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The keeling of Abba Kyari: COS-19 or COVID-19?


An autopsy is an ancient art that is considered the ultimate medical audit. With humble origins in the pioneering University of Alexandria of ancient Egypt, today, the autopsy has itself an authoritative voice in Science’s halls as to be the exclusive arbiter of the closed categories of rulings as to the cause of death of any mortal: natural causes, accident, homicide, suicide, or undetermined.

In this season of strident injunctions to ‘follow the science’ so as to flatten the curve of COVID-19, the affliction from Wuhan, China, determined to upend in death as many mortals and livelihoods it can get its viral kisses on, it is vital that we do not neglect medical autopsy while echoing COVID-19’s boastful claims of monopoly over death in its ordinate bid to frontally stampede out for itself a new category in Autopsy’s closed category of causes of death. This is particularly so when the COVID-19 seeks to boost that graveyard bid with its triumphant claim of responsibility for the demise of the Chief of Staff, COS, to the President of Africa’s most populous and ‘largest economy’: Nigeria.

Read Also: Updated: Reps hold commendation session for Abba Kyari

Abba Kyari died on 18th April 2020. He was one month away from his first year anniversary as COS-19 having served successfully as COS-15 (from August 27, 2015, to May 29, 2019) to the Muhammadu Buhari -Presidency. He was buried almost immediately according to Muslim rites except that the corpse movers wore garbs fitting for high-security virology laboratory in normal times. a blatant nod to COVID-19’s claims. But what if an autopsy were possible and was conducted, what, instead of or beside COVID-19 would be complicit in Abba Kyari’s death?

What, can displace, or at least dilute this grim reaper’s claim? That question is a valid and useful nation-building question. For, Abba Kyari’s death follows a tragic historical pattern: of death at the highest level of Nigeria’s presidency due to the presence of an uneven keeled presidency: the death of a principal member(s) and/or the truncation of the entire presidential system.

Nigeria’s apprenticeship as a modern sovereign nation was conducted under Britain and its parliamentary system. As colonial overlord, the Nigerian political space had no learning exposure specific to the office of the Chief of Staff in connection with the deployment of government powers vested on the Head of State, national or regional. According to Eric Teniola, a former Director at the Presidency, upon independence, “the present assignment of responsibilities of [the office of the COS] was done by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation as well as the Principal Secretary to the Head of State. The office of Principal Secretary to the Head of State came with the British. The first person to hold that office was Sir Peter Hyla Gowne Stallard (1915-1995) who joined the British Colonial Office in 1937. The then Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966) appointed Stallard after his service as the administrative Secretary of the London Constitution Conference. He stayed on as Principal Secretary until he was redeployed by his country as Lieutenant Governor of Honduras in 1961. His successor was Stanley Olabode Wey from Lagos.

In 1963, Nigeria would embrace a president-led parliamentary system with an American-educated Nnamdi Azikiwe designated as ‘President’ and the British-trained Tafawa Balewa retaining his role as ‘Prime Minister.’ The result, according to Stanley Olabode Wey, was not greater efficiency in the deployment of executive powers, rather the new dynamics unleashed and sought to be managed under the old order made the job of principal secretary ‘too tasking’ and often ‘frustrating’. It was an assessment that the Nigerian military also came to three years later in 1966 through coup d’etat, supplanting civilian governance with a unitary military government.

However, the Military while ditching the Constitution and its two-hub platforms for the exercise of executive powers retained the Office of the Principal Secretary as the in-house means for directing executive functions in the Office of the head of state. For General Aguiyi Ironsi, the choice of Principal Secretary was Abdul Kareem Disu (1912-2000) from Isale Eko, Lagos. When General Yakubu Gowon upstaged him as Head of State, Ufot Ekaette from Ikot-Editor in Onna local Government of today’s Akwa-Ibom state landed the role of the Principal Secretary. Muhammed Arzika from Tambuwal in Sokoto state succeeded Ekaette during both the General Murtala Muhammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo military administrations which midwife the 2nd Republic.

Shehu Shagari as the emergent President was vested fully with the United States of American style executive powers by the 1979 Constitution. That nation’s presidential system had since December 12, 1946, recognised the vital role of a Chief of Staff to the President. Yet, President Shagari chose, somehow, to box up the deployment of his vast presidential powers by retaining the scheme of the Principal Secretary instead of signalling the arrival of a new era by enabling the timely pioneering of the office of the Chief of Staff to the President.

