One death and why the poor must not be kept hungry
The death of Mallam Abba Kyari, the Chief of Staff to the President, has brought home to us the grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating possibilities. Kyari was President Muhammadu Buhari alter-ego. Few weeks ago, he went on national assignment to Germany where it was believed he contracted the deadly virus. Few days after his return, he knew he was ill and he was quickly taken to the hospital. Only recently, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health confirmed that he died in a private specialist hospital in the city. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerian former President, stated in his tribute that Kyari “died in harness, in the service of his country.”
Those who knew Kyari, a former journalist and banker, described him as a workaholic. Despite his compromised health condition, he was noted for spending hours at his desk, insisting that every piece of information to the President must pass through him. Nothing escaped his eagle eyes. The traffic was two ways. The President also pass all information through the Chief of Staff. His passion for the job ensure that no one was indifferent to him. They feared him; they loathed him and they loved him with passion. But Kyari was a soldier who was indifferent to the din of battle. He feared no foe. Death finally came for him.
In the heady days after General Muhammadu Buhari became our President in 2015, I had approached my friend and colleague, Femi Adesina, the Special Adviser to the President on Media, that I would like Buhari to write the Foreword to our new book, The Nigerian Century. The book had been commissioned by the departed regime of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Nigeria’s amalgamation by the British. Adesina, also new to Aso-Rock and its byzantine politics, advised that the person to make it happen was Kyari. Adesina did his job well and Kyari was persuaded. The President wrote a great Foreword to the 500-page epochal book.
Kyari was the ideal Chief of Staff, much in the mold of Major General Abdullahi Mohammed, Obasanjo competent and influential COS. I met Mohammed once or twice at Villa in the early days of the Obasanjo Presidency. Though this man had been governor and was the first Director-General of the Nigerian Security Organisation (now Department of State Security), he carried no airs. He had also served as the National Security Adviser, NSA, to General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the last military ruler who handed over power to President Obasanjo in 1999.
One day I went to meet Chief Bola Ige, then the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, to discuss the coming visit of American President Bill Clinton to Nigeria. Some of our friends wanted the Federal Government to include Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, in the American President programme. I suggested to Uncle Bola that we should sell the idea to President Obasanjo. “No,” said Ige. “The person we need is Mohammed, the COS!”
Like Mohammed, Kyari was a reticent man of means but not a lover of extravagance. He was the husband of one wife and a devoted father to his children. His sudden passage must have been especially devastating to his immediate family. I would like to convey to them my deepest condolences. They should be proud of his service and fact that he died on duty to the nation.
Kyari was not a politician and he did not appear to care much about public opinion. His constituency was the President and that was it. He kept his views to himself. He was relentless, competent and fearless. Buhari trusted him absolutely. His opponent accused him of reckless nepotism and power-mongering. They accused him of being the Rasputin of the Republic and the head of the new power mafia. But the boss was satisfied and that was good enough for Kyari. Buhari knew he could trust him. They respected and loved each other; two old men at the height of their games, worried about legacy in a country whose temper can be both turbulent and unpredictable. Neither of them could have predicted the final ambuscade from COVID-19.
It is interesting to learn about the loud speculations on who will fit the bill as Kyari successor. Some people have even mentioned the name of Alhaji Ismaila Isa Funtua, an outstanding journalist and businessman who is noted to be close to Buhari. But Alhaji Ismaila, apart from his age, is not the kind of personality that would concede to be anyone Chief of Staff. I was elated however when one of the power-brokers in Abuja mentioned the name of retired Brigadier-General Mohammed Buba Marwa, a soldier of competence and considerable influence and international exposure. Marwa served with credit as the ruler of Lagos State during the military era. The choice in the end is that of the President.
One hope that the President would not delay because the pestilence that took the life of his friend is still abroad and roaring. Our President and most of the governors have ordered lock-down across the country which one hopes would be lifted by the end of this week. They have outlawed the usual social gathering so beloved by the Nigerian people. The economy is in throes and the lockdown would worsen the situation. The truth is that our country cannot afford an indefinite lockdown. We do not have the money to support it. And even if the money is there, we do not have the social infrastructure and the resources to give us a less bumpy ride. Therefore, our leaders should not panic but should be resolute in pursuing other methods that would help us win this war.
Last week, the Governor of Cross River State, Benedict Ayade, announced that he is making the wearing of facemask mandatory for every person in the state. There is already an established Cross River Garment Factory, located in Calabar for that purpose. Many other states are also considering the same measure. This is a good development. However, it would be shameful if we also import facemasks from China when this can be produced by our own tailors.
We should ensure that everyone appearing in public space, markets, banks, public transport, hospitals and other places, must appear in facemask to reduce the incident of person-to-person transmission. Frequent temperature testing should be carried out in each inter-state motor-parks, airports and train stations. The World Health Organisation, WHO, has announced that frequent washing of hands would help in curbing the pandemic. Therefore, the government, especially local governments, should make available hand-washing stations in various public spaces especially bus stops and parks. Every taxi and public bus must also have hand alcohol-based sanitisers as recommended by WHO for each passenger. We must do everything to defeat this pandemic.
The truth is that this pandemic is going to have a devastating effect on our economy. Yesterday, the United Nations warned that this pandemic would also have effect on farm harvests and food production this year which may result in at least 250 million people facing starvation. The world oil price has virtually collapsed and we have to fend for ourselves in this season of bad weather. Last week in some states of the federation, especially Lagos and Ogun, scores of robbers marched through entire neighbourhood to commit atrocities and inflict pains. This resulted in counter-action by citizens who created vigilante groups. Suddenly Lagos became again the city of burning tyres reminiscent of those days of the June 12 protests. Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector General of Police has risen to the occasion saying that they have a duty to impose order and security. Well said.
The truth is that though Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa it is also home to the largest concentration of the African poor. The pandemic is going to worsen the matter. The leadership has a duty to ensure that the poorest among us are not left helpless and desperate. If they become desperate, they would do anything to get food to feed their families and that would endanger everyone.
In the 1950s an 87-year old woman was brought before a New York judge for shop-lifting.
“Are you guilty or not,” the judge asked. The woman pleaded guilty.
“Why did you do it,” the judge asked.
The old woman explained that she lived alone with her two grandchildren. There was no food in the house and the children were starving.
“I have no choice than to steal Your Honour,” she said. “I am ashamed of myself! But I want my grandchildren to eat!!”
“The law is the law,” the judge pronounced. “You are guilty as charged! You are hereby fined 100 dollars or go to jail in the alternative!”
“Your Honour, if I have 100 dollars, I would not need to steal food,” the old woman said. “I will have to go to jail!”
The judge then reclined in his chair and pulled out a 100 dollar-bill from his pocket. He raised it up and asked the bailiff to take.
“The fine is paid in full!”
He ordered that everyone present should contribute money and a tidy sum of about 2000 dollars was raised for the woman.
“We should all be ashamed to live in a country where the poor would have no option than to steal in order to eat,” he said.
If there is a lesson to learn from COVID-19, it is that we have a duty to build a more humane society where the poor are not without hope.
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