Mallam Abba Kyari: Brother, friend, patriot

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I have been in shock, since news broke, of the passing of Malam Abba Kyari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff, late on Friday night, the 17th of April, that it has been difficult for me, to concentrate on literally any other thought, except the incredible life that Mal Abba lived, and the gravity of loss, that Nigeria has suffered. Mal Abba was the quintessential patriot, who loved Nigeria with sincere passion, and he gave himself totally to any, and every assignment. It was also one of his virtues, that he built an incredible network of friends all over our very vast country. What was most central to his life, was the modesty with which he lived his life. His white babanriga and the red cap, expressed very deeply, the man’s disdain for exuberant expressions of materialism. Malam Abba Kyari was certainly one of the most well-read members of the Nigerian elite, and his connection with any individual probably starts from his appreciation of the person’s intellect, and commitment to very good causes. And because he never built any airs around himself, he easily made you feel at ease in his presence, and this includes even children. Back home in Kaduna, when my children were still considerably younger, we once spent a whole day with him in his residence, and I was amazed at the ease with which he got down to enjoying their company. That repeated itself on another occasion in Abuja, when he requested that I brought them to the supermarket/restaurant, at Dunes in Maitama. My wife also reminded me this morning, as we spoke about the passing of our dear friend and brother, that Mal Abba Kyari was in our house at Wuse II, during the ramadan of 2014, when our four kids then in secondary school in Minna, were involved in an accident, on their way from school.

My relationship with Malam Abba Kyari developed and grew, when I was Editor of DAILY TRUST. In the early days, we were located on Lusaka Street, in Wuse Zone 6. He would call as he entered Abuja from Kaduna, that he was going to come to the office; would come in the green taxis that Nasir El-Rufai had introduced into the city in the early 2000s. After a discussion upstairs, in Kabiru Yusuf’s office, Mal Abba would settle in with me, read the newspapers, discuss current national and international issues, as well as listen-in, to our Editorial meetings, sometimes offering useful advices, as a former Editor of the defunct DEMOCRAT newspaper, in Kaduna, himself. It was actually at DEMOCRAT that I first met him in the 1980s. I won’t be divulging any secrets on this occasion, if I state here that Mal Abba was the author of a few of our very pungent front page editorials, in my years as the Editor of DAILY TRUST. Such was his passion for the state of our country. And because we are both lovers of books, he ensured that whenever he travelled abroad, he called to ask which books I wanted, or he would buy books of very rich content, and let me know, soon as he arrived.

Over the years, our relationship grew in leaps and bounds. And when I returned home to Kaduna for weekends, I would join him at home, and every evening, we would go together to Malam Mamman Daura’s residence, where a small crowd of distinguished Northern Nigerian technocrats used to gather, for the mandatory cup of evening tea, small chops, and discussions about the state of the country, to be followed by Maghrib prayers, in the very cultured ambience that Malam Mamman Daura cultivated. You couldn’t experience the decency of that setting, and not understand some of the factors that went into the sense of duty, and of the commitment, that Mal Abba Kyari brought into his life, in the often very difficult settings, of the Nigerian public service.

And when we have been together in England, there was also a sense of routine about Malam Abba. He lived in Cambridge; so everyday, he would come on the train, and I would be waiting at King’s Cross Station, from where we would take a bus to central London. There’s a street between Debenham’s and House of Fraser, on Oxford Street, where there’s the Lebanese restaurant El-Maroush. It’s one of his favourite dining points in London. We would eat lunch, and then go from one bookshop to the other. If we spent a week in England, the routine only varied, in terms of where we ate lunch. But the trips around bookshops never changed! We would take a bus back to King’s Cross Station, he takes the underground back to Cambridge and would be back the next day. It was on one of those evenings, as we strolled on Oxford Street, that I met the NSA, General Babagana Monguno, for the first time. He was in the company of his wife, and had just been retired from the Nigerian Army.

Many people have spoken about Mal Abba’s loyalty to President Muhammadu Buhari; Sen Kashim Shettima underlined that in an interview he gave to NTA just after Mal Abba’s burial. That was the man. He was completely loyal and worked hard and selflessly, for the progress of Nigeria. As Kashim Shettima also stated, Abba Kyari also took all the blows, and deflected the poisoned arrows, directed at the president. There were elite forces who hated Abba’s guts, because he won’t indulge their fancies, which they felt was their entitlement; there were also the political gladiators who have an insatiable appetite for power grab, and who saw Abba Kyari as an enemy, because he didn’t allow the kind of state capture that they desired. These forces have strong presence in the media and social media; so they created a caricature of the man, and ensured that the strawman they constructed out of Mal Abba Kyari, as Chief of Staff, was given a kick around; was the object of innuendos and ludicrous stories, all directed at impugning his character. They wanted the man to be unpopular sufficiently for the President Buhari to remove him or not re-appoint him! Some even were reported to have directly told the president not to re-appoint him, while they sponsored a rented crowd to carry placards against Malam Mamman Daura and Malam Abba, soon after the last elections. It was the expression of the desperacy of those forces of inordinate power grab and state capture. They also sold incredible stories about deals making, which were definitely contrary to the character of the man I knew personally. And he soldiered on stoically, refusing to be distracted. I remember that Garba Shehu once addressed the press on one of those ludicrous allegations; he revealed that as Chief of Staff, Mal Abba had access to a very handsome monthly imprest. But he never even collected the huge sum once!

However, it’s a reflection of the erosion of trust in the Nigerian state and the power complex in the country, that people are always willing to believe the worst of our leaders. And the more lurid, the easier it is for such absurd tales to be carried around, thanks to the power of social media; the new illiteracy it has fostered, and the depth of anger in the land. And citizens have also become so de-sensitized and de-humanized, that quite a few would gloat at the passing of a human being they know next to nothing about. It’s the season of peculiar mess, in the land, in a manner of speaking. But our shared humanity should at least give us the pause in such circumstances, as the passing of another person. The truth is that everybman’s death diminishes us, because we are all involved in mankind, in the words of the poet, John Donne.

I got to know Malam Abba Kyari intimately as a brother and friend, before he became the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, and I’ve also worked with him in that position. I can only honestly say what I know about the man. I have no doubts in my mind, that we have lost a man of tremendous intellect; a truly honourable human being and a genuine patriot, who was dedicated to the very best interests of Nigeria. He was very concerned about the plight of the poor, and was constantly lamenting the elite conspiracies, that make it difficult for power to truly serve the mass of the Nigerian people. He knew that elite groups were not happy, that he tried to block their state capture endeavours, and was aware that they were responsible for the creation of the caricature of himself that is out there in the public space. But he would shrug his shoulders, and insist that what to do, was to continue to serve the country, so that in the long run, the people, the mass of the poor, may get to enjoy the benefits they deserve from their country. It was in fact in the course of his pursuit of the interest of Nigeria, that he contracted the dreaded Covid-19, whose complications eventually claimed his life. For me, I will always remember Malam Abba Chirwa Kyari, my brother and friend, as a truly outstanding patriot, who served our country with tremendous dignity and exemplary conduct. This 2020 is truly turning out to be my Annus Horibilis; having suffered the loss of two people that mean so much to me, in their individual ways: Sir Lucky Omoluwa on February 18th, and Malam Abba Kyari, on Friday, April 17th; but Allah knows better. May Allah forgive Malam Abba Kyari’s shortcomings and grant him Aljanna Fir’daus. Amin.

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