By Aisha Abba-Kyari
On 17th April, 2020, my world came crashing down and my heart shattered into a billion pieces. Upon receiving the news of my father’s passing, I immediately felt the most excruciating pain – a pain I would not wish on my worst enemy. My biggest fear in the world had materialised.
Most people knew my dad as the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. As it is with many public servants, there was much more to him than the signature white kaftan and red cap by which he came to be recognised. He was a most remarkable husband to my mother, Hauwa Kulu, and father to myself and my three younger siblings, Nurudeen, Ibrahim, and Zainab. Completely irreplaceable.
Growing up, my dad doted over us. He was extremely protective and his role in raising us with my mother was as complimentary as it was distinct. His main focus was our education, and my mother’s was etiquette and religion! He was stern, and Ammui, as we call her, was playful. It was a perfect balance.
He was always working. My dad reminded us he worked hard so that he could give us all that we needed to excel at whatever we chose to do. And as far as I remember, my siblings and I lacked nothing; we had all we asked and more. That said, the asking part was hard! It often would come with a lecture and many questions as to why we would even ask for things. In the end, we would get what we wanted as long as a compelling case could be made for it.
He had a hard exterior but a heart of gold and a quirky sense of humour. He had zero tolerance for mediocrity: a no-nonsense man in every sense of the word. He expected excellence at all times and when it came to time, my father was Swiss-German – for him, arriving on time was arriving late. To this day, my friends always tease me about how and why I get to airport hours before a flight. It is what my daddy instilled in me.
Daddy’s biggest obsession was education. He truly invested in us the best education. In 1996, I recall as a nine-year-old when he told me that he and I would be leaving for London the next day. He didn’t say why we were going. For the first three days, he took me to three different schools to take entrance exams. I remember being so lost as to why anyone would have to go all the way to England just to take exams. I passed all three and he picked his favourite school of the three. The day my dad dropped me off at the school dormitory, all the other students and their parents were hugging, smiling, and getting settled in.
My case was different, in true daddy style, he said, “Well Ammi, you are here to study and not play. The rules in this country are different, if you fail a single class test or school exam, they will revoke your visa and send you back to Nigeria and as you know, I don’t have space for failures in my house.”
He then patted me on the back and left.
As a little girl in a foreign country, I panicked but also believed him. My mum called the school the next day to check up on me and I cried and told her what he said. It didn’t help matters that I hadn’t understood what they taught me in class that day because I couldn’t understand my teachers’ accents. She reassured me that what he said was not true. Thank God for mothers!
My dad never missed a single parent-teacher meeting. Even when he had daunting schedules as chief executive of a bank, he would take the first flight out of Lagos to arrive in London for those meetings. Upon arrival, he would go to the hall to meet with my teachers. Typical of kids, we would peep into the hall to see which teachers our parents were talking to at the time and whether they looked angry or not.
My friends would always ask “Aisha why is your dad taking notes?” I really had no idea. All I know is that I was always embarrassed. He would come out, take me to a corner and run through his notes and tell me what every teacher said about me and places I needed to improve, and then he would make sure I was okay and happy.
He would get in the car and drive straight back to the airport to catch a flight back to Lagos. As busy as he was, his family was always his top priority. He made these exact efforts with my mother and every one of my siblings. That is the kind of man my dad was!
Whenever we visited relatives, my dad would call their homes several times a day to ask how we were. Many of them took offence to that as it suggested that he didn’t trust them with his children but that never stopped him from calling.
For as long as I can recall, my dad and I spoke every day of my life until the very end. No matter where anyone of us was in the world, we spoke every day. My friends would often tease me after every call: “I can’t get over how often you and your dad speak, you’re such a daddy’s girl.”
This was something I heard all my life and I was proud to be my daddy’s girl. Even with his very busy schedule as Chief of Staff, he would make sure he came home and have dinner with us and discuss our days, even if it meant him going back to the office afterward. On days that he couldn’t make it back on time, he would ALWAYS call and say, “don’t wait for me.”