Read Also: Nigeria’s Buhari agrees on PIB, forwards to Senate for approval

Shortly after being inaugurated on October 1, 1979, at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos, he told a nation looking up to him for leadership into a new century that, “I would like to assure all Nigerians and the whole world that I understand and fully accept the challenges and responsibilities of the office of the president. I want to assure you further that I will discharge my obligations to my country to the very best of my ability. In the office of the president, I have an equal responsibility to all our people, irrespective of their political, ethnic, or religious persuasion.”

By subordinating his role as President and Commander-in-Chief in not appointing a Chief of Staff, he set about appeasing interests he felt were necessary to provide an even-keel to his administration. parliamentary-style – instead of deploying a Chief of Staff who will orchestrate new dynamics that would bring both foe and friends to the sides of the balance where he needs them over time. The result: Shagari appointed Godwin Edward Michael Prest from Onitsha in Anambra State, a lawyer/journalist with a stint at the British Library in Lagos as Principal Secretary and spent the critical period of his presidency on appeasement stunts trying to form “an all-embracing unity government, in spite of the presidential system of government, so that everybody could come on board.” Ultimately, he struck a deal with another rival party, the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) bringing aboard many of its members as Cabinet members including Professor Ishaya Audu, I.C. Maduike, Engineer Paulinus Chinulu Amadike, Samuel Mafuyai, Janet Adefenwa Akinrinade (1930-1994), Ademola Thomas, Dr Paul Michaulum, E. Aguma and Chief Paul Iyorpuu Unongo (81). Following certain allegations, Chief Unongo was later replaced with Mr Mamman Ali Makele.”

Shagari was nice but wrong on that score. He had good intentions but he clearly shirked his legal and historic responsibility of fidelity to the development of a presidential system he was legally impaled to follow under the 1979 Constitution. It would cost Nigeria 20 years to press reset and re-engage after four military dictatorships (Muhmmadu Buhari (1983-1985), Ibrahim Babangida (1985 – 1993), Sanni Abacha (1993-1998), Abdusalam Abubakar) and one interim civilian-led government (Ernest Shonekan (1993-1993).

The reason is not far-fetched. A Chief of Staff, at the federal and state level, can make or mar a whole tenure of an elected head of the executive arm of government. Everywhere, In the third world and established democratic spaces. Contrary to what many of us like to believe in our knee-jerk readiness to pour scorn on people in high-places, successive Chiefs of Staff in Nigeria do not seem to, officially engage the array of powers their counterparts anonymously straddle on behalf of any incumbent presidency in established democracies like the United States.

For a COS to be actively involved in selecting and supervising key personnel hires of the presidency is excoriated. To be as active in the controlling of direct access to the President – including the flow of people into the President’s Office – is often deemed an overreach. To manage the flow of information to the President for vital policy decisions or insinuate oneself strategically as to act as a sieve or gatekeeper protecting the fundamental political and personal interests of the president is seen as the emergence of a cabal. And to assume responsibility for the legislative policy of the Presidency through control of negotiation with the legislature other members of the executive branch, and extra-governmental political groups to implement the president’s agenda while volunteering advice to the president on various issues is deemed a complete take-over of the Presidency by the COS.

While we must address overreach and abuse of power on the part of a COS where it truly arises, there is a need to begin to appreciate 20 years after OBJ pioneered the office (20 years after Shagari shirked the responsibility to do so and cost Nigeria 40 years of institutional memory regarding the COS) that the office of the Chief of Staff is important. The president in a democracy is required to succeed with regards to two key imperatives defining the success or otherwise of a presidency.

One: a President is required to be a moral authority in order to be able to wield legal authority with the measure of legitimacy needed to secure relatively unforced obedience and/or acquiescence from the majority of stakeholders (within and outside of the precincts of the political space he governs).

This imperative is calibrated against the President’s ability to mobilise two agents of governance: taxpayers or public revenue to pick up the bills of government policy and the bureaucrats/institutions to deliver designated policy-goals and objectives. The President accomplishes this imperative through multiple arrowheads he handpicks (cabinet members, heads of agencies, assistants, and advisors) alongside system-generated civil servants he inherits. In making the handpicked appointments, he leans heavily on his Chief of Staff – because the alternative is an embrace of special interests and all the risks that comes with. But, to succeed on this score, the President needs to be healthy, smart, hardworking, and able to read or grasp from the briefing of other faithful readers the heart of the matter in any of the endless files and memos that haunt the everyday life of an executive head.

