Locating Kyari amid search for who oversees Buhari’s presidency
• Tracing the cross-lines in the seat of power
With the election of President Muhammadu Buhari, Aso Rock, the seat of Nigeria’s presidency, took a different dimension from what it was in the preceding 16 years of the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) administration. One of the remarkable changes in the seat of the Federal Government was the position and influence of the office of the Chief of Staff (CoS). When Mallam Abba Kyari was announced as the Chief of Staff on August 27, 2015, not many people expected that the weight of the change in governance style would revolve around this reticent but meticulous technocrat.
Nevertheless, it took the first four years of Buhari’s presidency for the jury to be out and Mallam Kyari has ever since been hailed as one of the most powerful men in any kitchen cabinet, even to the extent that he is perceived as the head of ‘a cabal’ repeatedly accused of running the Buhari administration, for most Nigerians, ‘to ruin’.
As the CoS, Kyari is known to be one of the president’s closest aides, because not only does he plan the president’s schedules, Buhari made it mandatory for ministers to see Kyari first in matters that needed Mr. President’s attention. The escalation of the power and influence of the office of the CoS, it should be noted, depends on the president. It is only the president alone that decides the relevance of the office and how powerful the occupant could be. This is so because as could be seen in the case of Kyari, it is the president that can delegate authority and responsibilities to the office since all powers flow directly from Mr. President.
Most observers have noted that the office of the Chief of Staff to the President was not a creation of the constitution. But today, despite whatever anyone can say, after 20 years, the office has become the cynosure of all eyes in the land. By the nature of its configuration, the office plays twin roles namely, bureaucratic and political.
It is the use or abuse of the political role that seems to bring about the high visibility of and disquiet about the office. However, those close to the principal actors in the presidency believe that most of the conflicts that have ensued within the Buhari administration ever since it came on board could be traced to the president’s decision to accord unlimited powers to Kyari.
Unknown to many, during his first term, President Buhari instructed his ministers not to come directly to him, but to route their requests through the Borno State-born Chief of Staff. As such, when the president took ill and spent much of that tenure on medical vacation, Kyari was forced, by extenuating circumstances, to fill the void.
Although Vice President Yemi Osinbajo stepped in an acting capacity, the centrality of the office of the CoS in the organogram of the presidency still puts stress on Kyari. And while that was the case, some stakeholders made an issue out of it, just as others have argued that the CoS deserves a share of the credit for the smooth running of government during the president’s prolonged absence.
RECALL that at the inception of the current tenure, President Buhari once again but publicly instructed the ministers to channel their requests for meetings and appointments with him via the office of the Chief of Staff, while memos concerning the Federal Executive Council (FEC) should be routed through the Secretary of Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha. It was this presidential directive that some commentators have interpreted, as a confirmation of Kyari’s position as the ‘de facto president’ overseeing the affairs of government.
An instance of some of the small battles brewing within the Presidential Villa was the recent seeming rivalry between the office of the CoS and that of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Babagana Monguno (rtd). It is through such exchanges lie the fascinating picture of a man perceived as indispensable among the stronghold of members of the touted president’s inner circle, otherwise known as “the cabal” in the Villa.
Man of few words
KYARI is a product of the University of Cambridge, University of Warwick, Nigerian Law School, International Institute for Management at Laussane, Switzerland and Harvard Business School. From 1988 to 1990, he was Editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited Kaduna. In 1990 he served briefly as Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in Borno State before proceeding to the Board of African International Bank Limited, where he served as secretary from 1990 to 1995. Thereafter the Chief of Staff became the Executive Director, Management Services, United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc and was later appointed Managing Director and Chief Executive of the bank.
His extensive chain of experience facilitated his appointment as a Director of Unilever Nigeria Plc and as a Director of Exxon Mobil Nigeria in 2002. In addition to his appointment as Chief of Staff, Kyari was also appointed to the board of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) by President Buhari on July 4, 2016.
Perhaps, on account of his taciturnity, the Chief of Staff seems to share similar character traits with President Buhari, but most observers fail to reckon that he is a man of letters.
The fact that Kyari comes across as the most vilified among the members of the innermost chamber of President Buhari’s cabinet adds to the burdens he bears daily as Chief of Staff. And, given his somewhat withdrawn and aloof demeanour, analysts have posited that he fits into the mould of those needed to positively interpret the president’s body language and be able at the same time to fill in the blank spaces for political finesse, thereby reflecting the people element.
Taking a cue from the United States system, upon which the Nigerian presidency is simulated, the office of the Chief of Staff exists to protect the interest of the president. He negotiates with the legislature and extra-governmental political groups to accept the president’s agenda.
Watchers of the presidency further aver that by virtue of his office, the Chief of Staff is also the chief adviser to the president on sundry matters as well as demonstrate without fear and having the boldness to tell the president the truth.
Taking the flaks
Amid the sneers and jeers, some critics show distaste for his administrative disposition and perceived haughtiness, while some of his admirers insist that Kyari comes across as possessing affable disposition. But insiders say the CoS is not given to razzamatazz, but more inclined to keep a low profile in carrying out his duties as ethically and professionally as possible, and without necessarily rocking the boat. This estimation contrasts and sounds quite contrary to the belief in some quarters that the CoS is inebriated with the vodka of power.
Nevertheless, as reporters covering the State House, the general impression is that Kyari is unruffled and continues to weather the storms, carrying on with his duties as he takes the flaks of uninformed outsiders. He seems to have developed a thick skin against criticisms and misrepresentation against his person on a daily basis.
Staff working closely with him maintain that he is doing his best to the satisfaction of his principal, stressing that he believes that he is not the first holder of high office in Nigeria or elsewhere to be so misunderstood, and surely not the last.
As disclosed by Suleiman Uba Gaya, an ally of the CoS, “It was a good friend of his for many years, Professor Emmanuel Yaw Bennett of the University of Ghana that explained that Mallam Kyari is operating on three cardinal principles. The first 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 finally, that he will not allow Nigeria’s interests to be subordinated to any other consideration.”
Gaya disclosed that those who had been prevented by Kyari from taking undue advantage of President Buhari’s innocence, an incredibly vast number of them, would not be happy with the Chief of Staff.
“And to get back at him,” he said, “they go to town with all sorts of false tales about the man. To prove that, it could be seen that the office Mallam Abba holds is one that relates every day mostly with elite members of the society. One, therefore, needs to ask why is it that ordinary members of society, who hardly have direct relations with him, are more vociferous in attacking and condemning the man, especially in the social media?”
Apparently operating on the three principles he set out for himself, those close to the CoS say Kyari has done quite a lot to protect President Buhari from some hawks, whose negative influences must have played critical roles in wrecking many past administrations.
Maverick politician and prominent critic of the Buhari administration, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, captured the Kyari persona succinctly when he testified, “I 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 a 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 mars his administration from the appointments he makes, especially of those that will work with him on everyday basis.
“Contrary to all false insinuations, that is the only reason te president 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 Buhari, he appointed someone who would rather take the bullet to ensure the president survives despite the shots from left, right and centre.”
Even some allies of the Chief of Staff have also argued that the stability of the Buhari administration stems from Kyari’s acumen and the empirical knowledge that he has so far brought to bear in the system following years of experience he garnered.
This calibre of observers insists that the administration’s successes thus far could only have been achieved with a Chief of Staff working behind the scene, parading an uncanny attitude to ensure that President Buhari succeeds, no matter the odds against him.
So, after the storm of a perceived wrangling and inter-agency rivalry between the CoS and NSA, Kyari continues to serve the Buhari presidency in candour as the Chief of Staff on whose head the darts of calculating politicians and scheming colleagues land.