The loss of a close and dear friend is always so painful, but it also gives the opportunity to re-establish a connection to the person of whom the tribute is in behalf.
The first thing to remember now as I ponder over this tribute is a text I sent to Abba on my WhatsApp at 07.01 AM on February 21, 2020. I wrote: “My brother, the former Vice-Chancellor, published 4 years ago his autobiography titled: My Time, My Nation, in which he covered his personal life and development in the public space. I do hope that at the appropriate time you may have the opportunity to write same. I am also thinking of writing your biography to be titled: The Political Odyssey of a Patriot, to examine your political development and contributions in the Nigerian political landscape as articulated in the numerous policies you have initiated and the actions taken as well as the impacts these have had on your country and its destiny and the lives of the ordinary people. The Autobiography or Biography, I believe, will be a rich legacy that will be acknowledged in years to come of a most refreshing and honest person in an otherwise degenerate African landscape. What do you think?” (Unedited)
Abba, as I always called him, did not give a response to the question I asked him. He was perhaps alluding to William Taylor, the British essayist and scholar, who history records was the first in 1797 to have used the word “autobiography” “deprecatingly when he suggested the word as a hybrid, but condemned it as ‘pedantic’” in the English periodical, The Monthly Review. It could also be that Abba believed in the apothegm that “all autobiography is vanity” attributed to the great American writer, historian, and philosopher, William James “Will” Durant (1885-1981), best known for his work The Story of Civilization, written in collaboration with his wife, Ariel Durant, in 11 volumes and published between 1935 and 1975.
“Humility”, as defined by the Oxbridge don, C. S. Lewis, is the exact opposite of pride. Abba personified humility and not pride or vanity and it was always my belief that Abba’s Autobiography would have given us a perspective on the subject different from that of William Taylor or Will Durant. That said, this is not the time nor place to discuss the essence or characteristics of an Autobiography or Biography. I am merely to seize the opportunity presented me here to recollect the man on him Divine Providence bestowed the qualities and virtues of integrity, honesty, uprightness, honour, good character, righteousness, decency, sincerity, selflessness, truthfulness, fortitude, and above all humility.
Abba and I first met in 1980 as students at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. In 1977, I was privileged to have gained admission to Queens College in same Cambridge to begin my graduate studies under the President of that College, late Sir Derek Bowett, then, also the Whewell Professor of International Law. I had to defer my admission because the University of Leiden in the Netherlands had awarded me a Fellowship to study in that University in the period October 1977 to October 1978. Towards the end of my studies in Leiden, I received a letter from Wolfson College renewing my admission to Cambridge for the 1978/79 academic year. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I could only get to Wolfson in October 1979 to begin my studies, first as a Master of Laws (LL.M) student. Wolfson, in contrast to Queens, admitted mostly postgraduate students, with a sizable number from the developing world. For sure, my going to Wolfson instead of Queens was the twist of fate that brought Abba and I together in an enduring friendship that lasted for forty (40) years.
In October 1980, Abba had come from the University of Warwick where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology to Cambridge to study for the two-year undergraduate BA (Tripos) Degree in Law. I had by then finished my Master’s and proceeded to my Doctoral Research under Clive Parry, late Downing Professor of International Law. Abba joined me in Staircase A in Wolfson College and I was struck by Abba’s simplicity, genteel manners and appearance, obviously due to a genteel upbringing, and in no time, we became acquainted as students who had come from West Africa among a few other African students in Wolfson at the time. Since we were in the same staircase, we began to cook, share and eat our meals together. Though I was a postgraduate student, I attended lectures on International Law given at the undergraduate Tripos level by Professors Clive Parry and Derek Bowett. These were particularly stimulating lectures which Abba too attended. Abba completed the BA (Tripos) in 1982 and was awarded the Degree,
I would count the period of two years I spent with Abba at Wolfson as a great learning curve for me through the intellectually stimulating conversations we had. Abba was a treasure trove of ideas and information about most subjects, particularly politics and history. He was always buying books. Heffers, a bookstore in Cambridge, was his favourite hunting ground. So, not surprisingly, it was he who introduced me to the writings of many scholars, notably the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, famous for his work on The Origins of the Second World War, and Isaac Deutscher, the Polish-born Jewish Marxist writer and political activist, also famous as the biographer of Stalin and Trotsky. It is from Deutscher’s The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921, that we derive these two quotes that have stood in my memory: “I do not think that a man’s rise to power is necessarily the climax of his life or that his loss of office should be equated with his fall” and: “Wherever he went he left footprints so firm that nobody could later efface or blur them, not even he himself, when on rare occasions he was tempted to do so.” Another classic of Deutscher that I enjoyed reading was his “The Non-Jewish Jew.” There was also the writings of Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and philosopher. Since Abba had an interest in Journalism, I would recall that he also introduced me to the great literary works of the two British-born—Patrick Seale, author, broadcaster and Middle-East historian, and Paul Foot, investigative journalist, political campaigner, and author. Abba was also a subscriber to the British bi-monthly academic political journal, The New Left Review, covering world politics, economy and culture, which we read voraciously. Clearly, Abba was attracted to the Left of politics and so was I. and, this led us to cultivate the belief, and put our faith into, and support social equality and egalitarianism.
