Abba Kyari: Portrait of a Loyalist–The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Sides of Public Service in Nigeria, Magnus Onyibe, ed., Inspire Media Services Limited, Lagos 2020

Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

On Friday, April 17, a human soul cast-off his physical body in compliance with the natural laws. This, according to reports from the news media, was because this body had been ravaged by the coronavirus disease. Thus, the man, Abba Kyari, became the first high-profile Nigerian to succumb to the dreaded pandemic. Because he belonged to the corridors of power, as the president’s chief of staff, not even the sobering news of his death, which dominated the national consciousness, could deflect the arrow darts of spiteful comments, which simultaneously came in with the already expected outpouring of adulatory tributes.

So, why was Abba Kyari such a polarising figure? Many would want to know. But, Magnus Ebiye-Onyibe would rather present the reader with what he calls “a collection of Points of View” in his 243-page book, titled Abba Kyari: Portrait of a Loyalist – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Sides of Public Service in Nigeria. “A quick scrutiny of the comments indicated to me that some were very good, others not so bad and many more patently ugly,” the two-time commissioner in the Delta State Government offers in the book’s preface by way of an explanation. “It was at that point that it dawned on me that I was a witness to history and if I could, I should help in its documentation. As I contemplated on it, I came to the conclusion that the man Abba Kyari was a portrait of a loyalist. So, I settle for the title Abba Kyari: Portrait of a Loyalist.”

Thus, Ebiye-Onyibe’s compilation of divergent views on the late chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari is neither intended to please nor to offend anyone. Yet, while the public policy analyst and development strategist hopes that his readers would discern the impersonal tone of the book, he inveigles his acerbic comments on the president somewhere in the preface in a manner that suggests that he is absolving Abba Kyari of all blames. President Buhari, he writes, “has a knack for saddling his deputies with responsibilities which are ordinarily in his personal purview.”
This assertion is backed by brief allusions to the president’s “style of leadership” from when he first ruled Nigeria as a military head of state to the present, during which he seems to have delegated “the hard and dirty job of running the affairs of government on a day-to-day basis” to “his trusted lieutenants”.

Also, the fact that the Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy graduate cites Professor Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s response to her attackers – through her book Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria – as a model for responding to critics clearly expresses his discomfiture with Abba Kyari’s unwillingness to correct wrong notions about his activities. “The advise [sic] that I always offer my friends in leadership who are vulnerable to having their image savaged is akin to the admonishment in the holy book of the Christian faith which is that we should ensure that we do not go to bed without resolving the conflicts that we had with our spouses during the day. In other words, do not allow conflicts, anger or animosity to crystallize by letting it fester.”

Split into three main parts – as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – the book presents a buffet of divergent perspectives on the deceased, which are enough for any dispassionate reader to draw his conclusions. Even so, Ebiye-Onyibe dispels assumptions about his neutrality in a segment of the book he calls “My Take”. A previous informed understanding of the subject – expressed in his previous articles on him – stands him in good stead to brandish such keywords as “policy wonk”, “pragmatist”, “hawkish”, “gentility”, “reclusiveness” and “piety”, among others. This is even when these words are capable of raising hackles among the ranks of Abba Kyari’s traducers.

Predictably, a great number of the adulatory comments about the deceased – classified under The Good – are the tributes from the key players of the establishment. Of course, there are refreshing exceptions, which are from respectable journalists like Simon Kolawole and Waziri Adio as well as from the UK-based publications, Financial Times and The Economist. But, the real surprise among the Good is Femi Fani-Kayode’s defence of his earlier tribute in his Twitter account to the deceased. “Someone DIED and you are suggesting that it is wrong for those of us that knew him better than you to say a good word about him?” he asks his critics in his article “How Are the Mighty Fallen”.

Curiously, the articles compiled in the part of the book as “The Bad”, which includes a brief condolence message from Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, an article by an aide to the former president Goodluck Jonathan Reuben Abati and the celebrity magazine publisher Dele Momodu, among others, should not be classified as uncomplimentary comments. Even Ebiye-Onyibe acknowledges that they “are not necessarily” bad. The articles could be classified as less adulatory, if not dispassionate.

Rather, the reader should look for The Bad among the articles catalogued under The Ugly. Here, the author says, “comments dripping [with] pure bile and gall by aggrieved members of the Nigerian society are catalogued”. Some of these writers leave the dispassionate reader in no doubt about the fact that they have an axe to grind with the deceased by declaring their stand right from their headlines. Many gleefully expose the feet of clay of the late alumnus of the Warwick University, Cambridge University and Havard with a clear intent of tearing his reputation to shreds. While dredging up Abba Kyari’s alleged wrongdoings some of the articles are testimonials of their writers’ prejudices. In any case, their inclusion in this book serves the compiler’s purpose of presenting balanced profiling of the departed one.

Perhaps, the book’s invaluable takeaway for readers is the need to look for the truth about the deceased beyond both the adulatory remarks and disparaging comments. For beneath the persona of the loyalist or the villain lurks the real human being labouring under the pressure of his earthly circumstances to express himself. Not even a few typos – like “Sanni” Abacha, rather than Sani Abacha, “literarily” rather than “literally”, among other errors bordering on punctuation – makes this book less priceless as documentation of Nigeria’s political events of recent memory.