When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015 it was already a safe bet even before the government was constituted that with Mallam Mamman Daura the president’s nephew and factotum of sorts around, the late Abba Kyari who was the former’s protégé was sure to play a role in the incoming administration. And what made this a certainty was when I noticed that Ismaila Isa Funtua, whose son is married to the president’s daughter and who was the publisher of the defunct Democrat Newspapers of Kaduna where Abba Kyari served as Editor in chief, was also among those always in close call of the president in all his public and private engagements. As far as this administration goes, if one was protégé to two such grandees close to the president, one was good to go.
It thus was a slam dunk when the late Abba Kyari was eventually appointed as Chief of Staff (CoS) to the president. I remember a heated but good natured debate took place amongst my circle of friends about the weight of the appointment. Some thought he should have been made the Secretary to the Government (SGF) a position from which he could more useful and effective in assisting the president control the ebb and flow of government activities. A CoS they said had no statutory power being merely restricted to organizing his domestic staff and running errands when occasion so demands. For comparison they pointed out how Anyim Pius Anyim, the former SGF under the immediate past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan ran the roost and influenced the appointment of many south easterners into strategic positions in the Jonathan government.
While I agreed with their broad understanding and interpretation of the job, I however pointed out to them that two main things stand out as far as the position of CoS is concerned. The first has to do with the disposition of the president to the position, and who he appoints to the job. If the president decides because of certain considerations to outsource some of his very considerable powers to the CoS in order to achieve certain tasks on the blind side of his official duties and responsibilities then one can be sure that such a person if he knows his onions will be powerful indeed. The second point is that when such a person invested with the position is smart enough to be able to study the strengths and weaknesses of his principal and deploys this intimate knowledge very effectively (as Abba Kyari undoubtedly was) then he is likely to be untouchably powerful.
Anybody with an insight into the thinking and world view of president Buhari and his inner circle would know that Abba Kyari was the perfect fit for the job. He was a lawyer, banker and journalist, three of the professions that guaranteed entry into the circle of movers and shakers of society. As an alumnus of Cambridge University he belonged to the holloi polloi Oxbridge circle in Nigeria. And perhaps more significantly, having worked both in Lagos and Kaduna he had both legs in the southern and northern halves of the Nigerian scheme of things. Just as well too Abba Kyari had the strategic presence of mind to cultivate the influential circle of Nigerias’s commentariat who from their columns and blogs often set the tone for public discourse on national issues.
Abba Kyari had the signature traits of the Buhari inner circle. He had the taciturnity and contrived meekness they all have. Abba Kyari also had the same outward mien of sartorial simplicity, deceptive modesty and an elaborate but dissembling show of courtesy calculated to disarm the uninitiated. But behind all that veneer lurked a shrewd calculating mind sensitive to the intricacies of the power game which all of them possess as a practiced art from which they plot and navigate their way through the minefields of governance and politics with telling effect.
For president Buhari to have a handle on his administration it was the understanding among his inner circle right from the onset that Abba Kyari was the man to do the job of sentinel for the interest of the group. Against this background, the unwritten agama lizard-like understanding among the inner power circle was that constitution or not nobody in this administration apart from President Buhari himself will be allowed to wield more power than Abba Kyari the CoS. In this regard, Abba Kyari’s was the focal point of president Buhari’s power relations management matrix.
And what was Abba Kyari programmed to do as CoS?
First he was not to allow the president’s wife share the presidential limelight with the president. His brief here was to ensure she stayed within the straight and narrow confines of a normal wife and not attempt to have her own elaborate sideshow in the presidential villa as was the practice with past presidential wives.
Secondly, he was to ensure that appointments and recruitment into various positions and favours were granted only to persons who would agree to conform and be loyal to the president above all else.
The third brief was for the late Abba Kyari to keep an eagle eyed interest on all the activities of the presidential appointees and ensure that what they did in their official and private capacities did not go contrary to the principles and world view of the president and his closely knit power circle.
Fourthly, the late CoS was to keep a keen eye on developments in the polity especially within the ruling political party the All Progressive Congress (APC) and ensure that the political interest of the president and his inner circle prevailed over any other.
In this role the late Abba Kyari functioned as de facto president. In the full knowledge of the powerful forces urging him on and the secrets he came to know of powerful personalities and their bearing on government and politics, he became indispensible to the inner circle of power on whose behalf he was operating. He was figuratively the man who knew where the bodies were buried.
In a tribute, president Buhari for whom the late Abba Kyari exerted himself in the manner he did, described him aptly as ‘’ the gatekeeper who was the best of us’’ (sic).
May Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him aljanna firdaus ameen.