By the time Abba completed his BA, I had come to the appreciation of him as a man of tremendous knowledge transcending the narrow confines of the law that he had studied. I believed too that it was his powerful knowledge that would stand him in good stead in his future endeavours. Lest we forget, it was from Imam Ali (599-661) who was recorded in the tenth-century book Nahj Al-Balagha (The Way of Eloquence) to have said: “Knowledge is power and it can command obedience (maʿrifatu al-ʿilmi dīnun yadānu bihi). A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject. (Saying 147)”
Away from Cambridge, Abba enrolled at the Nigerian Law School for the Professional Course and he was successfully called to the Nigerian Bar in 1983. But, Abba was to return to Cambridge that same year in October to begin his studies for the LL.M Degree. He completed this in June 1984. Again, I had the fortune to have stayed on in same Staircase A in Wolfson where Abba joined me when he came back. Some of my most exhilarating experiences of life in Cambridge occurred at this time. Abba and I stuck together in friendship and participated in most events together. All in all, Abba became a brother to me and it felt like we grew up as young adults at Wolfson. What was also particularly noticeable about Abba was that not only did he extend his friendship and empathy to all, but he always displayed and conducted his affairs with a conscious regard for the core principles of integrity, probity and transparency.
Now, unlike a sizable portion of students who stay abroad after completion of their studies, Abba readily returned home to Nigeria and embarked on his professional career as a lawyer, journalist banker and public servant. His professional activities have been chronicled as follows: Upon his return in 1984, he worked for the law firm Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo. Fron 1988 to 1990, he was Editor with the New Africa Holdings Limited, Kaduna (publishers of Democrat Newspapers). In 1990, he served as Commissioner of Forestry and Animal Resources with the Borno State Executive Council, and from 1990 to 1995, he was Board Secretary of the African International Bank Limited. Abba also held other positions which included Executive Director, Management Services, United Bank for Africa and later, Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, United Bank of Africa. In 2002, he was appointed a Director of Unilever Nigeria, Plc, and later served on the Board of Exxon Mobil (Nigeria). Between 2002 and 2005, he served as Honorary Member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Investment in Nigeria. At the time of his passing, Abba was a Member of the Board of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. He also had the time away from office to attend the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and participated in the Program for Management Development at the Harvard Business School in 1992 and 1994 respectively.
By all accounts, Abba had a very rewarding professional life. But at no time did he sacrifice any of the virtues ingrained in him on the altar of personal convenience or aggrandizement, nor did his simplicity and frugality elude him. Tales of selflessness, kindness and gratitude followed him in all the places he worked and from all whom he came into contact with. Above all, he kept to his Islamic faith scrupulously, was happily married and blessed with children.
Interestingly, when we were students in Cambridge, I had come to know that Abba was not only a person of high social status, but was well-connected to some powerful political figures in Nigeria. But, unlike most of the Nigerian students I met in Cambridge whose view of politics was ethnically-based, Abba’s was Pan-Nigerian. Even though from the North and he acknowledged that power was concentrated in the North, he found this unacceptable and considered strongly power-sharing with the South for the stability and development of his country. The theme of One Nation, One People and One Common Destiny, was the leitmotif that ran through his conversations with me (and later his writings). It was, therefore, not uncommon those days for me to suggest that he should go into politics to take over the leadership of his country after his study-stay in Cambridge to realise the dreams and the good intentions he had for his country. But, Abba was always dismissive of that suggestion. He derided the politics of his country, which, according to him, was “too rough” I even remember bringing up the subject again with him when we met in London in August 2011. His answer was same. He was too genteel to go through the hustle and bustle of political life.
But, by the late 1990s, politics in Nigeria, as in Ghana, had begun to change with the restoration of constitutional rule. Meanwhile, I had returned to Ghana in 1990 to begin a life in academia, and with it, the hope for anonymity and political distancing. I had always encouraged Abba to take over the mantel of political leadership, yet, ironically, I was distancing myself from it! Be that as it might, it was on November 11, 2015, that Major- General Muhammadu Buhari assumed office as President of Nigeria in his third bid. He had previously served as military Head of State from 1983 to 1985, after taking power in a military coup. Abba knew General Buhari very well, even from his Cambridge student days. His winning the elections followed a groundswell of support for him as an austere and anti-corruption crusader. Therefore, perhaps, not surprisingly, he was a person Abba could assist in the governance of the country.
