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Elusive, yet controversial: Who was Abba Kyari?

For over 4 and half years, there were insinuations that Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari between August 27, 2015 and April 17, 2020, had wielded more influence in the presidency than many who patronise the seat of power would openly talk about.


The death of the rather elusive Kyari was announced yesterday Friday, April 17, 2020, about 25 days after testing positive for COVID-19 and having to leave to attend to his fragile health. On March 24, 2020, it was made public that Kyari tested positive for COVID-19, following an official trip to Germany and Egypt after Nigeria recorded its first coronavirus case on February 27. In Germany, he and Saleh Mamman, the Minister of Power met Siemens officials over a power deal signed with the company.


The deceased CoS held degrees from the University of Cambridge and University of Warwick, was a former MD/CEO of UBA and served on the boards of Unilever Nigeria and Mobil Nigeria.


Abba Kyari obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology from Warwick, England, in 1980, and received  a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Law from Cambridge, England. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1983. In 1984, he obtained a Masters’ Degree in Law from his alma mater, the University of Cambridge. On his return to Nigeria, Kyari worked briefly at Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo, a law firm.


Between 1988 and 1990, he was Editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited Kaduna, (publishers of Democrat Newspapers). He served with the Borno State Executive Council as Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in 1990 and was Secretary to the Board of African International Bank Limited, between 1990 and 1995.


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.


Abba Kyari was Executive Director, Management Services, United Bank for Africa Plc. (UBA) and later the Managing Director and Chief Executive of the Bank. He was appointed a Director of Unilever Nigeria Plc. in 2002.


Journey in Politics


A recipient of the Nigerian National Honour, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), he served as Honorary Member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Investment in Nigeria between 2000 and 2005.


In August 2015, Kyari was appointed President Buhari’s Chief of Staff. Before this, he had no known political career. The official website of the Nigerian presidency notes that the CoS oversees the Office of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.  Staff of the Office of the President are responsible for the following functions: administrative duties, protocol, security and media. “The Chief of Staff manages the President’s schedule and correspondence, and any other duties that may be assigned by the President,” according to the website.


A major bone of contention over the years he served as the CoS was determining which duties the president actually assigned to Kyari, and which ones the elusive man unilaterally gave to himself. However, this was nearly impossible as no one else had access to the president (without Kyari) to confirm which duties and/or orders were actually sanctioned by the president.


Words about his grip on the seat of power first emerged as whispers in the corridors of Aso Rock, but were confirmed when President Buhari during the inauguration of his cabinet in 2019 directed the incoming ministers to channel all requests for meetings with him through Kyari.


Public concern over the abdication of power was so much that the presidency had to issue a statement, with Garba Shehu, senior special assistant on Media and Publicity, stressing that Kyari’s role had not changed from what it was in the first term of the Buhari administration. He explained that the role of the Chief of Staff was based on the presidential system of the US, which Nigeria adopted. Shehu insisted that ministers had access to the President, a claim that differed from reality.


Theories of how Kyari was supposedly the linchpin of a cabal (real or imagined) were common. The issue of who was in charge at Aso Rock had become a routine discussion. However, it was not until last February, when a memo leaked that the public got a concrete proof that Abba Kyari wielded far more influence than few people in Aso Rock could openly complain about.


“It should be noted that the Chief of Staff to the President does not direct security apparatus of the Federal Republic of Nigeria — his job as it relates to security stops at conveying Mr President’s written directives,” reads a portion of a leaked memo said to have been written by Babagana Monguno, the National Security Adviser (NSA). The memo, which was copied to the president, ministers for foreign affairs, defence, interior, police affairs and Kyari himself, was a revelation of how the CoS unduly interfered in matters of national security.


Monguno had warned in the memo that Kyari had so far gotten away with disregarding presidential orders to impose his own decisions.


In another memo, also by the NSA, it was alleged that Kyari had jettisoned an arrangement made by the president, for the purchase of police equipment, and putting his own arrangements in place without the president’s knowledge or consent.


Not given to much public speeches and appearances, Kyari was considered influential, even though the legitimacy and appropriateness of his influence wert a subject of controversy, one not likely to end even with his death. He was also reported to have had altercations with Winifred Oyo-Ita, former Head of Service, over allegations he permitted the reinstatement of Abdulrasheed Maina into the civil service, even when the said Maina had been declared wanted by law enforcement agencies on allegations of fraud.


Aisha Buhari, the president’s wife who has also publicly lamented for years that her “husband and his government had been hijacked by a cabal”, was one of those who were not likely to view Kyari favourably, over what was described as his near- absolute control of access to the president.


At the time of publication, the government was yet to announce Kyari’s funeral arrangements.

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