In this piece, OLALEKAN ADETAYO attempts to unmask the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, and some of his activities that make many see him as the most powerful presidential
Kyari: The ultimate power broker
Although he has two prominent namesakes who share both first name and surname with him — a former military administrator (deceased) and a serving deputy commissioner of police — he cannot be mistaken for any of them. Those who frequent the Presidential Villa, Abuja or those who work there cannot miss him. Even others who pay attention to details in photographs or video recordings of events released from the seat of power can also not miss him.
Welcome to the world of arguably the most powerful presidential aide in Nigeria, Mallam Abba Kyari, the powerful Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari.
According to Wikipedia, Kyari holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology from the University of Warwick, England. He is also said to possess a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Law from the University of Cambridge, England and was called to the Nigerian Bar after attending the Nigerian Law School in 1983.
In 1984, he obtained a master’s degree in law from the University of Cambridge. He later attended the International Institute for Management Development at Lausanne, Switzerland and participated in the Programme for Management Development at the Harvard Business School in 1992 and 1994.
Kyari worked for the law firm, Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo, for some time after his return to Nigeria. From 1988 to 1990, he was editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited Kaduna. In 1990, he served as Commissioner for Forestry and Animal Resources in his home state, Borno. From 1990 to 1995, Kyari was Secretary to the Board of African International Bank Limited. He was Executive Director, Management Services, United Bank for Africa Plc and was later appointed Managing Director and Chief Executive of the bank.
The Borno State indigene was appointed into his present position on August 27, 2015. Since then, the former banker and ex-journalist has not left anyone in doubt about his huge influence on the President. His appointment has been renewed for a second term despite protests by some individuals and groups, an indication that his principal is satisfied with what he is doing.
Kyari’s huge influence in the nation’s political space must have started from one of his traditional roles as the Chief of Staff to the President which is to plan Buhari’s schedule and correspondence, sometimes in conjunction with the State Chief of Protocol, Lawal Kazaure. In carrying out this task, Kyari decides those the President can grant audience and those he should not meet. He decides the mails he should read and the ones to keep away from him; he also decides places where the President can visit and those places he should avoid like a plague. His words are, most times, binding on the President.
Kyari is arguably the closest aide of the President, or one of the closest, considering the fact that there are some other aides of the President who reside in his official residence with him, therefore, very close to him. This makes the Chief of Staff fit perfectly into the “Presidency cabal” which a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, said he had no apologies for belonging to.
While declaring open a retreat organised for his first term ministers designate on November 5, 2015, Buhari had set the tone for what further made it practically difficult or completely impossible for some ministers and some categories of presidential aides to have direct access to him. It was on that day that Buhari made it mandatory that ministers must go through Kyari if they desired any contact with him. That was the first time he said so, he only reiterated this last week to the hearing of his second term ministers in case they want to feign ignorance. “In addition, all communications and appointments from you (ministers) to the Presidency should be routed through the Office of the Chief of Staff as is normal in this presidential system,” Buhari had said then. The controversy that has been thrown up since he reiterated his position last week has, however, showed that it appears it is only Buhari and maybe a few of his handlers that see that channel of communication as normal.
Kyari is always visible around the President, attending all meetings that Buhari attends and taking part in photo sessions after such meetings. He cannot be missed in what has become his uniform: white agbada and wine Kanuri traditional cap. He won’t be caught in any other attire or a different colour. When photographs are being taken after such meetings or visits, Kyari will ensure that nobody stands between him and the President. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo may make do with taking position beside the President on the right-hand-side while Kyari will take a position by the left side of the President. Others can then find their ways beside or behind him. Some may argue that the arrangement is about protocol, but some others who have been inside the Presidential Villa before Buhari’s Presidency will also argue that seeing Chief of Staffs posing for pictures with Presidents and their guests is another change brought by the present administration.
Kyari’s massive office in the seat of power is about 200 metres from the office of the President. Despite being advanced in age, this presidential aide covers this distance as many times as possible in a day, crisscrossing his office and the President’s office, apparently because he does not want to leave anything to chance.
As he walks the distance, he always holds tenaciously to one office file or the other. The common features of the files clear to those close enough are that they are white with the nation’s coat of arms embossed in green. In all of the short trips, Kyari is always accompanied by at least two security aides, one in front apparently to be sure no harm is coming near him from the front and the other in the rear to ensure that enemies contemplating coming from the rear are waived off. You will never see him release these office files that may contain the nation’s top secrets to any of his aides. This may be why Buhari is comfortable with him despite public criticism: He keeps the President’s secret.
Kyari looks tough and strict. Despite these attributes, however, he finds time to acknowledge greetings and sometimes crack jokes with journalists whenever he finds them on the corridor in front of the Press Gallery while on his way either to his office or to the President’s office. That is, however, where it will end. Once Kyari notices that journalists are trying to turn the rare privilege to an interview session, he will quickly leave the scene as fast as he came.
