HIDDEN under the unrestrained adulations that President Muhammadu Buhari showered on his late Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, are coded messages which looked at carefully provide some measure of insight on Buhari’s ideology of politics, governance and power.
This ideology, ingrained in his persona, has been his compass and guiding principle in both military and civilian dispensations of his public life. It also appeared to have dictated for President Buhari a constricted worldview, a restricted social trajectory and a methodology of leadership; moderating his every action in all the positions he had held in and out of military.
A rigid application of this ideology portrays him as not only ruthless, but also unbendable and mean-spirited. This persona defined his leadership as military Head of State and his management of Abacha’s pet project, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), the combined reputation upon which his ambition and recruitment for the presidency was constructed in 2003.
While the jury is still out in his current leadership test as President, however, it appears from the undercurrent of popular discontent that he has disappointed many on the effectiveness of this ideology of leadership. In the frontline of critics against his style are some of his former associates that had for years rooted for his conscription to power, typified in Alhaji Buba Galadima who is now one of the most acerbic critics of his perceived leadership failures.
Of the many theories advanced to illustrate that Buhari has lost his legendary ruthless and unbendable appeals, is the notion of a cabal in the villa; a clique so powerful and domineering as to have usurped the reins of presidential authority following an incapacitated Buhari after bouts of yet unknown sickness that took him months to treat in London.
The cabal, assumed to be so potent, and determined to maintain its firm hold on the levers of power, was said to have sourced for, and imposed as President, a Buhari surrogate from Niger Republic. The ‘real Buhari’, it was rumoured, was presumed to have died from his ailment in London, but the reality had been hidden from Nigerians by the cabal that had strategized to keep on manipulating governance. The faces personifying the cabal were Mallam Abba Kyari and Alhaji Mamman Daura.
The notion gained greater grip of the imagination of majority of Nigerians when, upon re-election, Buhari granted Mallam Kyari enormous powers making him literally an alternate president; the sole gatekeeper between his (President’s) office and all members of his cabinet, state governors and all who may seek to see Mr President.
The Coded Messages
It is against this context that Buhari’s short and crisp tribute to Mallam Kyari can be read, largely as a response to those who believe that he is a captive of a cabal. It is a coded message in which President Buhari is using the solemn tragedy to assert not only the salient qualities he deserves in his personnel but also his assurances in his policy directions and positive impacts of his governance, irrespective people’s appreciation and perception.
The first indicator of the type of his imagined personnel is right on the second sentence where he stated that he had known Mallam Kyari, “My loyal friend and compatriot for the last 42 years.” (Our emphasis). What this means, essentially, is that the President is sending out a clear message that he is more comfortable with people he has known and closely associated with for a long time.
This message becomes clearer if linked to Buhari’s alleged longstanding relationship to his appointed aides, the marked political intrigues that stalled for six months the emplacement of his first cabinet and their deployment to particular ministries or the appointment of security chiefs or his inaction in removing ministers he may have become used to even if they are obvious not performing or found culpable of one malfeasance or the other. This was the same approach deployed in the relatively long timeframe it took him in considering the re-appointment of almost his old cabinet,
For Buhari, it may not matter if people are dissatisfied with the performance of his appointees, provided he knows them personally and is convinced that they “never wavered” in their “commitment to the betterment of every one of us.” He further demonstrated this obsession when he described Mallam Kyari in glowing terms as someone in whose imagination there was never any question deploying his “first-rate skills and newly acquired world-class knowledge back to Nigeria.”
As a message, the tribute served as a voluble advertisement for the competences he requires for whoever he will be considering as replacement for his deceased Chief of Staff. In a succinct narrative, President Buhari outlined the qualities of Mallam Kyari that he is enamoured with; features that he is bound to seek for in whoever he will recruit to fill the vacancy created by death.
He said: “Whilst possessing the sharpest legal and organisational mind, Abba’s true focus was always the development of infrastructure and the assurance of security for the people of this nation he served so faithfully. For he knew that without both in tandem there can never be the development of the respectful society and vibrant economy that all Nigerian citizens deserve.
“In political life, Abba never sought elective office for himself. Rather, he set himself against the view and conduct of two generations of Nigeria’s political establishment – who saw corruption as an entitlement and its practice a byproduct of possessing political office.
“Becoming my Chief of Staff in 2015, he strove quietly and without any interest in publicity or personal gain to implement my agenda.
“There are those who said of him that he must be secretive – because he did not have a high public profile. But Abba was the opposite: he simply had no need, nor did he seek the cheap gratification of the crowd; for him, there was nothing to be found in popular adulation. He secured instead satisfaction and his reward solely and only from the improvement of the governance of this great country,” President Buhari said.
In capping the above impeccable qualities, the person in mind to replace Mallam Kyari must be not only be a workaholic and apparently self-effacing, but also somebody who is conscientious as he is unwavering, resilient and conscious of himself as he is just.
“Working, without fail, seven days each and every week, 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 described Mallam Kyari, adding that: “He made clear in his person and his practice, always, that every Nigerian – regardless of faith, family, fortune or frailty – was heard and treated respectfully and the same.”
He thus concluded that “Mallam Abba Kyari was the very best of us. He was made of the stuff that makes Nigeria great.”
Beyond these qualitative indicators of the personality that President Buhari is in search of as his next Chief of Staff is the apparently strong message to his critics that he has not changed from the Buhari that was military Head of State or the Buhari that efficiently managed the PTF to national and international applause.
On both occasions, the narrative was of a Buhari who was deft, even if he was essentially seen as unkind and authoritarian. On both occasions too, he operated from the shadows through known lieutenants that he reposed absolute faith in.
Between 1983 and 1985 when he was upstaged by a palace coup, that lieutenant was the late General Tunde Idiagbon.
At the PTF, a body funded from the revenue generated by an increase in the prices of petroleum products by General Abacha to pursue developmental projects around the country, where Buhari served as Chairman, the known lieutenant was the late Ahmad Salihijo.
As it was in these two circumstances, it has been under the current dispensation.
While Mallam Kyari’s reign may have been cut short by COVID-19, Buhari’s message is clear: he is looking for a frontline power operator who has the natural aptitude, the intellectual and emotional capacity or a very thick skin to carry out spoken and unspoken directives of Mr President, which literally means perfecting the art of reading his facial expressions.
Above all, the clear message of he who is to come as Chief of Staff is someone who is inclined to also be seen as ruthless, ready to take blames, insults, punches and literally the bullet for perceived failures of the Buhari government without a whimper.