As simple as it may sound, being able to read, grasp the import of what is read and minute directly on files/memos related thereto so as to delegate implementation to trusted aides or teams through the Chief of Staff is critical. This function is helped even further if the president’s team is not undermined by socio-cultural halos like nepotism and if they represent enough technical capabilities committed to erring on the side of common sense in the implementation of government policy. And because technically-savvy persons tend to work, usually with a check-list – they help to keep off the red-flags that ‘corruption-hunters’ look for in governance spaces to undermine the incumbent.

Where the President ticks those boxes, he just needs a Chief of Staff ready to project the stern-face of presidential power while the President waves, smiles and shakes hands: a COS ready to play foreman, whipping or wheeling, with threats and treats, the salaried teams, as the need arises. This COS is rarely likely to be overwhelmed or unnecessarily besmirched by the Office. When a President is alive and well and rising to his responsibilities under this first imperative, the Chief of Staff is seen no more than as the powerful arms and legs of the President. But, where the President is ailing or for some reasons, not physically and/or mentally able to put in the work required, he necessarily must rely on some non-cabinet level human props, with the COS as the arrow-head of the set-up to keep everything sane and looped into the greater goal of governance. This is a liability.

Abba Kyari
Abba Kyari

The second imperative an elected principal of an executive arm of government in a democracy needs to straddle effectively is the back-alley, non-democratic tussle with human-faced forces that, by legal and extra-legal means, actively work towards the progressive neutralising or overwhelming of the expressed policy goals and energies of the incumbent government as the route to prospering their own independent objectives. These negative forces range from the benign to the malignant; from the legal to the criminally lethal; from the political to the socio-economic; from the municipal to the international; from the cause-advocacy champions to the media nuisance generators; from political allies calling for fidelity to redundant election campaign promises to rival opposition voices throwing shades at perceived or contrived government policy-failures while pitching their alternate visions.

None of those hordes of voices is ever on the same frequency as the Office of the Governor/President at any point in time – even if they think or are allowed to think that they are. Truth: it is impossible to be outside of the executive chambers and keep abreast of the plenitude of rapidly changing dynamics that an incumbent Head of an Executive arm grapples with, on a moment by moment basis. These are pressures that if he allows them free reign to dictate policy choices would make his government unable to keep any electoral promise or work up a rhythm. Therefore, for this set of imperatives, the Chief of Staff is required to be a discrete but astute trader, ready to buy or sell as the need requires but able to keep the front-shop impressive before critical clients. In this back-alley market where contracts are unwritten but sacrosanct, there are no enemies or foes, no winner or loser. Instead, there is only progress.

This second arm is why the job of the Chief of Staff is tricky and sometimes can be self-immolating or suicidal, professionally- in a democracy to an incumbent COS except he knows when to resign and run for it. The expansive freedoms guaranteed in a democracy when set against the high expectations demanded of an executive head of government requires that the wielder of the office find a way to be a policy strategist publicly but a shrewd trader away from the public domain. It requires a Presidency able to maintain an authentic veneer of forever working the ‘process’ by actually working it – while working outside of the process when required so efficiently as to be able, in real-time, to loop the desired out-of-process outcomes gleaned right back in through the system’s back-end of the front office without upsetting the view. The means through which a President can play that astute democrat by day and goal-driven trader in the shade is the office of the Chief of Staff. It is an office that is personal to the President, formal to the bureaucracy and yet utterly lacking in constitutional mention when compared to, says the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.

President Musa Yar’Adua Presidency is therefore noteworthy for being a throwback to the no-Chief-of-Staff stone age of President Shagari right after succeeding the pioneering efforts of the Obasanjo presidency in that realm. Instructively, the Obasanjo presidency over the course of two terms and eight years had just one Chief of Staff who did not keel over in a public burnout for some reasons. One, enduring policy outcomes apart (where that presidency’s records are a mixed basket), the OBJ presidency was perhaps Nigeria’s best example of a well-keeled Presidency. It was filled with strong characters appointed by the President in and out of political circles who came in with extensive immersions in multinational and corporate best practices enabling them to run their beat and foster new institutional memory drivers in Nigeria. OBJ took a documented approach to the duties of his COS by commissioning a report to outline with as much clarity as possible the powers and duties to be associated therewith thereby affording the emergent COS, Major General Abdullahi Muhammed (Rtd.), massive legitimacy and clarity as to his range of functions. Then OBJ appointed a slew of Special Advisers and Assistants who understood from the get-go who their coordinating officer was.

