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Abba Kyari: The loyal fall guy

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I never met the man Abba Kyari, late Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. Not that it matters. Public officials are judged by what they say or do. What they did not do. Things said or written about them. I hardly ever had access to any policy statement credited to Kyari. Much of what we knew about him was attributed. Gossip from the seat of power.

First Lady Aisha Buhari hit hard when she decried a cabal that had seized the presidency. The APC won elections riding on the much-vaunted credibility of Buhari and lost governance to a cabal. Word went round: the man to blame was Abba Kyari. The press went to town. Social media, that free-for-all market, square dished out the good, the bad, the ugly, the fake, the surreal and the unimaginable!  

In a sense, Kyari died a very public death. He wrote a letter, stating that he was submitting himself for treatment having contracted COVID-19. He disappeared from public glare with a promise to return to his desk. Alas, providence decided otherwise. Where he checked into in Lagos was not made public. We later heard he died in First Cardiology Consultants Hospital. We live in Africa. Superstition is next of kin. We hide health conditions. The belief that if evil people know that one is sick, they could ‘fan the embers’ of the illness through juju is strong! Nollywood aptly demonstrates this. But Kyari declared his health status as the most highly placed persons around the world had done. Prime Minister Boris Johnson checked into St. Thomas Hospital. When he was placed on a ventilator, the world knew. When he came off the ventilator the world also knew. There is a video of Johnson leaving ICU for the hospital room!  We never knew where our president went for treatment in London, or what his ailment was!     

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Kyari was not elected. He was an appointee that is not supposed to be seen or heard. A Chief of Staff ‘provides a buffer between a chief executive and the president’s direct reporting team’. He works behind the scenes ‘to solve problems, mediate disputes and deal with issues before they are brought to the chief executive’. This way, the president concentrates on policymaking, shielded from the distractions which squabbles could cause any administration. He is usually as powerful as the principal makes him. Kyari became a very powerful man in the government. He was both hated and loved. Perhaps with equal intensity. Not being a minister, he did not deploy the machinery of government to defend himself. There was no need perhaps. He was accountable to the president, the man who gave him enormous power. Once his principal was happy, he was okay. He did not need the approval of the people. Perhaps that was where his problems started. Disdain for the niceties of holding a public office, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
    
Once a man takes up a public office, he opens his entire life to the public, to the press, to the prying eyes of the citizenry. He is scrutinized like no other and held to account for things other mortals would ordinarily not be judged by. It is the way of the world. Common knowledge, native wisdom says that we should not speak ill of the dead. For, we do not know our fate, what would become of us. Besides, the dead cannot defend themselves. So, we must let sleeping dogs lie. However, this doctrine is usually tested when controversial persons die. As we know, there are some extreme characters who still dominate the public space. They influence policy, society either negatively or positively. When they die, their past deeds are pushed into the public domain. To be sure, in tributes, nobody recounts misdeeds of the dead. They are left unsaid. Yet they are known. Decency makes restraint possible, even conventional. But as Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, ‘the evils that men do live after them; the good is often interred with their bones’. In a flyer issued by the Anglican Church, Oba, parishioners are enjoined to live their lives well ‘so we don’t have to lie at your funeral’!

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Abba Kyari was a public-private figure.  All the missteps of the Buhari administration were attributed to him. Wrongly or otherwise. Prolonged stay of the Service Chiefs. RUGA. MTN bribery allegation. Insecurity arising from usurping presidential powers. Appointment to NNPC Board. Marginalising and undermining the Vice President’s office. Siege on the Senate by DSS. Holding meetings with service chiefs. Giving orders as gleaned from the NSA’s letter. Paying a fee for ministerial appointments. These and many more. In a normal situation, all these actions fall within the purview of the President. Yet, Kyari was said to exercise powers on behalf of the president. Indeed, the president gave an open order that ministers should see him through the Chief of Staff! That was poignant. So, when things began to wobble, Kyari became the fall guy. The bad guy who must leave the way. The insensitive rubbish strewn on social media does not deserve space in a credible newspaper; so, I will not dignify those inanities with a quote. Suffice it to say that some gloated when he contracted the disease and when he died. Which is very un-African! Sad. But it shows the nature of the relationship between the leaders (read ‘rulers) and the led (read ‘ruled) in Nigeria. The people hold public officials responsible for all the woes. No love lost between them!
   
There was a narrative that Kyari was behind insensitive actions which elected officials would never do. According to Richard Grenell, ‘the American public holds unelected government officials in low esteem is that they are never held accountable for their failures’. For, elected officials keep an eye on public opinion. The touchiest aspect is the apparent untouchability of murderous herders across the land. The perception is that they are protected by the government headed by cattle owners. Whether Kyari really symbolizes this class is a different kettle of fish.   
   
As we move on from the Kyari era, the big lesson is that in a democracy, the people matter. Perception matters. No effort should be spared to give the correct perspective of things to the people, the ultimate owners of power. Even in death, Kyari was controversial through no fault of his. The high number of sympathisers at the Gudu Cemetery burial site showed loyalty despite the risks of infection, but it also contradicted safety rules in the COVID-19 era. This also drew criticisms – no social distancing, two rules for two classes of people!  
    
I condole with the president on the loss of a trusted aide, a fully committed fall guy for the administration’s weaknesses. I also call on him to take charge of his presidency and make a legacy. If governance improves after Kyari, the people will know what to say. We condole with Kyari’s wife and kids who definitely will live with the contrasting and conflicting persona of a dad, a provider, loyalist but a sloppy in public relations in a world where the media makes or mars one’s reputation!    

Eghagha can be reached on 08023220393. 

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