By Suleiman Ugbagaya
There is a popular saying that has since gained traction in the social media, which is to the effect that if you want to know how difficult it is to govern Nigeria, create a Whatsapp chat group and become its administrator. It is only then that one gets to see how naughty some compatriots could be, deliberately refusing to hearken to simple rules set to provide for smooth inter-relations in the group. For me, this gives a good background to the Abba Kyari story, who many Nigerians see as a legend, a hero of sort, and who others, perhaps in millions, perceive as a villain.
I came into personal contact with Malam Abba Kyari In August 2011, exactly four years before President Muhammadu Buhari appointed him his Chief of Staff in 2015. It was the very day the board of Leadership Newspapers Group was appointing me as editor of the flagship, daily title. Abba Kyari is a very close personal friend to Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah, my boss and benefactor for life, and he was in the newspaper’s headquarters in Abuja at the time I was being interviewed. It was Sam who asked whether I knew the man, to which I answered in the negative. But when he mentioned the name, I asked whether he was the same person who served as Managing Director of the United Bank for Africa, one of the top four biggest banks in Nigeria at the time. Abba Kyari wasted no time in strongly recommending me for the job.
But I soon started having issues with Abba Kyari owing to his penchant for thoroughness and perfection. He was never a staff of the company, but was behaving like the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, and everyday, he will sit me down and tell me the many things I did wrongly. I became his true friend when a few months into the job, the errors were becoming fewer, and he would at times leave the office of the publisher and sit with me in my office in the very vibrant newsroom, asking whether I had challenges and needed his help. Once it was production time, however, he would wish me well and take his leave, saying he didn’t want to distract me.
One day, I had a problem with one of my supervisors and made up my mind to resign the post of editor. The woman was more or less personalizing her differences with me, and was clearly making life very difficult for me. I felt I needed to keep a safe distance from her, and could only gain that when I no longer work in the editorial department. So I entered the office of the publisher, and met him chatting with Malam Abba Kyari. I did not even extend to them the courtesy of greeting when I interrupted their conversation with a stern demand for the publisher to assign me to any other department in the company. I told him in unmistakable terms that I could no longer work with that woman.
Mr. Nda-Isaiah was shocked. The post of editor of a daily newspaper was one of the most lucrative in the industry. It brings you close to the men (and women) of power, who call you everyday needing one favour or the other. Strangely, here was I throwing all of it away on a platter. So shocked was my publisher that he couldn’t utter a word. He just looked at me in amazement. It was Malam Abba Kyari who spoke first, and the words he uttered have remained deeply etched in my memory since then:
“Editor,” he said, “you are not going to resign. The company will not accept your resignation letter even if you submit one. So go back to your work and learn to tolerate others. Learn to grow a thick skin and always remember that what is important is the work you have been assigned to do. Don’t allow critics or anyone to distract you.”
I bursted into tears. He waited until I cried my heart out, but still repeated those words. I felt a deep hatred for him for being so callous – or so I thought.
It was now time for Mr. Nda-Isaiah to talk. He was a man of few words who clearly felt disappointed that the man he so trusted with such a big responsibility was kind of betraying him. He minced no words in telling me how disappointed he was, saying he never knew I was a weakling. He ordered me back to the newsroom to carry on with my job. Both men supported me in every way they could, until I left on my own volition two years later. Even my resignation at that time was only possible because both Malam Abba Kyari and my publisher had traveled out of the country.
If there is one thing I hate, it is opportunism. And so, as a personal policy, I try to keep some distance from friends or benefactors once they assume a position of power, unless they make deliberate efforts to draw me close. I mostly only resume that relationship after they leave political office, and this is one policy that has been serving me very well. And so, my contact with Malam Abba Kyari has been rather limited since he assumed office in the State House four years ago. But I make bold to say he is one person who does not forget his friends, even if they choose to keep a distance from him, as I have chosen to do.
There has always been the urge to write on this man of excellence who, as a one time editor, played a key part in shaping my career as a journalist. The urge to help him became even more pronounced from the moment Kyari started getting heavily criticized by many compatriots who wrongly felt he was amassing too much power as Nigeria’s President Chief of Staff. But I always didn’t want it to look like I was being opportunistic. And so, I allowed the man to get all the bashing, amazed that my compatriots could not see that it is the office, not the person, that is so powerful. And it is the same with that kind of office anywhere in the world.