Yet, Abba’s appointment as the Chief of Staff in August 2015 to the newly-elected President still came as a bit of a surprise. Not that he was not qualified. He was and had all the qualities, attributes and crucial competences of the office-holder, which included loyalty, trustworthiness, dedication, leadership, judgement and disposition. But the All Progressive Congress (APC), the party which brought General Buhari to power was a merger of the three biggest opposition parties. These were the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), and the new PDP-a faction of then ruling Peoples Democratic Party. The APC as such contained within it deep-seated rivalries and conflicting interests. That, notwithstanding, the critical catalyst for Abba’s involvement was that his long-time ally, General Buhari on his assumption into office had declared war on the ills that plagued Nigerian society, and this, for Abba, was a clarion call to action. As I was told by Abba, in accepting the position given him by General Buhari, he felt he was enlisting in an “army” to do his patriotic duty. I yielded to Abba’s explanation for it was he who after all had diagnosed these ills in his masterpiece written years earlier, Nigeria: Africa’s Leader or Leaden? I must be permitted to quote in some detail:
Why is Nigeria so important? It is perhaps the only country on the African Continent with all the attributes of a great power: size, population, arable land, water, oil, forests, hard minerals, tourist potential, in fact everything you require for a major modern economy. Yet…………here we are.
The “all powerful” centre is weak and confused; the periphery is doing all the running. Separatists; secessionists, nihilists; anarchists and even bandits are having a field day. The majority are onlookers, just despairing and even losing hope and faith in our federation and existence as a nation state. There is great pessimism about the future of the country.
Nigeria’s wider responsibilities for the African Continent. Just consider: one out of every five Africans is a Nigerian; Nigeria is 20% of Africa and 47% of West Africa. It is evident that the future prosperity of Africa – the only continent the majority of which is stricken with poverty – is directly linked to the prosperity and stability of Nigeria.
On our shoulders rest the burden of a big responsibility; the responsibility to knock the continent into shape. If we allow this responsibility and opportunity to go, there is considerable risk of disaster to the West African sub-region with subsequent knock-on effects on the rest of Africa. We have to think about the wider consequences of not getting our act together.
We therefore must collectively confront and solve our local difficulties and face our wider responsibilities. We have triple challenges: to integrate our plural society at the political level (over 99% of our people are socializing, integrating and living in peace); take our entire population out of poverty to relative prosperity and create conditions for true representative and accountable governance.
Another article written by Abba earlier in 2010 titled: Black Wednesday, had surveyed the Nigerian state following the publication of the Transparency International’s global corruption index for 2010. He wrote:
That day was about corruption, corruption, corruption!
The Transparency International Index ranked Nigeria at No.134 out of 178 countries. Our score is 2.4 out of 10. In the 134th position, we are joined with eight other countries – Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Honduras, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Togo, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. None of the countries we are tied with nor the thirty six states we are ahead of has a 2020-20 ambitions or contending to be the next BRIC. Nor do any of them aspire to lead their continents. None is a candidate for a seat on the Security Council. Our score of 2.4; puts us a mere 1.3 “better” than the most corrupt country – Somalia with a score of 1.1; that is if Somalia is the competition and if Somalia is a country…..
The Nigerian state has all but breached its duty to society; it has failed in its primary responsibility of protecting its citizens and providing basic services. Yet, it does not seem to care. The general assumption is that people are too hungry and weak to be angry and revolt. As Amartya Sen put it: “a starring wretch can be too frail and dejected to fight a battle, and even to protest and holler. It is thus not surprising that often intense and widespread suffering and misery have been accompanied by unusual peace and silence”.
That was the stuff Abba was made of. He knew the Nigerian landscape or terrain very well and, though he had never sought a position in politics, he viewed his appointment as a call to duty which carried enormous responsibilities. He, therefore, devised the three cardinal principles he would operate on. Firstly, that he would not allow anyone to mislead the President through misrepresentation. Secondly, that he will not allow the President’s integrity to be violated, and, thirdly, that he will not allow Nigeria’s interests to be subordinated to any other consideration.
