*Artistic impression of the late Chief of Staff to President Buhari, Mallam Abba Kyari
By Mariam Mohammed Maktoub
There are moments in life that leave you questioning its nature. For me, a few minutes past 1am on April 18, 2020 was one of such. My WhatsApp call was ringing incessantly. It’s the only WhatsApp number I never switch off, I leave on for family and close friends to reach me during emergencies. Considering the late hour, I felt a pang of panic. I looked at the phone screen and it was my brother, Mohammed, calling. I quickly picked up and the next thing he told me brought my world to a standstill for a moment.
Mo (as I often call my brother) said, “Have you heard Abba Kyari is dead?” The pause that followed was a hundredth of a second before I bellowed, ‘Noooooooo!’. I immediately hung up the phone with trembling hands. My thoughts were whirling, and my heart was pounding furiously – as though it would fly out of my body. I experienced the inevitable “five minutes of madness.” With my thoughts a little collected, I made a few calls to those I believed should be in the know of such a weighty matter. I learned that; indeed, Abba Kyari had died!
What may seem surprising about my violent reaction is that it wasn’t long before that I got to know the late Chief of Staff. My acquaintance with Abba fondly called “AK“ by friends and close associates was fortuitous, barely years ago. But is it not said that a day can be like a thousand, and a thousand can be like a day to the discerning? I remember vividly the fateful day I met AK. I was in the hallway in the Presidential Villa leading to Jalal Arabi, Permanent Secretary, State House Office, on my way to meet with Garba Shehu, Presidential media aide. As I walked the hallway leading to the stairs that lead to Garba’s office, I met Jalal and the CoS. I stopped to exchange pleasantries with Jalal whom I’m quite familiar with and offered a perfunctory curtsey to the CoS.
I inwardly judged him, as many have done, as the architect of Nigeria’s unending troubles and the one who has set out to stagnate every effort to rejig the system for the better. Arabi, oblivious of my thoughts, quickly introduced me to the CoS. AK was gracious enough to initiate some sort of conversation and proceeded to extend an invitation to his office. I offered my thanks and headed to my meeting with Shehu whom I immediately told of my encounter with the CoS. He looked askance, and after like about 30 seconds, said, “What are you doing here if the CoS asked you to come?” I replied “I came to the Villa for a reason, which is to have a meeting with you and I will see him after meeting with you.”
Just as the late CoS was a mystery who feared to be understood than misunderstood, he very quickly realized I wasn’t the typical person who is fazed by power or position. In the few instances occasion permitted me to meet with him, I would question and probe him on some issues in the public domain. AK would lay bare the pros and cons. By this honest discourse, I was opportune to experience his uncommon intelligence. He found it intriguing that I was attuned to the issues of governance and national advancement than seeking for personal favours. He made it known that he had read my articles on varied issues in some national dailies and reads Maktoub Magazine, which I publish.
I remember one instance where I deemed it fit to remind him of having scheduled an appointment with me and not honouring it. His response: “Mariam, my time isn’t mine but that of the President whom I work for, or do you want the President to work for you?” I replied, “The President works for me because he gets paid from my tax.” An exasperated, “I’m running late to meet the President at the airport”, was his clincher. That was Mallam Abba Kyari’s world. It was all about the President.
Intrigued by his unflinching loyalty, which was doomed to be termed “rigid, inflexible, uncaring,” by those who misconstrue it as such. I took it as a challenge as a writer to embark on a journey to know more about the man, Abba Kyari. Why was he so controversial, his traducers say, divisive? Owing to what I had undertaken to do, I called a mutual friend and informed this individual that I’d be writing an article on AK headlined, “The man they love to hate.”
For me, it was incumbent that the other side of the AK coin be made public, rather than the narrative of his being the arch troubler of Nigeria. Having realised this of him and committing time and resource to know more about him, I was persuaded it was time to do a piece on AK. But since nothing is certain about the future, I am left to write on him a piece he will never get to read!
