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Coronavirus: death of Nigeria’s Chief of Staff sheds light on conflicting rules

By 'Tofe Ayeni, in Lagos
Posted on Tuesday, 21 April 2020 18:59, updated on Wednesday, 22 April 2020 10:49

Men wearing protective gears carry the coffin of the Nigerian president's chief of staff Abba Kyari
Men wearing protective gear bury the body of Nigerian president's chief of staff, Abba Kyari, who died on Friday after contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Gudu Cemetery in Abuja, Nigeria April 18, 2020. Nigeria Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Over the weekend, Nigeria’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari was declared dead on 17 April, after falling ill from COVID-19. He had been Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari since August 2015. 

A sociologist and lawyer, with degrees from the University of Warwick, the University of Cambridge and Harvard Business School, to name a few, Kyari was widely regarded as an intellectual; therefore one who would know and do better than the military men the country has grown accustomed to as leaders.

Loss of the ‘real’ President

Described as “the most powerful CoS [Chief of Staff] in the history of the country,”  by Tunde Odesola, a journalist at Punch Ng, Kyari’s death has many Nigerians mourning the loss of the ‘real’ President.

As a crucial part of the holy trifecta of Nigerian leadership (along with President Buhari and his nephew, Mamman Daura), Kyari’s death has left a large void in the highest echelons of public servants in the country.

For over 30 years, his career included both the public and private sectors. From being the Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in Borno State to the chief executive officer at the United Bank for Africa, he had a successful professional career prior to his appointment as Chief of Staff in 2015.

READ MORE: Buhari’s security credentials dented by feuding officials

During the first term of President Buhari’s administration, Kyari mainly worked behind the scenes, implementing various policies. However, since their victory in the 2019 general election, the President ordered his cabinet to channel all requests through Kyari’s office, a move that garnered him the unofficial title as de facto head of government.

Abba Kyari’s importance in the government cannot be overstated.

President Buhari seemed to trust him completely, and no decision was made without his approval. Indeed, a lot of decisions were seemingly made by Kyari himself. Thus, his passing leaves a power vacuum, bigger than what would normally be expected by the departure, or death, of a Chief of Staff.

Kyari and COVID-19

From 7 to 14 March, Abba Kyari was on official presidential business in Germany, to discuss  power infrastructure in Nigeria with Siemens. He is thought to have contracted the virus during this trip. He tested positive on 23 March.

Already by that point, the Nigerian government had closed the country’s borders to curb the spread of the virus. That meant public officials, the president included, who would normally go abroad for treatment, were forced to take a hard look at the country’s substandard public health facilities. 

In a statement on 29 March, Kyari had announced that he was going to ‘transfer to Lagos for additional tests and observation.’

Kyari was admitted into one of the best private hospitals in the country, the First Cardiology Consultants Hospital in Lagos, stating he was trying to ‘avoid further burdening the public health system, which faces so many pressures…’.

Kyari’s illness and Nigeria’s privileged elite

Many were hoping that the one positive effect of the coronavirus pandemic would be the government finally listens to the population’s demands on improving the public health sector.

READ MORE: Nigeria Lagos states healthcare ‘mission impossible’

Nigerians, who at the start of the pandemic had taken to social media to ask officials to stay in their states and get treated by the very health systems they have refused to fix, were astounded that Kyari would go to a private hospital.

This was in direct violation of his own administration’s rules, made only worse by trying to pass it off as being considerate to the people of Nigeria.

Even following his death, another violation was made public: Abba Kyari’s body was flown back to the Federal Capital Territory on 17 April. Up until that point, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, had been telling Nigerians that the bodies of those who passed away from the virus would not be released to their families.

Flouting all lockdown and social distancing rules, Kyari’s  funeral, boldly televised, was attended by hundreds of mourners, many of whom were not wearing the correct protective gear.

The Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) condemned this event,  saying: “We wish to remind our government that good governance standards ought to be complied with totally and unreservedly at all times by all and sundry in Nigeria…”

However, President Buhari himself was not in attendance. His aides that went to the burial, including Special Assistant to the President, Yusuf Sabiu, and Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, have been barred from entering the Presidential Villa.

Mallam Garba Shehu tweeted on the ban,  saying: “There is nothing extraordinary about those of us who attend Abba Kyari’s funeral being advised to distance ourselves from the Villa. This is in line with the standard rules put in place by the National Center for Disease Control … and the Federal Ministry of Health.”

This did little by way of an apology, but simply served as further proof that the ruling class does not see any problem in violating the very rules they put in place for the whole country; violations that will put others at risk.

Mixed reactions to his death

The reactions to Kyari’s passing have ranged greatly from those who believe he was a good man and are celebrating his life, to those who do not see why a member of the administration who did not help the majority of the population, should be mourned by Nigerians.

“When you are all done with the pretence and crocodile tears, we will do a review in overriding interest of the Nation and its people!” posted Muaz Magaji,  the Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure in Kano State on his Facebook account.  “It’s very important we put things in perspective so that we can save our system from punitive unconstitutional usurpers in the future!”.

Kano State governor Ganduje sacked Magaji for speaking negatively of Kyari.

Others public comments cut across all levels:

  • “Today, the Nigerian masses are wiser; they’ve left eye-service mourning to politicians. To be mourned by the people, you must earn it.” said Tunde Odesola from the daily Punch Ng.
  • “Abba was loyal to a fault. He decided he was going to protect his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari, at all costs and would take any number of bullets for him. And he did!” said Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama.   Kyari was the best man at his wedding, and they had been friends since their days at the University of Warwick.
  • “I knew Kyari closely for 10 years. He was a simple man, deeply intellectual and not one to run away from enforcing the rules,” said Simon Kolawole from the daily This Day. “He was very passionate about infrastructure and industrialisation. But he kept quiet on damaging media reports against him. Maybe that is what chiefs of staff do: take bullets for their bosses and go to their graves with all the secrets.”
  • “The idea of not speaking ill of the dead is not a good idea, especially if the dead person did nothing deserving of praise,” said  journalist Remi Oyeyemi. “I have been reading in the media unbelievable eulogies about the late Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Mr Abba Kyari. I have been reading some hypocritical praise-singing of this man … I take serious objection to the rain of praise that has been raining down on the corpse of the late Abba Kyari.”
  • “With Kyari’s death, Nigeria is now truly leaderless. Buhari is practically in the land of the living dead. He’s a breathing mannequin whose only reason for living is to prove he isn’t dead in order to justify the continuity of the rule in his name,” wrote columnist Farooq Kperogi.
  • “ Mallam Abba Kyari was the very best of us. He was made of the stuff that makes Nigeria great” tweeted President Buhari

Who will replace him?

President Buhari, who already suffers from many long-term health issues, was highly dependent on Kyari. So naturally, many Nigerians are wondering who will be the next Chief of Staff.

  • Mamman Daura is arguably the only person who President Buhari trusts to the same degree as Kyari, so he is a likely contender.
  • Some also point to the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, who has likely already taken charge in the Presidential Villa.
  • Others think Vice-President Yemi Obisanjo should use this opportunity to consolidate power.
  • Baba Gana Kingibe, a long-time politician is another rumoured option. But his record is not as impressive to some: “Baba Gana Kingibe is one if not the most dangerous, evil, treacherous and demonic souls that I have ever known…” tweeted politician Femi Fani-Kayode.

In the end, the decision will come from President Buhari. And he is known to make decisions on his own time. Nigerians do not know if he will appoint someone new this week, next year, or if ever at all.

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