TRIBUTE: My Abba Kyari
By Sam Nda-Isaiah
He was my friend in the true sense of the word, my confidante by the classical definition of the word, and the elder brother I didn’t have (for I am the first child of my parents).
Those who knew both of us knew there was something very personal between Abba Kyari and me.
Is it not really odd that I should be addressing Mallam Abba Kyari in the past tense? To say I didn’t see this coming is needless: only God sees all things and to Him we unconditionally submit.
In spite of our age difference, he encouraged me to call him by his first name Abba, but I always preferred Mallam Abba. Forget what anyone might tell you, Mallam Abba was a decent, humble and simple gentleman who delighted himself with intellectual and higher pursuits.
He was cerebral. He was a technocrat, a workhorse and an accomplisher. He was not a perfect human being. Nobody was, nobody is and nobody will ever be. But he was a totally decent human being.
The last time we met was Saturday, March 7. He called me on Friday, March 6, and said he would be travelling to Germany in the evening of the following day. If I was free, he said, I should come for breakfast and let’s have time together alone. I was in his house at 9am that Saturday.
We talkedfor more than 3 hours on everything – the good, the bad and the ugly – and that was the usual way we related. I left him about 1pm, wishing him a safe journey. I didn’t know that would be the last I would set my eyes on him.
During our discussion, he told me why he was going to Germany. The President had sent him to follow up on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s earlier visit, during which she promised to secure a guarantee for Siemens, one of the best companies in the world in the electric power sector, to construct a world-class infrastructure for electricity distribution in Nigeria.
Chancellor Merkel’s proposition to President Buhari would be a game changer for the country in terms of solving our electricity problems, and the President was not going to joke with the opportunity.
Besides, the high stakes deal was a Head-of-State to Head- of-State one, so it had to be handled from the President’s office. And the office of the Chief of Staff to the President runs the President’s office.
So I don’t get the nonsense some people are saying about his usurping a job that was not his by going to Germany. People who have no idea of how government operates at that level want to give an opinion on everything. That, of course, is one of the sacrifices that genuine men of integrity who occupy high office must contend with.
He spent only a couple of days in Germany and returned to Nigeria via the UK, contracting the coronavirus in between. In other words, he contracted the virus while on active service to his country. When he tested positive, he went into self-isolation but could not stop working via his telephone.
We spoke every day until his doctors decided to seize his handset because they thought he needed to stop thinking about work and start concentrating on his health. Before his phone was taken from him, he told me he didn’t even have a fever. He was not sick yet. Whatever went wrong must have happened in the last one or two weeks.
None of us saw this coming. It is very painful, sad and emotionally draining. On the
Friday that he died, my friend Abdul Gombe called me about 10pm. He sounded agitated. He said the news of Mallam Abba’s death had started appearing again. “Haba Abdul,” I told him, “you should by now have become used to this feckless fake news.” He insisted that the news was strong. I dismissed him and the idea.
But after midnight, long after all the newspapers on the LEADERSHIP stable had gone to bed, I received a call from Jonathan Eze, the chief operating officer of our new daily, NATIONAL ECONOMY. I knew any call from such a senior person in a newspaper to his publisher at that time was usually not about a good piece of news.
It must have been about breaking news, probably requiring going back to the office. I was sitting at home with a friend at the time.
When my phone rang and I saw who was calling, I told my friend that I didn’t like that call. It’s not likely to be a good one. Immediately I picked the call, Jonathan asked me straight without a preamble, “Sir, please confirm the news of the death of Abba Kyari.” “You are very stupid,” I retorted without even thinking.
“What kind of Senior editorial manager are you to fall for the antics of fake news so easily?” He kept quiet, not knowing how to proceed. “Where did you get that useless story anyway?” “From Femi Adesina’s Twitter handle,” he said.
“Then it must be somebody faking Femi,” I replied. “In any case, let me call Femi immediately.”
I called Femi. He picked and, without even waiting for me to ask, he started condoling with me.
It was devastating. It still didn’t sound real. The tears, the weeping came. My friend allowed me to go through the process before he started consoling me. I pulled myself together, called Jonathan, apologised to him and told him to call all the editors of our three newspapers back to the office. I also called Abdul to tell him what I found out. Abdul told me that he knew all along and was clearly preparing me for the news, in view of my relationship with Mallam Abba.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, Mallam Abba was the elder brother I didn’t have. And that meant a lot of trouble for me. As a consequence, Abba saw me as a responsibility, and this was further complicated by the fact that he had very strong views and held strong positions.
Before he became Chief of Staff and work took away every fabric of his being, Mallam Abba would call me every day wherever he was and wherever I was. And I mean every day. He called sometimes only to ask, “Sam, yaya dai? Kana lafiya ko?”
That’s all. And this was every day. There were times I thought Mallam Abba was more interested in me and devoted to me and my progress than I was in myself.
That may sound implausible or even counterintuitive but it sure felt that way at times. If I was the Chairman of LEADERSHIP, he was the one who could scold and overrule the Chairman. Everybody around me accepted that. And I enjoyed it.
He would come to LEADERSHIP, call the editor and the MD and advise them.
When I started LEADERSHIP CONFIDENTIAL, he became the chief advocate. He and Mallam Mamman Daura were the only people who subscribed for two years, not minding whether we would be able to go beyond the first issue. He fought my fights. Anytime there was bad press about me, especially in Daily Trust, he
appropriated the fight.
