The last time I spoke to Mallam Abba Kyari was in the evening of 29 March 2020. He was on the way to the airport to board that flight to Lagos. He had shared a statement on WhatsApp, which I wanted to confirm was for public consumption. He said sure, and I prayed again for his quick recovery. In that press statement, he had expressed the hope of being back to his desk soon. That was vintage him, a workhorse who approached his brief with near missionary and clear patriotic zeal. Alas, it was not meant to be. That was his last public statement, that day was the last day I had the privilege of talking to him, and the last time he responded to messages. That flight was his last flight alive. A good man, so widely misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented but fiercely loyal to President Muhammadu Buhari and to Nigeria, is gone. A good man is gone. Gone home.
I woke up on Saturday to the sad news of his passing, completely gutted. It was the least expected outcome, for the news we had received even on Friday evening was that he was getting much better. But the Maker decided to draw the curtain. We can’t question God. Allahu a’lam. Besides, every soul shall taste death. Mallam Abba has just gone the way of all mortals. All his family and loved ones can do now is pray for him and hold on to fond memories. For me, as I reflected on Saturday over countless conversations and encounters over a nine-year period, the overwhelming sadness of his passing is relieved by an overpowering memory of the good man I had come to know beyond the tendentious caricature energetically sold in the public space in the last four-plus years. (Full-disclosure: he head-hunted me for my present job, and he went the whole length to ensure I was appointed by the President. He did this for more than quit a few across the manufactured ethnic and religious divides of our country.)
Even in the week leading to his testing positive to COVID-19, he was immersed, behind the scene, in how to ensure that Nigeria stood a good chance against the virus ravaging the world. He was constantly probing: how many ventilators and ICU beds did we have, how would those stack up against different scenarios, what would be the best strategy to deploy in the circumstances, how could we ramp up capacity for testing and treatment, and how would we limit the definite economic impact of the pandemic? He wasn’t only asking but, as the President’s principal aide, he was also arranging, coordinating, working round the clock, as was his wont, even when diabetes had not put him in perfect health himself.
Despite the constant demonization of his person, I have not come across many in the public space in Nigeria that boast of the intensity, the passion, the meticulousness, and the selflessness of Mallam Abba. As the number one aide and envoy of President Buhari, he constantly preoccupied himself with how to make Nigeria work for all, especially for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. (Some mistook this preoccupation as socialism, a dirty word in some circles but the Chief I knew was a pragmatist, hardly wedded to an ideology). Unlike previous holders of his office, he held strong opinions and expressed them strongly, and he happen to know a lot about many things on account of education and diverse background as a lawyer, journalist and banker. He also took his job as the gatekeeper to the President very seriously, always insisting that a core part of his job was to ensure that the President had a rounded view of things, and not misled by Nigeria’s legendary predatory elite (yes, I can confirm that he had a thing for the Nigerian elite whom he interacted with a lot from his vantage position, and he was fond of saying he had not seen a set of elite that hated their country as much as ours).
To be sure, a Chief of Staff having a strong public view and an obvious role in policy and governance was new to our clime and jarring to many, especially to political actors. Legitimate questions could be raised about how an unelected official could be so powerful. But these should also be clear to the open minded: the power exercised by an aide could only be delegated power and an aide could only be as powerful as his principal wants her to be. What could not be disputed was that Mallam Abba enjoyed the trust of his principal and he in turn reciprocated that with unalloyed loyalty. He put all the intellect and muscle he could muster at the service of his principal, and by extension his country. I also know for a fact that his legendary influence was exaggerated. A sizeable number of his ideas or the ideas he bought into didn’t see the light of day, which is not uncommon. But he was always ready to take the bullet. That is what loyal aides, especially Chiefs of Staff, do.
What I and others close to him found confounding however was the ease with which he bore clearly orchestrated and unceasing attacks on his person. As a former journalist and editor, he knew what to do. He would rather explain the details and backgrounds of the latest accusations to us as his friends but would insist that government business should not be done through leaks and that he would not waste precious time in engaging in media wars with his attackers. Even when we begged him to set the records straight even if just for posterity, he would tell us not to bother. He urged us to be more concerned about the verdict of one’s conscience and of God. My sense was that he felt the appropriate place to address the tons of issues constantly thrown at him would be his memoir. Sadly, we won’t have the benefit of reading that, except there is a posthumous one.