Now, here I am instead of having an article in the present continuous, I am compelled to change the wording in my headline from “love to hate” to “loved to hate.” And in this moment, I am reminded that life is really fragile like a piece of China ware. AK was the ultimate workaholic. If he was working, it did not matter what time of the day. He was oblivious of time in hours. He was more passionate about Nigeria and for this country, he toiled ceaselessly and relentlessly with his team to drive the Buhari agenda for Nigeria. He was never one for heads in the clouds, he was as reticent as he was averse to media blitz and paparazzi, so it was easy for others to wear the accolades of his effort and push.
Because Kyari was committed to working for Nigeria, no task was too small or great. Every endeavour was approached with a single-mindedness aimed at success. It was that result-driven desire that saw him led the Federal Government’s delegation to Germany and United Kingdom for an energy deal that would significantly impact the country’s energy demand. Some have queried must he have made the trip? To those, I say, matter of statecraft is not simplistic. It has never been. In the business of governance, trade and investment, certain clout and influence is required. And these qualities AK possessed. His was a pedigree rich, not just in journalism, but in banking and finance as well as corporate governance. He understood negotiation and bilateral engagement. All of these he brought to the table without whining or wincing, even when it was not convenient. Perhaps, that was his hubris, his tragic flaw – not knowing when to slow down.
Only but a few people are aware of his immense effort through the direction of President Buhari, his role at stabilizing local fuel supply and putting an end to the near-incessant petrol shortages and its attendant economic implications and social disharmony. He brought his zest and zeal as a board member of the NNPC to promote the oil swap deal which has seen the country enjoying uninterrupted fuel supply. Also, when the naira was on a free fall and it seems as if the halt was never going to happen, again the President alongside AK and the CBN governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, drew up the plan for the apex bank to intervene dollar-wise and shore up the value of the naira. It is instructive to make the point after the trio had fashioned out the policy, the President fell ill and it was on the then Acting President, Prof. Osinbajo to oversee the intervention and gain the accompanying accolades.
As it common with humans to dwell on the salacious and flowery, they never bother to talk of the Spartan Kyari, the AK that was averse to ostentation. From 2015 to 2019, he drove one car, a BMW seized from a former minister during the Goodluck Jonathan administration. How many government officials, even directors in MDAs, will drive one car for that long? I remember a time when the car had issues and was up for repairs, AK was offered another armoured plated vehicle but declined because it had a staff flag on it. He rather settled for a non-armoured plated car even with the attendant security implications. That was the vintage, self-effacing and frugal Kyari. He was simply fine with his traditional white ‘sokoto’ and red cap! To him, material accumulation was an anathema no matter how some persons tried to paint him otherwise.
It is a shame that the media failed abysmally in its investigative role to unearth the real Abba Kyari. Rather, the media guzzled spins, feasted on innuendo and relished in half-truths and absolute falsehoods. It simply abdicated its responsibility and fed into the narrative of a cabal and who the two-headed monster was. I am somewhat perplexed that it never occurred to anybody that with the enormous resource of state at his disposal, the deceased Chief of Staff could jolly well have used it to influence and buy favourable media. He was too refined for that.
Dear President, Buhari, that was your brother and friend, Abba Kyari. I know you knew him for over four decades, but sometimes, it is good to be reassured of the qualities of those closest to us because time and proximity can deface even the purest of forms. However, given your unflinching stance in the face of all that was said of him, I am comforted that you never doubted who he was. To Kulu and the children, it is in the nature of some men to dwell on the trifling and impugn the characters of those either better than them or whom they aspire to emulate. None of you should be dissuaded by what some malignant souls dare write. What they write of your husband and father should merely reinforce your faith that he was trustworthy and loyal.
For the ‘Fantastic Four’ (you know yourselves) you worked from sunrise to sunset and even beyond with him. You heard his silent chuckle and irritation. He believed in you as you had faith in him. And to those who gloat, to what end is your gloating? Are you still unnerved by his having been here? If you are still so vexed, it is advised that you remember that life is fleeting, and only the Almighty can determine who is next to join AK in his new place of abode. Repent! AK, God must have needed an angel the night He took you away. Now that you have made your peace with your maker, no man can trouble you anymore. Your essence is a rarity and not even those who disagreed with you can deny you were indeed the best man. Adieu!
*Mohammed Maktoub a journalist contributed this article on April 27, 2020
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