When my son was going to start boarding school at Aiglon College, Switzerland, he called his dear friend, Geoffrey Onyeama, then the deputy director-general at the Geneva- based World Intellectual Property
Organisation (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations, to brief him. Only God knew what he told Onyeama who is now Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, because Onyeama who was really a big shot in Switzerland at the time. He organised a welcome party for my wife and me where we met lots of people in Geneva. Onyeama’s wife was simply fantastic and savvy. Incidentally, their son was also at Aiglon College, so they knew virtually everything about the school.
Mallam Abba had no desire whatsoever for riches and worldly accoutrements. He had ample opportunities to feed such desires, if he had any. He was Managing Director and CEO of UBA at a time the bank was still at the top of the banking industry in Nigeria. Compare him to all those who had occupied that office in the past and you would understand what I mean.
He was also on the board of Unilever Plc and ExxonMobil for several years, and, between 2000 and 2005, he was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on investment in Nigeria. Since I knew Mallam Abba, his interests had always been about the Nigerian state. There was not a time we sat down to talk that the dominant subject was not Nigeria. He had friends all over the country but especially in Lagos where he worked first as a lawyer, and then as Company Secretary/Legal Adviser with the African International Bank, before moving on to join the core team that took over the new privatized UBA.
When Senator Daisy Danjuma called me to condole with me on the loss of my friend, she reminded me of how Abba and I had travelled all the way to Marbella, the resort city of Spain, to celebrate her 60th birthday some years ago. She still remembered clearly.
He had a great sense of humour and I used to tease him a lot. I would pull his legs about being Kanuri. He always retorted by saying he was Shuwa and not Kanuri, to which I always replied, “Same difference.” I often told him that he belonged to the most dangerous professions of the world.
He was a banker, a lawyer and a journalist. He rose to become the CEO of one of the biggest banks in Nigeria, he was editor of a national newspaper, The Democrat, and he had worked in the very reputable law firm of Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo Chambers in Lagos.
One trait of Mallam Abba that many people, including some of our mutual friends, didn’t know about was that he was consummately a practical man of peace. Mallam Abba would go the whole hog to reconcile feuding friends even when he had nothing to gain from that. And he had done that many many times: bridging differences. He was also a well-known man of integrity. When General TY Danjuma pledged a donation of N2billion to Ahmadu Bello University, he called Abba Kyari to chair the committee to monitor it.
In turn Mallam Abba brought the late Engr. Usman Abubakar and Dr. Haruna Samaila, the popular medical director of the famous Rimi Clinic, Kaduna, into the committee.
Mallam Abba was a consequential man, if the cause was right. I remember, about three years ago, I was attending a top ICT conference in Shenzen, China, organized by the world headquarters of Huawei.
A very senior official met me and told me something very serious was about to happen in Nigeria that would totally sink Nigeria’s relationship with China.
A top Nigerian minister was on his way to Taiwan on the invitation of the Taiwanese government in spite of Nigeria’s avowed position on the “One China policy”.
This has always been a very serious thing for the Chinese government. If that happened, the Chinese government would almost certainly recall its ambassador and cancel all the big bilateral agreements between the two countries. The optics would be too strenuous for the relationship between the two countries to survive its present state.
When I assessed the situation, I knew the minister was acting without authority and motivated only by greed. I got the minister’s numbers, called him several times, but he didn’t pick. He also didn’t reply the text messages I sent him. I called a few other ministers to tell the minister to call me because there was something super-urgent. He agreed to call but didn’t.
That was when I got to Mallam Abba. In less than 10 minutes, Mallam Abba had called me back to say he had stopped the “stupid man”. If Abba had not intervened, that singular act of the minister would have set the nation back several decades. Even the United States treads softly on the One-China policy, and the European Union even more so.
In 1999 after General Olusegun Obasanjo won the PDP nomination, Abba Kyari was one of those penciled in to be his running mate. Of course, Obasanjo had his own agenda then, unknown to many, he eventually picked Atiku Abubakar. The story of how Mallam Abba became a front runner for Obasanjo’s VP pick at the time he was the Managing Director of UBA is a very interesting one. The time to tell that story will come.
I have also told the story of how Mallam Abba and I met General Danjuma, when it was obvious that President Yar’Adua would not survive his health ordeal, to chair a meeting of select northern leaders to start shortlisting competent northerners for the office of Vice President to hand over to Jonathan. By the time Mallam Abba got to Kaduna to inform General Buhari, Mallam Mamman Daura, Mallam Ahmed Joda, Dr. Mahmud Tukur and Mallam Musa Bello of the committee of which they were members, the tables turned.
They all said that even though TY might feel insulted to be called upon to be Jonathan’s VP, he would have to be convinced to do it. I was the only Christian in that group. Every other person was a Muslim and they all endorsed a Christian-Christian presidency for Nigeria. Even though that eventually didn’t happen, it was nonetheless a big deal.
This is the Abba Kyari I know, not the phantom one that I hear from people who know nothing about him.
Mallam Abba was an all-round family man. I shudder to imagine what’s going through his wife Kulu’s mind at this particular moment. And his children. I cannot count how many times I have heard him utter the words, “You must never compromise your family.” He was a competent parent and a proud father who raised his kids and educated them to the highest possible standard. The very last thing we discussed on March 7 was my wife Zainab.
There are many, many things I would like to say about Mallam Abba, but I feel too broken at the moment. There are many things I would have loved to tell him if I knew I was about to lose him to death. The most important one would have been to thank him for being there for me.
To thank him for having my back to the very end. I didn’t have the opportunity to say that. That was probably why I wept the way I did when Femi Adesina confirmed to me that my Abba Kyari had left us. All I have left of him are fond memories which I will cherish all the days of my life. Sleep in peace, my dear brother. History will be very kind to you.