Due to his closeness to the President, many of the decisions of the present administration considered not to be good enough are attributed to him, wrongly or rightly. In fact, whatever misfortune befalls his colleagues by way of reprimand, suspension or outright sack, are also pushed to the doorstep of this man of influence probably because he is the one that usually conveys most of such news to those affected. A recent example is a query he recently issued the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Babatunde Fowler, and the criticism it attracted to the Chief of Staff.
It is not completely out of place to hear about a slight confrontation between Kyari and some top government officials once in a while. While some happened outside the prying eyes of outsiders, one occurred openly inside the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa on November 1, 2017, between him and the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Mrs Winnifred Oyo-Ita. The altercation was believed to be based on Oyo-Ita’s leaked memo to Kyari on the controversial reinstatement and subsequent posting of a former Chairman of the Pension Reforms Commission, Abdulrasheed Maina.
The mild drama played out in the presence of Osinbajo; the then President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki; the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, then National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, John Odigie-Oyegun; service chiefs and ministers. Saraki, Dogara, Oyegun and the service chiefs were present to witness the inauguration of Boss Mustapha as the new SGF as well as the inauguration of the 2018 Armed Forces Remembrance emblem.
Mustapha later succeeded in calming frayed nerves after Osinbajo and Kyari were seen engaging the visibly angry Oyo-Ita in discussions. The Deputy Chief of Staff, Ade Ipaye, also moved in and persuaded Oyo-Ita to return to her seat when it became obvious that all those in attendance were watching the drama with keen interest.
The PUNCH had earlier exclusively published Oyo-Ita’s leaked memo in which she claimed that Buhari was aware of Maina’s reinstatement and that she warned the President against it. Oyo-Ita had claimed that her warning was based on the implications such reinstatement would have on the anti-corruption war of the Federal Government. Kyari must have believed that Oyo-Ita leaked the memo to embarrass the government.
But exactly a week after that incident, on November 8, 2017, the two gladiators also made a public show of their reconciliation at the same venue when they embraced publicly before the commencement of the meeting of the Federal Executive Council for that day.
Oyo-Ita, on arrival at the Council Chambers venue of the meeting, had gone straight to Osinbajo to have a discussion with him. She was still discussing with the Vice President when Kyari arrived. All smiles, Kyari and Oyo-Ita embraced publicly as still and video cameramen struggled to get good shots of the public display of affection. Other members of the council clapped for them as the drama unfolded.
Like everybody believed to be highhanded, Kyari had also had his share of negative publicity. He had at a time been accused of complicity in the alleged poor handling of the fine imposed by the Nigerian Communication Commission on a telecommunication firm and it was also alleged that the Nigerian High Commission in the United Kingdom picked his medical bill when he fell sick in 2016, an allegation that was later denied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Things got to the peak in October 2016 when he was alleged to have been suspended by the President because he was not seen around the President for days. Online reports alleged that he was on suspension over an allegation of bribery levelled against him in connection with the reduction of the fine imposed on the telecommunication firm. The man read all those reports.
When he returned to the villa, Kyari taunted those who were behind the online reports. On his way to the President’s office from his office, he stopped by at the Press Gallery and jokingly told reporters he met there that, “go and tweet that I am here.” On his way back to his office, Kyari repeated the same message in a manner that suggested “no shaking.” Despite the many negative reports around him then, the Chief of Staff insisted that by virtue of his office, he does not grant press interviews.
When the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari cried out in a 2016 interview that some individuals who did not contribute to her husband’s 2015 electoral victory have hijacked him and followed it up in 2018 that two men in her husband’s government have hijacked the administration, many fingers were quickly pointed towards Kyari even though the woman did not mention names.
Kyari does not appear bothered about criticism. He has a job at hand and it appears he is not ready to allow anything to distract him from continuing to carry out his tasks to the satisfaction of his boss. Whether you describe him as the most powerful presidential aide or you take a step further to call him de facto President or Prime Minister, the man at the centre of it all is Mallam Abba Kyari.
The powers behind the throne
When a politician assumes a public office in Nigeria, he does not wield the influence associated with the office alone. Friends, family members and political associates wield such influence with him. Some of them even wield influence more than the public office holder. They nominate people for juicy positions such as making people ministers or commissioners and members of the boards of government agencies.
There is no level of government that this is not applicable to. It plays out at the local government and state levels. There is also no exception at the federal level and President Muhammadu Buhari is not immune against this scenario painted. The septuagenarian Nigerian leader has more than enough people who wield the influence of his office more than he himself can do or imagine. Some of them became influential by virtue of the responsibilities the President saddled them with while some others are only leveraging their closeness to him.
These individuals wield their influence in the polity in a manner that makes them qualified to be referred to as the real powers behind the President
Osinbajo: Dependable deputy
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, no doubt, wields a big influence in the present administration. He cannot be described a mere spare tyre with the kind of roles he has been playing since the inception of the Buhari administration in 2015. Though a lawyer, Osinbajo is in charge of the economy by virtue of being the head of the government’s Economic Management Team. His role as the Vice President also places him in regular contact with state governors as he chairs the National Economic Council which has all state governors as members.
