On April 18, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that his chief of staff, Abba Kyari, died from COVID-19 on the previous day. This is a tragedy for Nigeria and for the administration of President Buhari. Nigeria is facing challenges on multiple fronts as severe as in any time in its post-independence history. Kyari had played the central, technocratic role in the functioning of the office of the presidency.
Kyari died after a month-long long struggle with COVID-19. Credible speculation is that he contracted the disease during a trip to Germany. At sixty-seven, he appeared healthy, and during the early stages of his hospitalization he was reported to be cheerful and optimistic. However, since his death, reference has appeared in the media to the presence of "underlying health issues," sometimes identified as diabetes. The health issues of senior political figures are almost never made public in Nigeria.
President Buhari had complete confidence in Kyari. He was formally chief of staff, but apparently much more. He was the gatekeeper, but also a "whisperer," a confidential advisor to the president. Kyari came to be a presence at nearly all of the president's meetings. He avoided the limelight but slowly increased his power; Nigerian politicians and business people, not known for retiring personalities, learned that it was necessary to work with him and through him. A pillar of the northern Nigeria’s traditional, tolerant Muslim establishment, a person with such power is rarely popular with his rivals. But, in Nigeria's over-centralized system, only the president's view mattered. Governance in Nigeria is largely personal rather than institutional, and Kyari had the ear of the president, the one that mattered.
Kyari was born in Borno state, now a center of the Boko Haram insurrection. In many ways, he was a familiar, modern figure. Media references refer to a single wife and four children. He was extensively educated in the West, including the universities of Warwick and Cambridge. In a country with a weak sense of national identity and stronger ethnic and religious ones, he self-identified as a Nigerian, and standard references make no mention of his ethnic origins. Like other senior establishment figures, he had multiple careers, working in law, banking, journalism, and business.
Nigeria badly needs technocratic skills at the center. With falling oil prices, Nigeria appears already to be slipping into an economic recession. Jihadi militants are accelerating their attacks in the north, and "farmer-herder" violence in the Middle Belt is on the upswing. COVID-19 appears to be at the beginning of its trajectory in Nigeria. With only under seven hundred reported cases as of April 21, Nigeria, with a population around 200 million, has fewer cases than Washington, DC, which has three thousand cases and a population of about 700 thousand. But already a number of governors and other high officials are reported to be under quarantine. Some estimate that as much as 60 percent of the country's economy is informal, which means face-to-face contact and limits of the applicability of social distancing. For all of Africa, that figure is estimated to be about 71 percent. It is difficult to see how conventional means of confronting the disease—social distancing, quarantine, contact tracing—can long be sustained.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to Abba Kyari as a former brigadier general.