At the age of six, my father (of blessed memory), though a Muslim, enrolled me into a Christian missionary school that had what used to be the biggest church in old Kano State. When he was challenged by my grandfather, my dad told him he did so deliberately to broaden my worldview and prepare me for the realities and challenges of multi-ethnic, multi-religious Nigeria. I thought I was cosmopolitan enough until that fateful day when the duo of Malam Abba Kyari and Mr Sam Nda-Isaiah taught me a lesson in tolerance, and on the need to develop a thick skin so as not to lose focus on anything I set out to achieve. Though I can at times be emotional, that lesson has stuck with me and is responsible for much of the successes I have achieved in the journey of life.
I am one Nigerian who, therefore, is not in the least surprised that Malam Abba Kyari has continued to weather the storm, carrying on with his duties with little or no distraction. Four years before he got his current job he had asked me to develop a thick skin against criticisms and see that as a way to improve myself. And here we are, the teacher was being severely tested. With all the insults and misrepresentation against his person on daily basis, I thought he was going to give in to pressure and throw in the towel, as I threatened to do as editor of Leadership newspaper. But for him, he was doing his best, to the satisfaction of God and his principal. He must have concluded that he is not the first high office holder in Nigeria or elsewhere to be so abused and misunderstood, and surely he is not going to be the last.
Writing on Malam Abba Kyari, a good friend of his for many years, Professor Emmanuel Yaw Bennett of the University of Ghana, pointed out that the Chief of Staff to the President is operating on three cardinal principles, the first of which is that “he will not allow anyone to mislead the President through misrepresentation. Secondly, that he will not allow the President’s integrity to be violated, and thirdly, that he will not allow Nigeria’s interests to be subordinated to any other consideration.” This, surely, is bad news for those who feel they can have the man cowed by sponsoring endless insults and criticisms against his person.
Only someone with a thick skin, and a very thick one for that matter, could insist in operating on these principles. Naturally, those who have been stopped by Malam Abba from taking undue advantage of the President’s innocence – and there are a vast number of them – would not be happy with the Chief of Staff. And to get back at him, they go to town with all sorts of false tales about the man. A prove of that could be seen in the fact that the office Malam Abba holds is one that relates everyday mostly with elite members of the society. One therefore needs to ask why it is that ordinary members of the society, who hardly have direct relations with him, are more vociferous in attacking and condemning the man, especially in the social media.
For those who want to understand why President Buhari bestows so much trust and confidence in his Chief of Staff, here is another story.
On May 1, 2012, Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah attained the golden age of fifty. His friends and key staff members of his media conglomerate felt we needed to celebrate our boss in a big way. But there was a problem: he preferred a rather quite celebration.and so, we secured the buy-in of his dutiful wife, and working in concert with her, we planned a nationwide birthday bash that included a public lecture to commemorate the event. It attracted the cream of the Nigerian society, with the legendary General TY Danjuma presiding.
Mr. Nda-Isaiah, a man with the lion heart, strangely became emotional as he was delivering his speech. He bursted into tears when he mentioned the name, Abba Kyari. He was narrating how instrumental Kyari has been in getting him achieve so much at that age, and General Danjuma had to calm the celebrant down by bringing him a cup of water.
The lesson here is that once you allow Abba Kyari to come close to you, one of the biggest benefits you are going to have is that he will play decisive roles in improving your life. He had done that to me. And I was only getting to know he was doing same to my boss at that occasion. Operating on the three principles he set out for himself, as enunciated above, Abba Kyari has done quite a lot to protect President Buhari from some hawks whose negative influences have played key roles in wrecking many administrations in the past.
Perhaps capturing Kyari’s resourcefulness even more succinctly is the maverick politician, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode. He was on record to have stated that he “studied at Cambridge University in 1984 with Abba Kyari, President Buhari’s Chief of Staff. We sat next to each other during our final exams and I can confirm that he is brilliant. He also worked in my father’s law firm, Fani Kayode and Sowemino for years and he was one of the brightest.”
Four years ago, President Buhari took over a nation in total mess, with the economy almost collapsing. He had two options at the time: to simply sit back, fold his hands and ultimately serve as the country’s undertaker, or take decisions that may be painful, but which will at the end of the day make Nigeria attain its rightful place in the comity of world’s greatest nations.
Successful administrators globally have always insisted that a leader makes or mar his administration from the appointments he makes, especially of those that will work with him on everyday basis. Contrary to all speculations and false insinuations, that is the only reason President Buhari had to search far and wide to pick from among the best that will help him achieve the noble objectives he set out for Nigeria.
