BIG READ: Abba Kyari (1953-2020): A Very Good Nigerian
“As Mr. Simon Kolawole hinted, the late Chief of Staff was “no saint”. He was also a very dangerous man to the Nigerian economy and Nigerian livelihoods”.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (1881-1938), was said to have reassured his Minister of Finance who had asked him timidly if it was true that he was having an affair with his wife, “of course, I would never do such a thing, but wouldn’t you consider it a great honour if I did”? The story is most likely false, but the man who singularly molded Turkey into a modern, prosperous and secular industrial democracy was in many respects not a very nice man.
But Turks are universally in agreement that they owe their enviable place in the world to the vision and drive of the man the Turkish Parliament voted to name Ataturk, Father of the Turks, in 1934. Ataturk is perhaps the greatest statesman of the last century. In contrast, Mr. Abba Kyari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff (the most powerful in Nigerian history) who passed away on Friday 17th of April 2020 from Covid-19 complications, may be remembered as a very humble and personable man who didn’t have a clue how to use political power to improve his people’s lot.
He wrote an apology for asking Nigerians to vote for President Buhari. Mr. Kyari had called him out of the blue last December – “Hello, is that Feyi, I’ll like to meet you and show you I’m not a monster”. Mr. Fawehinmi drove to Cambridge, the university town where Kyari studied law, to meet him, and the two exchanged gifts of books (two either way). They discussed “everything in Nigeria from Buhari to the 2nd Niger Bridge” for two hours and chatted everyday until Mr. Kyari took ill. He confessed he started “liking the man” and to have been left “deeply deeply sad” by his death, a very honest if surprising admission from someone who also admits that Mr. Kyari was one of the Nigerian officials he had abused the most.
While Mr. Fawehinmi made it very clear that he was saddened by the passing of an unlikely friend without any attempt to defend his performance in office, the journalist and Director General of the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI), Mr. Waziri Adio, in two tweets not only recollected his relationship with Mr. Kyari but also disputed the negative image the public had of the late chief of Staff to President Mohammadu Buhari:
“When my mum died earlier this year, the second person to come to the house same day to condole me (after @Olusegunverdict) was Mallam Abba Kyari. Deeply human. Deeply cerebral. Deeply loyal to his principal and his country, not the caricature widely sold. May God grant him rest”?
“There was clearly a well-oiled machine to always tar him. I and others urged him to always clear the air, if only for posterity. He always resisted, stubbornly insisting that better to bothered about the verdict of conscience and of God. May God have mercy on him. Ameen”.
Mr. Waziri followed up with an article in ThisDay on Sunday titled A Good Man is Gone in which he revealed how he first met the late Abba Kyari when both were members of the ThisDay Editorial Board.
Former ThisDay Editor and Publisher of The Cable, Mr. Simon Kolawole also dedicated his subsisting ThisDay backpage column to recounting his close relationship with the late Chief of Staff in a piece titled Now That Abba Kyari is Gone. Mr. Kolawole recalls frequent gifts of books and lunch and dinner meetings in London, where Mr. Kolawole partly resides. Just like Mr. Adio, Mr. Kolawole also expressed frustration with the absolute refusal of the late Kyari to publicly respond to the many rumours which linked his name to corruption.
Was Mr. Kyari Just His Master’s Voice?
Just how responsible was Mr. Abba Kyari for the many shortcomings of President Buhari’s administration such as nepotism, human rights abuses and poor economic policy choices, and management for which his many detractors continue to blame him for even after his death? Was he a helpless aide who did as he was instructed or an influential player who greatly shaped policies or even, to listen to his more virulent critics, singlehandedly determined policies across many areas on behalf of the President? Understandably, his friends did not address this question but yet we can glimpse the enormous power the late Kyari enjoyed from their coy statements, “My understanding of power is that you can only be as powerful as the president wants you to be” (Simon Kolawole) and “the power exercised by an aide could only be delegated power and an aide could only be as powerful as his principal wants him to be” Waziri Adio).
It is clear President Buhari, even by the late Mr. Kyari’s younger friends’ account, allowed the late Chief of Staff to be powerful. And the evidence points to the fact that he didn’t sit meekly while power was thrust on him, wondering what to do with it. He used the vast delegated powers with great zest. The National Security Adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno (rtd) wrote a damning memorandum which clearly suggested that the late Chief of Staff had extended his powers to giving orders on military affairs. Mr. Kyari seemed to have preferred to give orders in the name of the President rather than consult and coordinate decision-making for him. He must have been the main target of Mrs. Aisha Buhari, the President’s wife, who constantly railed against people who have hijacked the government. Mr. Kyari clearly was not a passive or reluctant wielder of power that serendipitously fell on his laps.