My dad had almost everything that most people yearned for. Professional success, financial security – his needs were basic – and towards the end, political influence, albeit nowhere near as much as many Nigerians think. But the true measure of a man, particularly in the eyes of God, is in his kindness, selflessness, loyalty, generosity, and humility. And with all these virtues as yardsticks, he truly was immeasurable.
I was always in awe of his intellect, his moral compass, his sense of integrity, his dedication to duty, and his honesty. My dad was a walking encyclopedia and a thesaurus. Countless times I would say to people in the middle of debates, “Hold on let me call my dad, he would know”. And I would confidently put him on the speakerphone because HE ALWAYS KNEW.
My dad’s attention to detail was next to none. I would often read texts and emails to him twice or three times over before sending them, because he would first respond with corrections to any typographical or grammatical errors before responding to the actual message itself.
I have always seen myself as an extension of my father. I was his right-hand man (yes! I said man, because my father raised me just as he would have if I was a man). I was the person he called when he was angry at someone, I was his PA and his friend, and he was my everything. Most of my life, just by how much I looked like him, people would see me in random places and ask if I was Abba Kyari’s daughter. As a little girl I hated it so much. I saw my mum as the most beautiful woman in the world and I desperately wanted to look like her and not him. Now, as much as I have many of her excellent attributes, I could not be more proud to look like my dad.
In spite of my dad’s busy schedule, while we were growing up, he always tried to make time for family holidays. He would pick a new country for us to visit every year and even if he could only join us for just a few days, he would make sure he was there. He literally showed us the world. His favourite place to visit was the Maldives, where he went with my mum for a week annually for six years. Just 10 days before they were to take their annual trip to the Maldives in 2015, he was appointed as Chief of Staff to the President. He kept postponing the trip and was never able to find the time. His time was no longer his.
My siblings and I often asked my dad what he planned to do when he was no longer Chief of Staff and without hesitation, he would say, “I’m going to Bora Bora with a suitcase full of books.”
He really looked forward to that. We would often try to convince him to take a two-week break from work and just go to Bora Bora and not wait until he was no longer Chief of Staff, but we were never successful, and he never took the trip. They say Bora Bora is paradise on earth. Daddy, Insha Allah you are now in the most genuine of paradises!
My dad was first-class material. He had a Sociology degree from the University of Warwick and a Law Degree and Masters from the University of Cambridge. He later attended International Institute For Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development, but he didn’t flaunt them as many others do. He began his career as a journalist, before moving on to a career in banking where he reached the top as the MD/CEO of United Bank For Africa, UBA. He was a thoroughbred professional and gave his best at whatever he engaged in. Most people don’t know that he had retired for ten years before taking up his appointment as Chief of Staff to the President. He saw it as his patriotic duty. Not many people reach the top of their career in the private sector, take a ten-year break and return at the top of the public sector in one lifetime. He was pretty fortunate and spectacular. Was he, really? This may sound odd but my beloved daddy couldn’t drive a car! He never learnt how to drive for a day in his entire life.
My dad was highly principled: for nearly five years as Chief of Staff, he was first to arrive and last to leave the office – seven days a week; and demanded the same from his staff. He had impeccable moral authority and the capacity to always focus on the greater public good over individual gain. Businessmen and politicians have been known to leave his office in shame or tears after having had their bribes refused. He was passionate about protecting poor Nigerians. He would say “any policy that does not benefit the vast majority of Nigerians – many of whom are poor – should not be considered a policy of government.” For example, when increases in electricity tariffs were suggested, he sat through planning meetings – weekend after weekend – to ensure tariff increases were segregated and that the poorest Nigerians were protected.
My dad was terribly misunderstood and arguably mischievously misrepresented. Even his age was never gotten right from the day he became Chief of staff till the day he died. My dad died at the age of 67. He was often mistaken for the late Brigadier Abba Kyari who was indeed in his 80’s.
