One of the less pleasant parts of this job is being ahead of the general information curve and not being able to say or do much about it. For much of the past four years, many in my professional space have faced the unpleasant situation of being burdened with key information that was either too risky to put into the public domain, or simply too complex and technical for the public to understand.
At the top of the list of such cursed knowledge was the understanding of exactly what role the late presidential Chief of Staff Abba Kyari played in the administration of Muhammadu Buhari. Most Nigerians with even a basic news-reading habit understand that Kyari had some sort of outsized influence on the president, but only those in the know understood just how far this went or what it actually meant for the country on a day-to-day basis.
Now that COVID-19 has claimed its first truly high-profile victim in Nigeria and a new (old?) occupant now sits in Kyari’s old seat, it is finally time to pick through the man’s tenure and draw historical conclusions. Before diving in, I must point out that if anyone clicked on this article expecting it to take a position on the “Don’t speak ill of the dead” vs “Drag him posthumously” debate, this is the time to click that ‘x’ button.
This is not that article
Strongman Leadership Always Ends up Like This
The first time I googled the meaning of the word “Svengali” was sometime in 2016 after I saw it used in an article by an American journalist describing the relationship between President Buhari and his Chief of Staff. Over the course of several conversations with people in the know over the next couple of years, something became clear and obvious – barely two decades after exiting military dictatorship, Nigeria was once again being ruled not led, and this time the ruler in question was not the substantive Head of State.
Nigeria was being ruled by an unelected strongman who had the president’s ear to such an extreme and unprecedented extent that one might be forgiven for wondering what else he had on the president to make him so pliant. Nothing got through Aso Rock without getting through Mr Kyari. Appointments, terminations, contract papers, project approvals – everything was down to the say-so of an unelected civil servant whom some people began referring to unironically as the “prime minister.”
The issue was not so much that Kyari’s outsized presence in Aso Rock caused a power imbalance and an in-house power tussle the like of which Nigeria had never before experienced, in addition to raising a constitutional question about usurpation of powers that only elected officials should have. It had those effects, but the real issue with Kyari’s pseudo-dictatorship was one simple fact.
He was not very good at it.
As I mentioned at the outset, the tip of the information curve is a lonely place. For the past five years, journalists and informed commentators have had to repeatedly force themselves to reference “the Buhari Administration” when talking about ill-thought economic policies and subpar political decisions that were in fact the brainchild of Aso Rock’s unelected Kyari Administration. How after all, could they possibly explain to Nigerians that policies such as border closures and the organised shakedown of the private sector over that period were all one man’s sole decision?
How could anyone try to explain that – despite bringing the best economic thinkers in Nigeria onto its economic council – the reason the presidency would consistently ignore their recommendations in favour of utter nonsense like spooking investors by hounding MTN or last year’s “border closure and inshallah” was that only one man mattered in Aso Rock? If a journalist tried to explain to Nigerians that the electoral mandate they gave to Muhammadu Buhari had been transferred behind closed doors without their knowledge and consent to an arrogant, insular, inaccessible, unelected person, would the DSS not pick them up inside 24 hours?
Would most politically active Nigerians even understand the implication of a man they did not elect having full administrative control over Nigeria’s federal government without being accountable to anyone but his boss who gave him free reign? Would anybody even believe someone who said that one man’s woefully limited and uninformed worldview was why the government seemingly chose oil exploration by the NNPC in Borno as the hill to die on, in a world where Nigerian crude oil cargoes were already spending months on the seas looking for buyers?
Nobody would believe that Kyari was that powerful and that untouchable. At a point even mentioning the vast, unaccountable power that he controlled became akin to discussing a conspiracy theory. Even among those in the know, it became fashionable to excuse the incompetent rulership of an unelected psuedo-dictator because he had several degrees, including a Law degree from Cambridge. I remember speaking to someone who asked me something to the effect of:
“Would you rather have a sick president who lacks academic grounding or a vibrant Cambridge graduate at the helm of things?”
Such rationalisation of strongmen is not unique to Nigeria, of course. A major political theme in pre-2017 Zimbabwe was the idea that nobody was as capable of leadership as Robert Mugabe. He was after all, their independence war hero who spent 11 years in prison for them. He also had 7 university degrees and at one point he was even awarded a knighthood by the Queen of England. He was Sir Robert Gabriel Mugabe. All of this however did not stop him from turning the word “Zimbabwe” into a synonym for “hyperinflation,” as his 37-year rule turned Africa’s largest food exporter into a recipient of food aid from Malawi.
Cambridge graduate or not, Abba Kyari was a deeply ignorant and incurious person whose stunted worldview stuck in the 1970s, alongside a painful lack of imagination, ideas and creative thinking, reflected clearly in the policies he put out in the president’s name. His prioritisation of political loyalty over national interest led to the 2016 budget being held up for nearly 7 months – a delay that starved Nigeria’s economy of its largest source of liquidity, predictably fueling an avoidable economic recession whose effects are still with us 4 years later. His obsession with rehashing discredited Soviet-era economic arguments gave us #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira and border closures as the magic economic elixirs for a country that still cannot provide more than 5,000MW of electricity or a dependable interstate road network to its 200 million people.
