He was a polarizing figure, and that’s because he was profiled as puppeteer of the most vilified politician in the country. Abba Kyari was a caricature, and his preference of shadow to showmanship as the Chief of Staff to President Buhari drove such narrative. Until his passing this week, there was no attempt to explain him beyond a side. Even some of his fiercest critics suffered from paucity of information to accurately brand him, such that even in death, as it was in his lifetime, he was confused with a much older deceased namesake and military officer. He was not even an entry on Wikipedia in all his years as a highflying technocrat and public servant until the day after his burial.
Mr. Kyari’s death from COVID-19 at 67 has set in motion a contest to rewrite him. The caricature sold to Nigerians is suddenly manifesting as an actual person, who was in touch with some of the characters that enabled his stereotype. Although death stirs up a certain sensitivity to the departed, especially in a culture that forbids speaking ill of the dead, the tributes weren’t shocking for being a seeming whitewashing pastime. They are so because the authors and speakers, who are all influential voices, had known all the dimensions of Mr. Kyari’s life but waited until he’s no more before attempting to correct his perception as the grand political villain of Nigerian democracy since 2015.
This cocktail of eulogies pouring in to repaint Mr. Kyari has calibrated the stark hypocrisy of the media. That they chose to withhold such information about the man when he was alive, in spite of their close relationships, almost seems like a conspiracy to make him the scapegoat of Nigeria’s dysfunction. One of such eulogists offered an insight into how Mr. Kyari cared less about his misjudgment, and his disapproval for making amends. But such tasks didn’t have to be authorized. No vacuum has ever remained empty, and so long as the public failed to acquire superior counterpoints to the stories around him, they were right to build their inferences on the damaging information available.
The public also can’t be faulted if they dismiss the recently repainted Abba Kyari as a product of mass sympathy and emotion or even a sponsored whitewashing agenda. The authors of these tributes could have redeemed Mr. Kyari’s image when he was alive because they are not your everyday hacks swinging for the highest bidders like a certain pendulum. They have built a reputation for sharp-shooting, and holding the government to account and it would’ve been fair if they washed these thick stains when it mattered the most.
I understand that Nigeria is a factory of barefaced sycophancy, and commentators with huge following are afraid of being perceived as compromised or hired, so they tend to dodge playing the role of defending the unpopular. But offering the missing links or perspectives in telling the story of a man under scrutiny or media trial isn’t sycophancy.
As a citizen who has serially opposed the Buhari government, and even campaigned against his re-election having felt betrayed for supporting him in 2015, I can only deploy the information available in interpreting Mr. Kyari. But, even so, I’m just one of not too many Nigerians who were never obsessed with the deceased Chief of Staff, and that could be because whatever his actions, he was enabled by an elected superior.
Nigerians didn’t elect Abba Kyari, and whatever his transgressions, whether true, false or overblown, the buck always stops at his principal’s desk. Unlike other powerful political appointees, the office of the Chief of Staff isn’t a constitutionally stipulated role. So, if he was indeed a part of the Cabal as popularized by the same media influencers and self-confessed friends denying that theory after his passing, it must be pinned to the man Nigerians elected.
I didn’t know Abba Kyari in person, and never got to meet him. Aside from being impressed by his education and career trajectory, there’s basically nothing I knew about him beyond that imagination of him as the gate-keeping villain in Aso Rock. Whether he was indeed the President’s puppeteer depends on how much you wish to take away from Buhari’s agency.
This allegation of being a surrogate President heading a government that has performed this much below expectations, is grave. So his characterization as the fulcrum of Nigeria’s nightmare isn’t misplaced. He never defended himself, neither did these insiders, friends, and associates who’ve suddenly found their pens and regained the use of their voices.
We may never know the reason for Mr. Kyari’s stoicism in tackling his critics, but he was unfair to himself and, as one eulogist observed, he undermined the gravity of his silence. He was a well-established antagonist of the stories told by his principal’s wife, Aisha Buhari, that a Cabal had usurped the power of the President. This claim was repeated in a memo by Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno (rtd), that the deceased had frustrated the bids to buy arms for the military, overriding the President’s power. The public were never told his side of the story.
Perhaps the most devastating takedowns of Mr. Kyari are the unchallenged stories of his corruption. Last year, he was accused of taking N500 million bribe from MTN, to intervene in mitigating the fine imposed on the telecommunication company by Nigerian government. A year earlier, a man appeared on the popular Abuja-based Brekete Family Radio, and said Mr Kyari and one other, whom he claimed worked with the Bureau of Public Procurement, collected a sum of N29.9 million from him, with the promise to facilitate the award of a contract. The story circulated widely because the host of the radio station is a distinguished human rights advocate. The accuser also claimed he had been forsaken by the government agencies he petitioned and that Mr Kyari ordered for his detention by the SSS for two weeks.
The stories cited here, along with the guilt of his association with a maligned principal, were some of the well-sensationalized perspectives that guided the interpretation of Mr. Kyari. That he never bothered to respond to most of these stories was a strange position, because the reputation of his family and friends were equally at stake. It would’ve been understandable if he were heading a private enterprise that required no accountability to the public.
But this stoic disposition amid damaging scandals can’t be attributed to naïveté. He definitely knew the implication of a single story. He wasn’t just a Cambridge-educated lawyer who was ignorant of politics of the media, he was an excellent journalist and editor of a once-successful newspaper before venturing into banking, and climbing up to the highest position at the UBA. This impressive profile at least saved him from being qualified as a “quota system graduate” or just another intellectually deficient Aboki, as people from his side of the country are often branded by bigoted opposers and ethnic irredentists.
As the world remembered him differently, and reflected on both his virtues and villainy, a friend observed something in a private conversation. That even those critical of Mr. Kyari might wish for him if his successor turns out to be politically ambitious or have a stake in choosing Nigeria’s next President in 2023, something Mr. Kyari wasn’t. Like my friend, one thing that scares me about such political vacuum is the unpredictability of the successor. When you wish for a political vacuum, you should always think of the possible replacements. You may be fighting a dazzle of zebras, but innocently wishing for a vacuum that’s bound to be occupied by the cheetahs you can never outrun.
I just hope that our power-brokers prioritize the survival of this country as they pause to find Mr. Kyari’s replacement. Nigeria, like the rest of the world, is at war with nature, the strangest our generation, and a few before ours, have ever witnessed, and we can’t afford a long political distraction. We have a lot of stories to document, and Mr. Kyari is one interesting character to unravel. Unfortunately, dead men tell no tales. May God save us from us.