At this time of mourning, I should be holding things together for my family, as I know my dad would expect me to, but I have instead found myself having to defend his memory against vile and malicious comments that have left me questioning the very humanity that should unite us all in difficult times.
One of the books I found on his bookshelf by Author Chris Whipple is ‘The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” Like a huge part of Nigeria’s 1999 constitutional democracy, the concept of the “office of the Chief of Staff to the President,” was also copied from the office of the President of the United States. A central theme of that book is that Chiefs of Staff are mostly never liked for numerous reasons: mainly due to access granted to the President and the lack of it. James A. Baker III, President Ronald Reagan’s long-serving Chief of Staff said, ‘The Chief of Staff usually walks around with a target painted on his front and on his back. Your job literally is to catch the javelins that are intended for the old man.’
True to that statement, my dad as Chief of Staff was an accomplished javelin catcher. But he was also much more than that. He was also a lightning conductor, bomb-proof and bullet-proof vest combined. For many Nigerians, if waves from the Atlantic Ocean claimed an inch of Victoria Island, they were sent by Abba Kyari; or if a child fell off his bicycle, it was Abba Kyari!
My dad was fiercely loyal to his boss and refused to entertain “business as usual.” He wanted to do the right thing. This meant he stepped on the toes of several people and in their fightback would smear his name in the media in the hopes that he would be pushed out of their way! Clearly, they had no knowledge or any understanding of the man. He usually knew exactly from whom the attacks came but that never got in his way of pursuing what he considered to be the right path.
Like many others, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to respond to the more preposterous and spurious allegations but he never did. He refused to take on the character assassins. The only time he came close to responding was when I got personally attacked and he felt the need to defend me. You could attack him but not his family! He was ready to fight!
For clarity, my dad was more than capable of defending himself. The reason he didn’t is that it would have distracted him from his primary assignment of serving his principal and by extension, his country. His passion was to help his principal modernise Nigeria’s infrastructure and grow the agricultural sector. In his office, hanging on the wall, are large framed renderings of the Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kano and Lagos-Ibadan Expressways; after decades of these projects being under development, he wanted to have them finally completed. With the President’s backing, he successfully fought to revive and build 34 existing and new fertiliser blending plants all across Nigeria – except in the northeast, where he was from, due to concerns of urea (a component of fertiliser) being supplied to terrorists to be used as bombs.
My dad was a Shuwa-Arab man from Borno State and he saw far beyond religious and tribal divides. Most of his best friends were not even from the Northern part of the country, nor were they Muslims. He had friends from all parts of the world and from different walks of life. His network was vast and wide; the tributes written since his passing can attest to that. He always dreamed and truly believed in one Nigeria.
In his tribute, President Muhammadu Buhari said, “Mallam Abba Kyari was the very best of us” and he truly was. Geoffrey Onyema, one of my dad’s best friends said in his tribute, “Nigerians will look back in years to come and see that he was truly the Best Man”. No lies there, he truly was THE BEST MAN!
When all is said and done, Daddy has only gone to meet his maker at the appointed time as we all shall. In the last two weeks, people have told me to be strong, but it certainly feels like my source of strength is gone. Losing a father is hard, but having it happen on the world stage with everybody having a say and offering their opinion (some kind, others not) has been a completely different emotional rollercoaster. But I guess, he didn’t just belong to us his family. He belonged to Nigeria as well. This is something he often apologised for.
Now to my dearest daddy, although you have gone the way of all flesh ahead of the rest of us, please take this message: Ammui, Nurudeen, Ibrahim, Zainab and I will do everything in our power to live by your example and carry on your legacy for as long as we live. I love you and miss you with every atom of my being.
May Allah grant you the highest station in Jannah.
*Aisha is the eldest child of the late Mallam Abba Kyari