Monday, April 27, 2020 10:21 pm
By Olatunji Dare
To him, I was always “Senior Dare.”
President Muhamadu Buhari’s powerful chief of staff, Malam Abba Kyari, who died of the coronavirus last week aged 67, imbibed this mode of address from our alma mater, St Paul’s College, Wusasa, in Zaria.
Departing upper classmen rarely retain lasting memories of the freshmen or sophomores they left behind, unless these juniors were particularly troublesome. Two decades went by, and my path and Abba Kyari’s did not cross until sometime in the late 1980s when my colleague Sully Abu and his contemporary at the New Nigerian brought him to my office in Rutam House for an “introduction” or, more appropriately, a re-connection.
Since then, Abba Kyari and I have maintained a relationship that was more pragmatic than close. Whenever he thought I might have some insights he could profit from, and wherever I happened to be, he reached out to me. In turn, I reached out from time to time with suggestions on how he might best pursue some broad as well as specific goals he often shared with me.
These goals were never about him. They always centred on how Nigeria could achieve the greatness he believed was her destiny, and on his unshakeable belief that the project could be realized under – perhaps only under — a Buhari Presidency.
He outlined his thoughts on this project in a paper he sent to me for comment and criticism, and published subsequently in on ThisDay on October 1, 2012.
Nigeria, the paper began, was the only country on the African continent (I would add South Africa) with all the attributes of a great power – size, population, arable land, water, forests, hard minerals, tourism potential — indeed everything required for a major modern economy. “Yet . . . here we are!” it said plaintively.
Nigeria’s “all-powerful Centre,” it continued, was weak and confused; the periphery was doing all the running. Separatists, secessionists, nihilist, anarchists and even bandits were having a field day. The majority were just “onlookers,” despairing and even losing hope and faith in Nigeria as a federation and in its existence as a nation. Pessimism about its future was pervasive, deep.
As a result of current difficulties, the paper went on, Nigeria tended to forget its wider responsibility to the African continent – the only continent, the majority of which was stricken with poverty. That responsibility was to “knock Africa into shape.”
But first, Nigeria had to get its act together, solve its local difficulties and face its wider responsibilities. “The future prosperity of Africa,” it declared, “is directly linked to the prosperity and stability of Nigeria.”
The immediate challenge, as Kyari saw it, was to integrate Nigeria’s plural society at the political level where more than 90 percent to the population was already socializing, integrating and living in peace; lift the entire population out of poverty into relative prosperity, and create conditions for true representative and accountable governance.”
These reflections could only have stemmed from a patriotic and cosmopolitan mind, not from the parochial provincial mindset that Abba Kyari’s critics thought he represented.
The rest of the 14-page paper is a blueprint of how these objectives might be realized, illustrated with theoretical underpinnings and empirical evidence.
The ingredients were already in place. What remained was the man who would bring them together, create the spark that would light the flame and set Nigeria off on it mission to greatness and prosperity not just for its citizens but for all of Africa
Abba Kyari apparently saw that man in Muhammad Buhari.
In his marathon election quest, Buhari had much going for him. His Spartan discipline, his asceticism, his steadfastness in pursuit of his goals, and his perceived integrity had seemed to be what Nigeria needed to arrest the drift and decay of the Shagari era. Some two decades later, those same qualities appeared to be what Nigeria needed to get out of the cluelessness and the unfettered corruption driving Nigeria into a ditch, with Goodluck Jonathan at the steering wheel.
But Buhari’s terrible human rights record constituted a major obstacle. Kyari woo had been at his side through thick thin, went to work. Drawing on his cosmopolitan credentials, and aided by hundreds of Nigerians who had suffered harsh penalties under Buhari’s military regime, helped cultivate a more nuanced perception of Buhari. They persuaded some of Buhari’s most implacable adversaries in the civil society to look more at the man’s strengths than his weaknesses. Together, they helped widen Buhari’s narrow circle of friends and sympathisers.
Few of them expected any reward or preferment. It just seemed the right thing to do.
Finally, on his fourth quest for the top job, Buhari’s perceived strengths conflated with the public yearning for change to deliver the Presidency to Buhari and the APC. To hardly any surprise, he named Abba Kyari his chief of staff, in the first round of appointments Buhari made.
The Administration took off to a ponderous start, not on the swift, sure-footed note sketched in the manifesto of the winning APC coalition. As it unfolded, its agenda showed little in common with the progressive blueprint Abba Kyari had set out in the 2012 paper cited earlier.
Instead of taking full advantage of its sweeping majority to launch its agenda of change, Buhari declared that he belonged to no one and to everyone, even as a faction of the APC hijacked the National Assembly and deployed its powers to subvert rather than advance the government’s agenda.
Charges that public appointments were made with scant regard to the federal character principle pervaded the news. Lassitude thrived at the top, and the Presidency often seemed like a house divided against itself. Nigeria could not “knock itself into shape,” any more than knock Africa into shape, as Abba Kyari had proposed in his visionary paper.
At the time Buhari took office in 2015, the defeated PDP had all but ceased to be an effective political party. Having been beaten comprehensively, it seemed marked for terminal collapse. At a point, it could not even pay the salaries of its headquarters staff.
But at the next election four short years later, the PDP had bounced back. Not because it came up with superior programmes and policies, nor because it had mended its calamitous ways; it was enjoying a revival of sorts because, in the public perception, there was little to choose between the APC and the PDP.
The close outcome of the presidential race reflected that perception. Few of the ideas and projects Kyari advocated in his paper gained traction. And the remaining tenure of the administration promises more of the same, even without the hobbling impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown, the tempo of which it quickened.
In the end, it will probably be said that Kyari’s strictures against the “all powerful” but “weak and confused Centre,” the frenetic but directionless running in the periphery, and about the majority that has been reduced to onlookers in a system that is neither representative nor accountable; it will probably be said that they apply with almost equal force to the Buhari Presidency.
It will be said that concern for these and other issues remained largely unaddressed by an administration of which Aba Kyari was perceived to be the driving force, the agenda-setter.
It will be said, finally, that few among those whose two reel who have strong feelings about governance and the public good have Abba Kyari’s golden opportunity to operate at the very intersection of policy and execution, with access to resources and other assets to help translate vision into actuality.
It is no disrespect to Abba Kyari’s memory and legacy to state that he did not succeed on these scores.
The question for us, then, and especially the other Abba Kyaris among us is: Why not? What forces were at work?
May his patriotic soul rest in peace.