Luckily for the President, he appointed someone who would rather take the bullet to ensure the President survives. And so, for students of the science of power, Abba Kyari is a classical study of an aide who has redefined loyalty, selflessness and commitment at their best.
Is Abba Kyari undermining Vice President Osinbajo?
One of the false stories being hyped in the traditional but especially social media is that Malam Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to the President, has been engaging in serious insubordination by undermining Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. A very respected news medium recently published the story of a memo submitted to the President by the Vice President, which Kyari allegedly sat on for weeks, before reworking it to include things that are different from the earlier submission made by the Vice President.
I am not sure of the veracity of the story, but even if we assume it is true, the reality is that only in Nigeria will such ever be an issue. This is so because in this clime, there are people who read tribal or religious meanings to every action taken in the Presidency, especially of President Buhari, who has been enduring accusations of bias in appointments, even though in his first term, he appointed more Christians as ministers, and far more projects are being executed in the South, rather than the North he hails from.
The truth is that globally, the presidency is deemed as one and the same. God has never created the perfect human being, and so, in any presidency, especially in saner climes, even the most junior public officer could correct the president of the country and no one could misread that to mean insubordination. In other words, memos originating from the desk of the president or his deputy could be strewn with errors, and it is the duty of those working for the president to correct those errors.
It is possible Vice President Osinbajo had made the submission being bandied about. The Number Two Citizen is definitely one of the brightest minds ever to assume the office of Vice President in this country. But did Professor Osinbajo himself ever staked any claim to perfection?
When I first started maintaining a column in the New Nigerian newspaper over a decade ago, I picked on another columnist, incidentally a personal friend, with who I was exchanging articles for editing. Based on our agreement, he would very critically look at my write up and, even if he did not find any error, still rework some paragraphs to make sure it was better than what I sent to him. I was also doing the same to his own, and before long, we were attracting large readership, based on the reader feedback we were receiving.
So it is only because in Nigeria, we see the presidency along tribal and religious lines will it ever be an issue if, or when, the Chief of Staff to the President reworks a memo earlier submitted by the Vice President. The Professor Yemi Osinbajo that many of us know will not knowingly submit a memo without the best for Nigeria in his mind. But does that mean it becomes an offense if someone in the same presidency picks out ideas that serve the best interest of Nigeria better? Does that mean Professor Yemi Osinbajo also engaged in insubordination when he took many actions that were at variance with those of his principal, President Buhari, when he held sway severally as Acting President?
Twenty years ago a major newsmagazine was doing a cover story on the then speaker of the House of Representatives. The editors, all of them gurus in the media profession, were looking for an apt headline to capture the essence of the story. A security man passing by them saw the cover design on a computer screen, and uttered the word: face of a liar, without knowing he was by that solving a very major problem. The smart editors there and then got the headline they suffered so much looking for, and used it, without minding the fact that it came from an uneducated security personnel.
Malam Abba Kyari, who even his enemies submit is a very intelligent man, was appointed to the office of Chief of Staff by President Buhari to help him get it right for Nigeria. Even the purveyors of the story did not claim that he rework the story to favour his own person. He did so to ensure Nigeria gets a better deal. And since that is also the aspiration of the Vice President, how does that become an offense?
Also in his 2020 budget speech before the joint session of the National Assembly, President Buhari categorically pointed out that Nigeria will need more revenue to be able to execute the many noble projects and programme enunciated in the budget.
Working in cahoots with the National Assembly, President Buhari identified the urgent need to amend the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract Bill to get for Nigeria far bigger revenues, for the overall good of the country.
The President felt there was no need for the country to lose revenue by waiting for him to return from his two weeks private visit to London to sign the bill into law, and asked his Chief if Staff to bring it to him for immediate endorsement.
But the prophets of doom went to town with all sorts of ridiculous stories that it was an open humiliation for the Vice President, as if leaving the shores of Nigeria is stripping Buhari of his powers as President. The presidency has issued statements, repeatedly disputing wild claims of infighting in the corridors of power, but the naysayers are unrelenting in insisting there is a fight, as if that’s what we want to advance the cause of the country.
Nigeria is governed by laws, and the law does not insist that President Buhari must transmit power to his deputy if he is not on a prolonged stay abroad. Interestingly, this is a president who, on his own volition, not once, not twice, handed over full reign of power to his deputy, because he was staying longer than the days mentioned in the constitution.
In situations like that, as Comrade Adams Oshiomhole said, the President is at liberty to govern either within or outside the shores of Nigeria, as no President anywhere in the world loses his power on account of brief stays abroad.