His tenure saw the further debasement of the DSS from an elite intelligence gathering security agency staffed by expensively trained personnel into a crude blunt-force instrument of regime-backed intimidation in the image of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard or Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Investigation Bureau. Under him, Nigeria’s government once again started to receive international condemnation for holding political prisoners – a spectacle we had not witnessed since the dark days of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. Following his lead, politicians in power also began treating Nigeria’s laws and constitution as merely helpful suggestions, as against the legally binding rules they are supposed to be.
Ultimately, like every African authoritarian Lee Kuan Yew-wannabe who has held sway since the independence era, his tenure was a woeful failure on every single objective metric. Nigeria is statistically a worse place for everyone than it was before Abba Kyari, except perhaps for his family and close associates. It is impossible to know what his intentions were because dead men cannot speak for themselves, so that cop out that is regularly trotted out when an African strongmen dies in power and leaves a mess behind – “He had good intentions but his implementation could have been better” – is not only dishonest, but also completely beside the point.
The point is Strongman-ism does not work – can not ever work – in our context.
Kyari’s Legacy: Hubris as a Political Ideology
Legend has it that in the year 410, on the morning of the last day of the final siege on Rome led by Visigoth king Alaric, the Roman Senate sat locked in a debate. The debate was not about how to tackle the impending threat of death and national collapse. It was not about whether to negotiate a soft landing for the once-powerful city with Alaric. It was not even about the possibility of escaping the city and saving themselves. For hours while the Goths prepared their final offensive to breach the city’s defences, these noblemen of the most successful city of its era earnestly debated the question:
“If a fly should fall into a vat of Holy Ointment, does the Ointment become unclean or does the fly become Holy?”Roman Senate debate on the morning of Goth invasion of Rome
It bears repeating that these were by no means foolish men. Rome was by quite some distance the most culturally advanced city of its time, and they were the city’s nobility. Clearly they understood the severity of the threat that lay outside their gates, and they were also sufficiently versed in the practise of war to know what a rampaging Gothic army would do to Rome and its inhabitants once it got inside. The issue was not lack of knowledge or awareness of their situation – a situation Rome itself had put countless other cities in during its centuries of world domination.
The issue with them was the same issue that would someday define the worldview of a prominent unelected official and his co-travellers in a country 6,000KM southwest of what was once Rome’s Africa province. Rome was all they knew, and their privileged position in it was as much a fact as the rising and setting of the sun. The concept of Rome coming to an “end” and their lives becoming like those of their slaves and subject territories just did not compute. They simply could not imagine it, nor did they want to. So they sat in the Senate building doing the only thing that their deadly hubris and hyperinflated sense of self-importance would allow. The king was dead, but long live the king.
Since at least mid-February, it was common knowledge that the novel coronavirus had a disproportionately deadly effect on people above 60 and people with existing immunosuppressant health conditions. As a 67 year-old with Type-II diabetes and a number of other undisclosed health problems, Mr Kyari fell right in the middle of the most at-risk demographic, and he ought to have taken appropriate steps to protect himself. Instead, right in the middle of Germany’s COVID-19 outbreak, Mr Kyari visited that country to speak to Siemens about yet another one of his haphazard, self-directed policy interventions. He took no measures to protect himself and those around him – because why would COVID-19 affect him?
Precautions were for others, not for the all-knowing and all-powerful unelected sole administrator of Nigeria. Surely even a deadly viral pandemic would understand how important he was and respect him accordingly. In fact, he even wrote a letter to the National Assembly leadership decrying the fact that several lawmakers had done exactly what he did – ignored self isolation and distancing instructions. Over the course of the week after his return from Germany, he then went on something of a valedictory tour of Nigeria, meeting everyone from Aliko Dangote to Kano State governor Abdullahi Ganduje, and even attending a traditional wedding of Hassan Muhammad Adamu, son of current Police Inspector General, Mohammed Adamu.
Even more amazingly, not even Kyari’s subsequent COVID-19 death was enough to put a dent in this blithe hubris and impunity. His burial – the burial of the person most responsible for putting together a national response to the pandemic after the president – was a comedy of errors including nonexistent physical distancing, close proximity to a highly infectious corpse, inadequate PPE and even a protective gown used by one of the corpse handlers being discarded by the roadside afterward in classic Nigerian fashion. Even in death, an activity involving him still managed to trample over existing rules disdainfully with complete impunity.
As Babagana Kingibe reportedly fights for the seat whose prior occupant’s ambition and his boss’s levity conspired to turn into that of de-facto Nigerian Head of State, we can only hope that he shares none of the deadly insularity and hubris that characterised his predecessor in life and death. At a time when Nigeria is heading into uncharted crisis water, threatened existentially by security problems, economic problems and a viral pandemic, the last thing we need is another know-it-all sole administrator with a fondness for ignorant, bloviating hot air talk over listening to experts for impactful policy substance.
As we move into a future that nobody is quite sure of, the new era demands that like the man himself, Abba Kyari’s legacy should be laid to rest in Nigerian governance forever.