Nigeria’s health and economic crisis: Buhari left to face it without Abba Kyari
Even for a battle-hardened general, it has been a week out of hell for President Muhammadu Buhari; one of those weeks in which decades happen in a matter of days.
The crude oil market has collapsed and with it, the engine of Nigeria’s economy. Forward prices for US oil went negative on 20 April for the first time in history, plunging the global industry into chaos. And the market shows no sign of an early revival.
But just ahead of that news was the announcement on 17 April of the passing of Buhari’s long-time Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari. He died from coronavirus after three weeks in an isolation ward in Lagos.
Kyari had been one of Buhari’s closest friends and advisors for four decades.
Kyari and Buhari: not “an obvious friendship”
It was not an obvious friendship. Somehow, Buhari, the stern military leader who latterly turned to civilian politics, found common ground with Kyari, a bookish journalist and lawyer.
They shared an intense nationalist sentiment for Nigeria and deep suspicion of the country’s business and political elite. For years, Kyari was the person that journalists would call seeking an interview with Buhari.
Anyone who comes here and says let the market dictate, knows nothing of the psychology of the Nigerian businessman – Abba Kyari
Unlike so many presidential minders, Kyari was never fussed about the questions that a journalist might throw at the chief. “Ask him what you like. If he doesn’t want to answer, that’s up to him,” he would say.
Kyari read the newspapers – national and international – assiduously. Often he would call up to disagree with an analysis or question a source.
Happy to espouse his eclectic politics, a kind of social-democratic view laced with interventionist nationalism, Kyari was always ready for some ideological jousting. He saved his most caustic comments for right-wing market fundamentalists.
“Anyone who comes here and says let the market dictate, knows nothing of the psychology of the Nigerian businessman,” he was fond of saying. His belief in strong regulation made him plenty of enemies, in the boardrooms and in the party caucuses.
For all their friendship, Kyari was an unlikely choice when Buhari appointed him chief of staff in 2015. It is harder to imagine anyone further removed from the classic image of a rumbustious and omnipresent fixer to which many chiefs of staff aspire.
When asked back then how the Buhari government would work, Kyari’s laconic response was: “The President chairs a cabinet meeting. We go through the policies, then he expects the ministers to get on with it.”
“Protective wall around the President”
Reality turned out differently. Buhari’s first term was punctuated by long bouts of ill-health and absences from the country. Ministers fell out with each other over personal and policy matters, and Buhari’s party started fracturing in the national assembly.
Kyari and his friend, another former journalist, excellent writer and Buhari’s nephew, Mamman Daura, built a protective wall around the President. Their tactics prompted widespread criticism, not least from Buhari’s wife, Aisha.
Becoming my chief of staff in 2015, he strove quietly and without any interest in publicity or personal gain to implement my agenda…Abba had no need of, nor did he seek, the cheap gratification of the crowd – President Muhammadu Buhari
On one occasion, a retired general is said to have pushed Daura out of the way, accusing him of blocking access to the President. Yet after his election victory last year, Buhari publicly endorsed his gatekeepers.
Ministers wanting to see the President were told that they would have to route all their requests through chief of staff Kyari. At the presidential villa seven days a week, Kyari came to be known as the de facto prime minister.
Kyari, a defender of “Buhari-nomics”
Together, Kyari and central bank governor Godwin Emefiele defended Buhari’s opposition to a sharp devaluation of the naira, setting up a complex system of multiple exchange rates.
They insisted that, lacking a serious export manufacturing sector, Nigeria would have little to gain from letting the naira fall against the dollar. And it would sharply raise the price of imported manufactures and refined petroleum.
That argument split the government wide open in Buhari’s first term. And it triggered sharp criticism of Buhari-nomics from the IMF and a raft of investment bankers.
But they held the line until last month when oil prices slumped, and went into free fall. Then they let the naira slip over 10% against the dollar and fuel subsidies were abolished in the space of a week.
All decisions requiring presidential approval, and there are many in Nigeria, were routed through Kyari’s office.
Big shoes to fill in
The most important point was that Buhari trusted Kyari implicitly as he made clear in his official eulogy: “Becoming my chief of staff in 2015, he strove quietly and without any interest in publicity or personal gain to implement my agenda…Abba had no need of, nor did he seek, the cheap gratification of the crowd.”
That raises the question, posed by Nigeria’s political class as Kyari was being laid to rest, of who could replace him. A question made urgent by the country going through its worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war.
It is small consolation that this time, the crisis is triggered by external events, the Saudi-Russia oil price war and the pandemic.
No one expects Buhari to make a quick decision. Rather he will be irritated that already three distinct groups are backing contenders for the chief of staff job, seeing it as source of political influence, and depending on the person, patronage.
Two leading candidates have emerged, former foreign minister and intelligence specialist Babagana Kingibe and current head of Customs, Hameed Ali, for whom Buhari has a particular respect. But neither has Kyari’s particular rapport with the President and both may lack Kyari’s workaholic disposition.
It is also possible that the nexus of policy-making could shift elsewhere.
The appointment of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to chair the Economic Sustainability Committee – whose members include Central Bank Chief Godwin Emefiele, Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed and Mele Kolo Kyari, the head of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation – group together the government’s top economic officials.
They are meant to take the lead in managing this public health emergency and charting a way out of it. Their decisions could shape the country’s future for many years.