1952 – 2020
Abba Kyari, the chief of staff to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and regarded by many as perhaps the second most powerful man in Nigerian politics behind only the president himself, died on April 17 in Lagos. He was 67.
The cause of death was Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, a presidential spokesman confirmed on Twitter.
“The presidency regrets to announce the passage of the chief of staff to the president, Mallam Abba Kyari,” Garba Shehu, the president’s top spokesman wrote on Twitter.
Kyari, who had underlying medical conditions including diabetes, was diagnosed with Covid-19 in late March. Earlier that month, he led a delegation of officials to Germany to meet the engineering conglomerate Siemens AG about a power deal. He was also reported to have visited Egypt before returning to Nigeria.
On his return, Kyari continued to have meetings with Cabinet members, including Buhari, until he was diagnosed with the highly infectious disease. He was transferred from Abuja to Lagos for treatment at a private facility where he died. He was buried according to Islamic rites in Abuja on April 18 in a military cemetery.
Described as a “true Nigerian patriot” by Buhari, Kyari acted as a gatekeeper to the president and was a controversial figure who wielded significant influence that led to spats with other key confidants of the president, including first lady Aisha Buhari.
Even in death, Kyari was trailed by controversy. He was a public figure, yet barely anything about his personal life was known. As an example, numerous media reports vaguely described him as being in his 70s when he died, because his age was never publicly disclosed, an odd thing for a top government official. It took an exclusive report by Premium Times to reveal his age at the time of death as 67. Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control urged Nigerians to refrain from mass gatherings after images and videos from Kyari’s burial showed people ignoring physical distancing guidelines. One of those people was Shehu, and it was later revealed that those who worked in the president’s office were denied access for violating the guidelines.
Mallam Abba Kyari (mallam is an honorific title for a learned man in northern Nigeria) was born on September 23 1952, in Borno northeastern Nigeria. Like many Nigerians of his generation, he considered joining the army but then elected to continue his education. Kyari graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in sociology and economic history in 1980. He also received bachelors and master’s degrees in law from the University of Cambridge. He worked as a lawyer after graduating from the Nigerian Law School, rose to become the chief executive officer of United Bank for Africa, one of Nigeria’s oldest banks and served on the boards of Unilever Nigeria and Exxon Mobil.
When Buhari was elected in 2015, it took him six months to name his Cabinet. It set in motion a reputation for tardiness that earned Buhari the moniker “Baba Go Slow.” When he did finally get around to making appointments, Kyari was one of the first.
Beyond the rarefied circles of Nigeria’s elite, he was a little known outsider who had never run for public office. But in his five years in the role, Kyari revolutionised the office of the chief of staff, amassing significant power even as he remained in the background. Unusually for a man in his position, he was named to the board of Nigeria’s corruption-laden state oil company as Buhari set about his anti-corruption agenda.
He was a workaholic, on duty seven days a week, and was quickly drawn into high-level politics with other Buhari loyalists.
In 2016, Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of northwestern Kaduna State, called Kyari and the then-secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, “clueless” about the inner workings of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) “as he was neither part of its formation nor a participant in the primaries, campaigns and elections”.
“In summary, neither of them has the personality, experience and the reach to manage your politics, nationally or even regionally.”
The APC was formed in 2013 as a coalition vehicle for Buhari to contest the 2015 vote. After successive failures in 2003, 2007 and 2011, it became clear that although Buhari was popular in the north, he needed support down south to capture the presidency. Many party loyalists like el-Rufai felt left out after Buhari took office and gave Kyari a free rein in the affairs of the nation.
“Kyari ran the government,” said Cheta Nwanze, the lead partner at the Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence.
The president’s wife claimed a “cabal” — believed to include Kyari and a nephew of the president — had taken over the government. She even threatened to not campaign for her husband if things did not change. During Buhari’s five-month medical absence in the United Kingdom in 2017, it was widely reported in the Nigerian press she was denied access to the president by this “cabal”.
Just before his diagnosis, Kyari clashed with Babagana Monguno, Buhari’s national security adviser, who warned security chiefs in a leaked memo to “stop taking orders from Kyari and be wary of his interference”.
But it was obvious that Kyari, a true believer in state intervention in economic affairs, carried a firm seal of approval from the president. The two men met when Kyari was a student and were friends for 42 years, Buhari said in a series of tweets mourning his chief of staff.
“He acted forcefully as a crucial gatekeeper to the presidency, ensuring no one — whether minister or governor had access beyond another — and that all those representing and serving our country were treated equally,” Buhari said.
What happens next in the Buhari administration with three years still to run is now unclear.
“There is a fair chance of a fistfight for his position,” Nwanze said. Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, who became increasingly marginalised as Kyari’s orbit of influence grew, could expect to be more involved in governance, he added.
Indeed, Kyari bypassed Osinbajo to fly to London last year to get Buhari’s signature on a landmark oil legislation.
Nwanze added that Kyari’s replacement could also continue as the country’s de facto president should Buhari’s “lethargic style” continue.
“It is important to note that given Buhari’s own lethargic style, the replacement, if that person is also a strong character, will effectively run the country, so Nigeria will probably have a few days or weeks of limbo while there is a serious jousting tournament to replace Kyari.”