He applied the same level of care for this work to personal relations. Despite his impossibly busy schedule and the odious persona woven around his neck, he came across to me as very caring, deeply human. When Olusegun Adeniyi’s brother was diagnosed of advanced cancer, I shared the news with Mallam Abba, just for his information. He called me immediately to find out how bad it was and what could be done, then he called Segun to explore options. Shortly after this time, my mum suddenly lapsed into coma. Chief called both of us regularly for updates and to extend his well wishes, and to ask for ways he could help. When Segun’s brother eventually passed away, Mallam Abba visited Segun at home twice: the first time, he was told Segun was not at home and the legendary CoS was thus not allowed into the premises (though I and others were inside waiting for Segun to make his way from the airport); and the second time, he waited patiently in the study for Segun who had gone out without his phone.) And when my mum died earlier this year, he was one of the first set of people to call on the phone and the second person to visit me in the house that same day, the first being Segun.
You would be forgiven to think we are related or that we had known for long. The first time I met Mallam Abba was actually on Wednesday, 10th August 2011. He came for the inaugural meeting of the newly constituted Editorial Board of Thisday, which I belonged to and which was chaired by Segun. The board had 22 members, mostly accomplished individuals from different backgrounds, including Mrs. Maryam Uwais, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, Mrs Uju Hassan-Baba, Mrs. Eugenia Abu, Ms. Ekanem Etim-Offiong, Dr. Eddie Iroh, Dr. Chidi Amuta, Mallam Bashir Yusuf Ibrahim, Dr. Okey Ikechukwu, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, and Mallam Abba Kyari.
That day, two things immediately attracted me to Mallam Abba: his simplicity and his passion for the downtrodden. He was dressed in his signature style: white, unremarkable babanriga and a red cap. I found this unusual for a former CEO of a bank as high-heeled as UBA and a Cambridge educated lawyer. But his cerebral nature was never in doubt: he spoke and wrote eloquently, his catholic range of knowledge only matched by his infectious passion. I don’t know why but he took a liking to Segun, Simon Kolawole and me, and always plied us with the latest books, his favourite gifts to people (when he came to console me on my mum’s passing he still brought books along). I think he felt an avuncular duty to deepen our knowledge and perspective. And talking about duty, anytime you thanked him for anything, his standard reply was always: duty deserves no gratitude.
Even with all the trappings of high office and his exaggerated influence, he never departed from who he was, chief of which was a remarkable simplicity. As the all-powerful Chief of Staff to President Buhari, he lived in a simple three-bedroom chalet where piles of books were the only remarkable things. The depth of knowledge shone through how he applied himself. He was not your merely administrative Chief of Staff. He was a thinker and a doer. Even when pursued in furtherance of the agenda of his boss, I can testify based on conversations with him that certain things held special significance for him: the fertiliser initiative and other things supported by the NSIA, the take-off and the provisioning for NCDC that is now leading our battle against COVID-19, the amendment of the Production Sharing Contracts Act, the star-studded economic advisory council, the triplets (Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the 2nd Niger Bridge, and the Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Highway), and the Mambilla Hydro Power Project etc.
There could not be a better tribute to him that he died literally with his boots on. When he had the opportunity, he gave his all to his country, putting in a punishing but solid shift, showing that even in advisory role much difference can be made. He went home accomplished, even when there was still much to be done. May Allah SWT, the ultimate judge to whom we shall all answer and whom he felt he should be answerable to beyond his principal and his conscience, have mercy on him. May Allah SWT forgive his sins, accept his good deeds, and grant him Aljannah Firdaus. May He comfort President Buhari (who has lost a confidante, and a loyal and diligent aide) and Chief’s immediate family, friends and loved ones. Ameen.
––Adio is the Executive Secretary of NEITI.