BY DEBO AKANNI
Long before the public demonstrations against Mallam Abba Kyari in Abuja and Kaduna last week, it has been more than obvious that some forces do not fancy him as the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. They had accused him of all sorts. They had created a cabal and inserted him into it. They had excitedly whispered his impending removal many times, shopped for his replacements several times, and even pointedly asked the President to remove him a number of times. They had not succeeded in bending the President to their design. Last week, some seemingly independent demonstrators joined the baying bandwagon.
Is this mere coincidence? Evidently not. Even to a child, a public demonstration on who the President should appoint as his Chief of Staff looks strange and suspicious. Not just one public demonstration, but two demonstrations, and just days apart. There is clearly some orchestration at play. Even when it falls into a clear pattern, this latest instalment of the well-oiled campaign against Kyari is a major inflection point. It is both an indication of utmost desperation by the forces bent on getting him out of the way and a grave mark of disrespect for the President himself.
This should not be in doubt: the President has the sole prerogative over and the sole responsibility for whom to appoint as his closest aides. Telling the President who to work with at that very personal level or trying to force the President’s hand with hired crowds is not just an usurpation of his presidential prerogative but a barely veiled way of painting the President as someone incapable of making the most basic of decisions. Whatever can be said against President Buhari, indicating that he doesn’t have a mind of his own or that he can be bullied to undertake a line of action is way off the mark. The President is not an infant, and it is important to halt the discourteous attempt at infantilising him.
The position of the Chief of Staff to the President is not a trifle one. The occupant not only decides who sees the President but also on what gets decided on and when. In addition, the occupant organises the President and serves as his principal enforcer, his main confidante, and his chief adviser. He must also enjoy the trust of his principal and in turn must be ready to protect the President, project his values and priorities, and take punches for him.
It is easy to see how a firm and effective Chief of Staff would not be a darling of political and business elite in a patronage system where access to the President and influence on public policy are precious capital. Previous occupants of this important office had either been the do-not-rock-the-boat type or the type who made capital out of being at such strategic intersection. But Mallam Kyari is cut from a different cloth. He is quietly forceful, and he mirrors the austere lifestyle of his principal, shares and champions his worldview.
He doesn’t shy away from letting everyone know that he takes his gatekeeping function seriously. On many occasions, he has advertised his three-way test as this: do not allow anyone to mislead the President through misrepresentation; do not allow the President’s integrity to be violated; and do not allow Nigeria’s interests to be subordinated to any other consideration. Applying this rubric will sometimes take ideological dimension. This will necessarily rub him against those with different worldviews and will demand of him to be more open to other ideas. But even when his heart is with the common people like his boss, Kyari is also known to be a pragmatist, a good listener and someone who consults widely both formally and informally.
Another evident problem for him is that he is not the quiet Chief of Staff who just takes notes, moves files, and shares his views with only the President. He is well secure in his skin, he has a point of view and speaks his mind. With a degree from Warwick and two from Cambridge, well-read, and having served as an editor of a newspaper and CEO of a major bank, this is not totally unexpected. But it departs from the character profile of previous occupants of that position between 1999 and 2015. He is outspoken, firm and visible, and this makes him an easy target of those who do not get their way with his principal.
But as a newspaper reported recently, this goes beyond the political economy of influence and access. The renewed onslaught against Kyari has both immediate and future politics written all over it. His crime is not that he is not loyal, diligent or competent. That will be difficult to sustain. He works his socks off, combing through all documents, querying assumptions, diagnoses and prescriptions, taking himself through a most punishing work schedule. His crime cannot be that he is not smart. Such an accusation will be very laughable. It is also not about lacking integrity either. Knowing fully well that lack of integrity is a mortal sin with President Buhari, Kyari’s assailants have repeatedly thrown muds at him but have done so without a shred of evidence. It is public knowledge that Kyari remains modest and austere, living in a two-bedroom government guest house, despite the important position he occupies.
His crime is simply that, being who he is and how he defines his job, he stands or is perceived to stand between some forces and their interests/ambitions. Some of these forces would like to have their agent around the President in that strategic position so as to get valuable pieces of information or steer opportunities their way. It is also an open secret that a few them will like to have that position themselves as a bridge to higher office in 2023.
Ambitions and positioning are not illegal. But pushing them at all cost or in a way that tries to force the hand of the President or in a manner that infantilises the President is unconscionable and presumptuous. It is only President Buhari that can decide if Kyari has met his expectations as his Chief of Staff. Not those pretending to love the President more than himself. Not those who think they know what the President needs more than himself. Not those who think they have the right to appoint personal aides for the President. It is not their call. It is his.
Akanni, a political and policy analyst, lives in Abuja.