Osinbajo’s office also coordinates the government’s National Social Investment Programme, therefore making him the face of some of the schemes under the programme such as Tradermoni and N-Power among others.
As if that is not enough, many presidential aides are attached to his office. This means that they report to him and not to the President directly. Those in that category include the Special Adviser to President on Economic Matters, Dr Adeyemi Dipeolu; the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment Programme, Mrs Maryam Uwais; Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters, Babafemi Ojudu; and the Special Adviser to the President on Ease Of Doing Business, Dr Jumoke Oduwole, among others.
Not a few people in government today or those who served in Buhari’s first term, whether as ministers or heads of government agencies owe their emergence to the former Lagos State Commissioner for Justice.
Tinubu: Strategist extraordinaire
Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is a national leader of the ruling party. The former Lagos State Governor played a critical role in the merger process that led to the birth of the party and its electoral victory. He is generally believed to have nominated Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as Buhari’s running mate ahead of the 2015 presidential election. Although a crack was noticed in his relationship with the President shortly after the victory, it appeared the two leaders were able to manage the situation. To confirm this, Buhari made him co-chairman of his campaign organisation for the 2019 election.
Tinubu has a huge influence on the President and the party. He is believed to be instrumental to the nomination of the Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Sunday Dare; and the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, among others. Dare was at different times Tinubu’s Chief of Staff and spokesman before he was nominated as the Executive Commissioner (Stakeholder Management), Nigerian Communications Commission. He held this position until he was made a minister. Aregbesola, on his part, was Commissioner for Works in Lagos State during Tinubu’s two terms as governor and also served as governor of Osun State.
El-Rufai: Mr Bulldozer
Nasir El-Rufai is a two-term Governor of Kaduna State. He came into the limelight as the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises and subsequently the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. El-Rufai is a governor that can walk up to the President any time and any day whether in his office or his official residence. His state is also one that the President is at home with. This is clear from the frequency in which Buhari visits the state for official functions.
This closeness to the President has made El-Rufai influential in some of the major decisions so far taken by this administration as they concern policy direction and appointments. One of the appointments that can easily be traced to El-Rufai was the July 11, 2016 appointment of Hadiza Usman as the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority. Usman was, up until her appointment, the Chief of Staff to El-Rufai. She had earlier worked with the governor in BPE as well as when he was a minister.
Very early in Buhari’s first term, the governor was instrumental to the appointment of Prof Umaru Danbatta as the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive of the Nigerian Communications Commission. Immediately the appointment was made public, El-Rufai took Danbatta to the Presidential Villa, apparently to thank the President for the gesture. He ensured that the man granted a press interview before they left the seat of power.
Another appointment that El-Rufai reportedly influenced was that of Aliyu Aziz as the Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Identity Management Commission. Aziz was Deputy Director, Information Technology at the BPE when El-Rufai was the bureau’s Director General. When he became minister, El-Rufai also appointed Aziz as his Information Technology Adviser.
It is believed that the governor had his hands in many other appointments made by the President, including ministers.
Amosun: Cat with nine lives
Ibikunle Amosun is currently a senator. The former Ogun State Governor has remained a long-time ally of the President since their days in the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party, hence his ability to wield influence. Amosun influenced the appointment of his former Commissioner for Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, as Buhari’s Minister of Finance.
He was instrumental to the appointment of Adebisi Adegbuyi as the nation’s Post Master-General. Despite his disagreement with the ruling All Progressives Congress ahead of the 2015 election on the choice of the governorship candidate in the state, he remained committed to Buhari’s re-election. In this second term, he has influenced the appointment of his former Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure, Olamilekan Adegbite, as the Minister of Mines and Steel Development. Added to that, he has also ensured that his former personal assistant, Adeleke Adewolu, emerged the Executive Commissioner (Stakeholder Management), Nigerian Communications Commission to replace the Minister of Sports and Youths Development, Sunday Dare.
Daura: A nephew like no other
There is no way issue of the powers behind the throne in the villa will be discussed without a generous mention of Buhari’s nephew, Mamman Daura. Although he holds no public office, his influence on Buhari and his government cannot be overemphasised. For the better part of the President’s first term, Daura was spending more time with him in his official residence. They were also seen travelling together. Buhari and Daura have come a long way. They both belonged to a group called “Kaduna Mafia” which was a group of young Northern Nigerian intellectuals, civil servants, business tycoons and military officers residing or conducting business in the former Northern capital city of Kaduna during the end of the First Republic. He is said to have his hands in most of the President’s decisions or appointments.
Funtua: Buhari’s tested friend
Ismaila Isa Funtua, a personal friend of the President, is also not holding any public office at the moment, but Buhari respects his views on national issues including appointments. He is also seen travelling with the President and visiting him regularly in the presidential villa without any security bottleneck.
Sabiu: The President’s shadow
There are also some individuals who are not too visible but are wielding huge influence because of their closeness to the President. Such people include the youthful Personal Assistant to the President, Tunde Sabiu; and the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Domestic Affairs, Sarki Aba, among others. By virtue of his current position, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, is also a man on influence in the Presidential Villa.