It is not very clear whether the late Chief of Staff became so powerful because once the trust was established, President Buhari left him to run things largely as he i.e. Mr. Kyari deemed fit. Or if Mr. Kyari understood so well the President’s worldview and preferences and became powerful by promoting policies that would have the President’s approval, clearing things with Mr. Buhari once in a while. We have to leave this question to long-form journalists and policy historians to disentangle. But what is clear, despite Mr. Waziri’s assertion that the late Kyari was a pragmatist rather than a socialist is that he shared President Buhari’s aversion to free-market policies and abiding love for state intervention. This cannot be disputed.
In a February 2019 article in ThisDay newspaper, No Matter What, Tomorrow Never Dies, Mr. Kyari accuses “the US, the UK and the EU” of attempting to foist currency and fuel subsidy reforms on Nigeria, claiming “it may actually suit our friends, deep down, below the pious words, to see Nigeria a basket case, begging bowl in hand…”. While oil exporters, even in sub-optimal policy environments such as Egypt and Azerbaijan, allowed their currencies to depreciate in response to the 2014 oil price crash, the Buhari regime stubbornly defended the naira, surrendering millions of dollars to speculators and blocked investment inflows, thus starving the economy of foreign currency. Faced with a similar crash in oil prices in 1984/1986, President Buhari as military Head of State had also failed to devalue the naira, asserting that the IMF didn’t understand the Nigerian economy. While there is a confluence of economic worldviews, the late Mr. Kyari was more than just his master’s voice. He actively promoted policies he believed in. Many Abuja policy types who have met him say the late Chief of Staff discussed and espoused socialist policies at every opportunity (some contrasting them with the comfort and privilege of his own life). Mr. Fawehinmi also mentioned that “capitalist versus socialist banter” was a recurring theme of his daily chats with the late Mr. Kyari.
Mr. Abba Kyari and the New Nigerian Socialism
It is difficult to conclude that Mr. Kyari decided or actively participated in planning or supported the many outrages that he has been accused of orchestrating – the relegation of the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to a bit player in the Presidency, the sacking of a Head of Service, the concentration of political appointments in the North, sending military men to disrupt proceedings at the National Assembly and many more. We may never know. But it is fair to conclude that the atrocious economic management of the Buhari administration, rooted in a leftist worldview that prefers state interventions and controls and abhors private capital, local or international, and is deeply suspicious of the role and intentions of international development agencies, has his fingerprints all over it. At the very least, he shared President Buhari’s ruinous anti-free market worldview and assiduously promoted policies informed by it to remain the President’s most trusted aid. He can hence be fairy accused of scheming to retain the vast powers the President entrusted to him.
As Mr. Simon Kolawole hinted, the late Chief of Staff was “no saint”. He was also a very dangerous man to the Nigerian economy and Nigerian livelihoods. Hopes were very high in Nigeria and abroad in February 2015 when President Buhari won the elections that his solid electoral mandate would be used to initiate a new era of economic reforms and national renewal to replace the doddering incompetence, drift, and corruption of the President Jonathan era. The hope was very quickly dashed as the Buhari administration degenerated into the same incompetence, only leavened by staggering hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Nigeria did not lose or reduce the reputation for corruption but completely lost the modest reputation it has built since President Obasanjo’s second term, briefly dimmed during President Yaradua’s regime, for somewhat sensible macroeconomic policy making. State interventions and controls of the 1970s were fully back in fashion in Abuja. Previous regimes had at least paid lip service to trim Nigeria’s unwieldy, unpaid, inefficient, and predatory civil service. Under the Buhari administration, Nigeria’s uncountable public agencies that duplicated each other’s functions and won huge budget votes to build massive complexes and pay directors and staff for doing nothing became very certain of their survival. Reform flew completely off the agenda.
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The Weapons of Mass Poverty
As American policy wonks say, ideas have consequences. Here are perhaps the biggest damage the socialist ideas did to the Nigerian economy:
Foreign Currency Bonanza
Oil prices fell from around $100 in 2014 to around $33 by January 2016. The Central Bank of Nigeria suddenly couldn’t meet the demand for foreign exchange, including from manufacturing enterprises that needed to import inputs.
Rather than let the Naira flow freely by allowing manufacturers and other importers to decide the price rises their customers could tolerate and thus how much they could pay for foreign exchange, the CBN banned 41 items from accessing dollars in an effort to reduce demand for forex at the unrealistic rate it fixed itself. This had the effect of intensifying the demand for dollars; anyone lucky enough to get dollars the CBN rate could make at least N80 reselling. And these lucky people did often resell.
The former Central Bank Governor and Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido said big people made calls from their balconies to secure allocation of dollars and made millions of naira by simply reselling the dollars. Companies waited weeks to buy dollars not knowing when and how much they would succeed in buying which made planning near impossible. Yet, it was clear that the Nigerian Government needed to replace the income lost due to the oil price crash and that the economy needed more dollars. Rather than borrow from the International Monetary Fund at 1%, Nigeria decided to issue bonds and pay 8% to American and European investment banks.
