a recent piece, the respected research outfit, S B Morgen Intelligence, said: “Perhaps healthcare will get the needed investment now that everyone is unable to escape as medical tourists after decades of neglect or rot”. And, last week, the Secretary to the Federal Government, Boss Mustapha, said that “Nigeria’s health sector will not remain the same post-coronavirus”, adding that “all measures would be taken to improve the sector”. Where is the money to do that now, with oil selling at below $20 per barrel?
But here is the moral of all this. If Kyari had extended his passion for infrastructure to health infrastructure and Nigeria had the “world-class” hospitals that Buhari’s party promised, maybe, given that many have survived serious Covid-19 illness, he would still be alive today.
Sadly, Abba Kyari was, it seems, a prominent victim of his governing cohort’s utter misrule of Nigeria. May his soul rest in peace!