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The Death Of Abba Kyari, COVID-19 And Governance In Nigeria By ‘Tope Oriola


Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. The death of Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, has sent shock waves through the socio-political landscape of Nigeria. Abba Kyari returned to Nigeria from a trip to Germany and was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020. He died on Friday, 17 April 2020. Kyari was no ordinary political figure. He wielded spectacular presidential power and many believed he was de facto President of Nigeria. Abba Kyari was no mere mortal. 

While we commiserate with the Kyari family, it is necessary to unpack the lessons his life and death offer on governance in Nigeria. No one should gloat over Kyari’s demise. No human can add an extra day to their time on earth but make no mistakes about it — Abba Kyari died a preventable death. Kyari belonged to a particularly vulnerable demographic but there are hundreds of people his age around the world who had COVID-19 and recovered. 

It is certainly no comfort to his family and those who knew him but Abba Kyari fell victim to Nigeria’s comatose health care system. Given the focus on elites in Nigeria’s war against COVID-19, it is merely stating the obvious to suggest that Kyari received medical treatment that was unavailable to the average Nigerian. 

A series of structural problems, organizational blunders and interpersonal hubris contributed to Kyari’s death. The first culprit is hubris. Kyari refused to get tested and quarantine himself after returning from Germany. COVID-19 was already a huge problem when he returned from Germany in March 2020. It was already evident that the virus was spreading in Europe, North America and China than anywhere else. Why did he not test and quarantine himself? We will never know. People from extremely religious countries like to assume they are somehow immune to something that in theory applies to everyone. That includes laws, public health policies, queues for goods and services, and orderly traffic, among others. Too many “special” people in a society lead to societal chaos and avoidable tragedies. The picture becomes clear when you had elite status — the Chief of Staff to the President no less! 

The second blunder was organizational. Officials at the airport did not do their job. Given our tendency to worship leaders, this would not have registered on their radar at the airport. Those who should have done their jobs without recourse to status would have melted on seeing the President’s Chief of Staff. They too are culpable. To be fair, subjecting the President’s Chief of Staff to such a routine administrative process could be consequential in a country like ours. Abba Kyari should have been tested, quarantined and closely monitored. He might be alive today if appropriate protocols applicable to other citizens had been followed. When countries ensure that no one is above the law, it is generally for the good of all, including the powerful.  

The third and more structural dimension concerns the healthcare system, which the elite, including Kyari, as a crucial arrowhead, had abandoned. Therefore, at a time of a global pandemic, Kyari could not be flown overseas for treatment. Given the penchant of our elite for medical tourism over headaches, stomach upset and quality of their farts, he would have likely preferred overseas treatment. Media reports indicated that there was no ICU in Abuja. The only available ICU in Abuja was reserved for the president who had come into contact with Kyari. Officials reportedly declined to put Kyari in the lone ICU in Abuja because they were concerned President Buhari might need the equipment. Kyari was therefore flown to Lagos. Valuable time would have been lost in the process. 

Medical experts in Lagos would have undoubtedly given Kyari their best. However, would Kyari have survived if treatment were available at the Aso Rock Clinic? The clinic continues to gulp billions of Naira annually but has no medicine or equipment, according to the First Lady. Given that the Buhari administration had been in power for nearly five years, Abba Kyari’s death is a tragic own goal. Would Kyari have survived if we had used the catering budget for the presidential villa to equip hospitals all over Abuja and the entire country? Would Kyari be alive if we had a sound healthcare system in Nigeria? Why do we spend billions on imported vehicles for legislators and traditional rulers when our healthcare system is dilapidated?

Legitimate questions may be raised about why he went to Germany in the first place given his political portfolio and availability of a substantive minister. Such was Abba Kyari’s influence at the presidency that the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, a retired Major General, wrote to the Service Chiefs to criticize Kyari’s overriding of presidential directives as “reckless and irresponsible”, according to a leaked letter published by Premium Times. He was the key player in the Buhari administration but ultimately the system they failed to develop showed its texture and character. I do not gloat over Abba Kyari’s death. My mother died in December 2018 due to the lack of emergency health line in Ogun State. I write from a position of genuine concern for my country. We are all victims of the kind of society we have built. We all pay a huge price for governmental neglect, incompetence and elite insouciance. 

This is time to reboot the federal government. Governance goes beyond allocating political positions and awarding contracts. It is both an art and a science of solving and envisaging problems, organizing human, material and ideational infrastructure. It is about securing and making life better, increasing happiness and making people prosper.

I have stopped criticizing the Buhari administration. The president needs help. I sincerely believe the government needs assistance. But will the remaining top players recognize that and bring on board the full spectrum of Nigerian talents and allow them to perform their duty? Nigerians are being pummeled by hunger due to the lockdown. We must not wait until there is anarchy before we act.

I mourn with the family of Abba Kyari. I hope it does not take the death of any person — elite or commoner — before we do the right thing. 

Follow Oriola on Twitter: @topeoriola


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