The socialists thus preferred to enrich the fiercest of capitalists rather than promote free enterprise in their own country. IMF conditionality, i.e. asking questions about why the CBN was allocating dollars to a few people at a huge discount, why Nigeria was spending money it could invest in infrastructure on fuel subsidy, etc. were avoided. The Central Bank of Nigeria frittered away about $41 billion between 2015 and 2017 trying to supply dollars at rates it could supply only the lucky few. Nigeria lost much more in foreign investment as investors, especially those with long-term outlooks, don’t put money in countries with clearly unsustainable policies that endanger economic stability and growth and thus diminish purchasing power.
The 8% paid to foreign investment banks is a reflection of the risk attached to poor policy environments like Nigeria; Germany pays the same banks less than 1% interest. IMF loans, on the other hand, tend to improve confidence that a country is at least taking steps to use its resources better and hence be less susceptible to external shocks.
Killing the Power Sector
Nigeria invested very little to maintain and expand its power sector in the 1980s and 1990s whilst the population exploded. It is estimated that $900 billion has to be invested in the next 30 years to satisfy the demand from households and firms. The Government can never find even a fraction of this investment. This is the rationale behind selling a majority stake in the power firms to private investors (the process is another question). There’s an independent regulator that has the responsibility to adjust electricity prices to ensure that investors recoup their investment and do not make unfair profits.
The cost of producing power has kept going up since 2014 when power tariffs were fixed, in part because of the depreciation in the value of the naira as the sector imports many components and domestic inflation. Regulations provide for constant review of the tariffs but the Buhari administration has leaned on the legally independent regulator, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) not to increase tariffs while failing to do its job to manage foreign exchange policy efficiently so that inflation is moderated. So technically, no one can invest or lend money to the sector and make a kobo. The administration has resorted to subsidizing the supposedly private sector-run industry through the Power Sector Intervention Fund, spending N1.5 trillion between 2017 and 2019. The reform is thus dead. The sector has been taken back to 1985.
Senior figures on President Buhari’s campaign, including Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti, confidently said that the fuel subsidy was going to be eradicated. But after winning the 2015 elections, President Buhari very firmly declared on television that there was nothing like fuel subsidy, it was a “fraud”. The Buhari administration pumped billions into subsidizing petroleum despite abundant evidence that the illegal export into neighbouring countries has persisted. In 2019, according to Bloomberg, Nigeria spent four times on the fuel subsidy as it spent on “building schools, health centers, and science labs” i.e. a year after Nigeria was declared the “the poverty capital of the world” for having more people living in poverty than even India which has 1.35 billion people. A country interested in inclusive economic reforms could in negotiations for IMF/World Bank funding discuss building and subsidizing public transportation used by the masses rather than pouring billions into subsidizing fuel for millions of better-off citizens driving private cars.
As far as the Nigerian public is concerned this is the legacy of the late Abba Kyari, a “cerebral” man who chose to steer his country along the same path of policy-enabled corruption, poverty, and economic failures has trodden for 60 years.
The Great Paradox
Apart from his few friends, it is almost impossible to find any Nigerian who has anything good to say about the late Chief of Staff. Nigerians, young and old, including a few people with some public profile, openly celebrated his death on social media. The hatred and vitriol were shocking and was in very bad taste. The great paradox is that if Mr. Kyari’s detractors looked in the mirror, what they would see is a clear image of the late Chief of Staff. He was in many ways like the Nigerians who have taken to social media to curse him.
Many Nigerians believe, no matter their level of education, the odd idea that western powers and their tools, the IMF and the World Bank, ultimately are responsible for the country’s development failures rather than local elites and their tragic economic policy choices. They passionately believe in the same policy set that the late Chief of Staff championed- subsidies, state interventions, and controls, unsustainable high exchange rates, etc. They do not believe that hard choices have to be made for the economic progress of the nation. Nigeria can have an over-bloated, poorly paid civil service but the same civil service can also provide honest and efficient services that boost investment and enhance welfare to citizens and businesses.
We can waste billions on fuel subsidy but still improve our roads and qualify for World Bank money to spend on improving healthcare. Nigeria can have high exchange rates enabling thousands to holiday and have weddings in Dubai when oil prices are high and deplete our foreign currency reserves but when oil prices fall, we can avoid devaluation. Economic progress is not about making rational choices but about wishful thinking and conspiracy theorizing.
Nigerians do not hate the late Abba Kyari for the economic policy choices he made, how these policies squandered the opportunity to use President Buhari’s strong mandate and credibility as a non-corrupt leader to initiate big reforms and transform the country. They do not hate him for the great hardship the socialist policies have inflicted on their lives. Nigerians hate the late Chief of Staff for the perception that he excluded them and their ethnic kin from opportunities to participate and benefit from Government. The hatred is not about good or effective government. If any of his critics had the power, they would use it exactly has he had- to benefit family and friends more or less in the same way? Even amongst highly educated Nigerians, discussion of politics and power is first about “our turn”, concerns about economic policy, and effective government is secondary. Mr. Abba Kyari was really one of us. A very good Nigerian. May his soul rest in peace.