With the benefit of hindsight, this too is critical: that COS had a physically energetic President who needed to be reined in rather than daily rousing or worse, propping up, a feature that has not attended the majority, if not all the successive presidencies. Where a Presidency is afflicted with an ailing or hospice-worthy President, a cabal is obligatory even if its existence undermines the constitutionally required profile of an accountable President in contradistinction from a parliamentary Prime Minister where responsibility is joint.

So, when Obasanjo left office frustrated out of a third term that he had the energy but not the legality or legitimacy or even a truly consequential legacy dividends account to secure, it was telling that he left behind his COS for the incoming Yar’adua Presidency. However, Yar’Adua and his team, for their own reasons, never warmed up fully to the Obasanjo holdover and worse, the entire COS framework. When Major General Muhammed (Rtd.) took the hint and exited as COS June 8, 2008, Yar’Adua allowed the state of confusion to fester instead of appointing a successor COS. Ultimately, the former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori stepped in to recommend the appointment of his incumbent Commissioner for Finance, Olorogun David Edevbie, as the Principal Secretary, effectively rendering redundant the COS experiment. That void would exacerbate the dysfunction of that presidency, made worse by the deteriorating health of the President and the growth of a powerful cabal led actively by the President’s spouse, Turai Yar’Adua. That presidency, just like its 1963 and 1979-1983 counterparts, went on to be prematurely truncated upon the demise of President Yar’Adua on May 5, 2010.

Upon ascension to the top job, former Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan wasted no time in appointing Mike Aiyegbeni Oghiadomhe, a former Deputy Governor of Edo State as Chief of Staff. On February 8, 2014, Oghiadomhe was replaced by Brigadier General (rtd.) Jones Oladeinde Arogbofa as Chief of Staff. Whatever its policy failings and they were legion, the GEJ presidency was able to, even in defeat, snatch respectability from the jaws of defeat because a semblance of hierarchy within the Presidency prevailed: a key deliverable secured by a functioning office of a COS that is not overwhelmed playing shadow president and COS at the same time.

That is where the Buhari presidency urgently needs to rethink its steps following the demise of Abba Kyari. Several high-profile missteps – like the ‘dis-engagement’ of the Vice President’s personal aide without his knowledge or the appointment of a Minister for Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development without first accounting for the statutory role of the National Emergency Management Agency whose board is again headed by the Vice President – were easily avoidable if Kyari was playing COS, not shadow president.

Many of the things some have tried to assail him for being in my view, actually the things a COS lives for. Like the shadowy securing of his longstanding ‘friendship’ with the loquacious Femi Fani-Kayode while allowing him ‘free reins’ to act as the conscience and voice of the ‘opposition’, Biafra proponents and Afenifere stalwarts. Like securing the patronage of stomach infrastructure journalists who nonetheless command useful authority in newsrooms across Nigeria. Like acting as the ‘encourager’ of the young Adams Oshiomole in his ‘self-sacrificing’ as National Chairman of the ruling All Progressive Congress – while feting and boosting his persecutors so as to keep him ‘humble’ and the party from rigour mortis.

For, just like the President’s Aide-camp, the Chief of Staff’s current commitment at any time is not to the Constitution which belittles and mystifies him with anonymity. His loyalty is first to the President, as a term-limited policy leader whose failure or success is tied to the size of the legacy-heap the Chief of Staff is able to eke out. It is within that goal of being seen to have succeeded that an astute Chief of Staff works to pool the legitimizing elements that would define the matrix of standards he would live or die by no matter their sources: the Constitution, campaign manifesto, expectations/ideas of key stakeholder and the President’s own subjective idea of success as communicated to the Chief of Staff in formal and informal interactions with the President.

A great Chief of Staff is, therefore, one able to lend his services to a physically and mentally capable president so as to be able to concentrate on servicing the President’s lust or bid for consequential legacies without running afoul of the Constitution and other peremptory standards of the land, formal and informal.

Those are perhaps the reason why there is a high burnout rate among the clans of Chiefs of Staff in functioning democracies across the world – especially ones with sophisticated bureaucratic infrastructures that a COS in Nigeria can only dream of in service of the President.


 Sam Eleanya, founder/Editor of LawNigeria.com, is Principal Strategist at Tree & Trees JusticeMedia, Lagos, Nigeria.