In this context, I would also recall that during our time in Cambridge, Abba and I had become fascinated with Military History and, thus, we immersed ourselves in the literature of both classical and modern warfare. We learnt lessons on the significance and importance of strategy, tactics, manoeuvre and willpower in warfare. We read the exploits of Hannibal, the Punic military commander from Carthage, generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history; Alexander the Great, who never lost a battle, and also widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders creating one of the largest empires of the ancient world stretching from Greece to north-western India; Sun Tzu, the Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher who authored the Art of War, a widely influential work on military strategy; Napoleon, another one of the greatest military commanders in history who won the vast majority of his battles and succeeded in building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe; and Shaka Zulu, said to be the greatest commander to come out of Africa. Of modern military supremoes, we also read of the tactics and strategies of the German Generals in the Wehrmacht in World War 11, namely, Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, Friedrich Paulus, Gothard Hemrici, Walter Model, Herman Hoth, Albert Kesserling, Gerd von Rundstedt, Alfred Jodl and Erwin Rommel (the “Desert Fox”, said to be an “exemplar of military leadership”, also nicknamed “the People’s Marshal”), among others. So also did we read the strategies and tactics of George Patton (America’s greatest combat general who led the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany following the Allied invasion of Normandy in France in June 1944, and who was credited by Rommel for executing “the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare”), Montgomery of Alamein (“The Spartan General”, incidentally, my World War 11 hero, my admiration for him abated in large measure by his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa in his later life), Omar Bradley (the “GI’s General”, America’s last Five Star General, described as “a common man with an uncommon destiny” and also assessed by Montgomery to be “dull, conscientious, dependable and loyal”), Eisenhower (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War 11), Zhukov (“The Victory Marshal”, another hero for his steely will, courage and organisational talent and of him Eisenhower said: “The war in Europe has been won and to no man does the United Nations owe a greater debt than to Marshal Zhukov”), and Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th Century, whose core philosophy of “revolutionary war”, enabled him to win the war against France and the US in the Vietnam War.
Certainly, as Chief of Staff, Abba was presented the greatest challenge of how to strategize a plan to defeat “the enemy”. He applied himself well to the lessons learnt; he strategized very well, knowing fully well that good Generals have lost battles because they took the wrong decision in fighting on hostile terrain. Generalship, we had learnt, must occur within the boundaries set by strategy and the great General is one who strategizes a plan and believes it will work; in effect, the one who chooses a favourable terrain.
Abba stayed in Office from August 2015 to April 17, 2020. Not only was he the “crucial gatekeeper to the Presidency”, as he was often described, but he set himself the task of the overall development of Nigeria and never wavered in his commitment to the Administration’s pledge to raising 100 million people out of poverty. During the first term, and under the direction of the President, Abba initiated measures on security, agriculture and infrastructure, which sectors had suffered under what he called “the legacy of corruption” brought upon the country by the political elite. For example, he pivoted the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative, which according to the Fertiliser Producers Association of Nigeria (FEPSAN) “helped millions of farmers to have access to fertilizer at a pocket friendly price.” Further, as said by FEPSAN, “today many farmers have prospered under the scheme and we have seen good progress in the agricultural sector of the economy, thereby creating many Agro millionaires.” Abba’s imprint was real as testified by a WhatsApp message he sent to me: “We are fighting to stop importation because we have developed local blending capacity,, the only raw materials we import are phosphate from Morocco and potash from Russia, all done at government-to-government, no middle men, no Commission agents. Today, fertilizer is available and affordable. Not a popular move!!!” Certainly, this was not a popular move for the agents who profited through distribution rackets, but it was for the farmers! As a matter of fact, the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative happens to be one of the long-term strategies devised for sustainable agricultural and livestock development in Nigeria and which also seeks to promote security by containing the tensions between farmers and herdsmen. Similarly, infrastructural projects like the Zungeru and Mambilla Hydroelectric dams to increase the power generation capacity, the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan and Abuja-Kano highways, took off under the direction of the man said to be “the engine room of the administration.”
But, in carrying out his duties and responsibilities during the first term of the Buhari Administration, at no stage did Abba underestimate the negative forces arrayed against him. True, he had neutralized them, but there was no room for complacency. In the article Nigeria Is Changing For The Better—And Our Failed Elite Has Every Reason To Be Terrified, published in 2018, he wrote:
There are no quick fixes to our condition. Effecting real change is unglamorous, painstaking and difficult. It does not immediately grab headlines or always yield instant results. It does not help that vested interests, looking to hang on to undeserved privileges, throw road block in the way. There is a minority that does not want change. Of course, they cannot openly say so, and instead claim to be critics of the very progress we are making that they have tried to thwart, and concoct crude fantasies of communal violence for which they blame government. Or complain about the slow pace of government when they have fought tooth and nail to delay, distort of dilute change.
Transition is unsettling. It is in the nature of the journey that we do not fully appreciate the destination until we reach it. But the deliverables are already there, and stacking up. Just because we have every right to be cautious of what our governments tell us does not mean we need to believe all the disingenuous or ill-informed messages we receive on our phones, often from anonymous forces with an agenda.
Nigeria has reached a defining moment. We have come a long way. The old order is terrified and will employ all the old tricks and new to pretend that this is not the case, and that instead it is they who have the solutions, when all too often they have been the problem. The current buzz in the communications industry is that elections are won on emotions, not policies or track record. But let us look at the facts, and the alternative – of a return to tried, tested, failed. Let’s not be fooled by the packaging, no matter how slick the meme, the post, the advert, and instead look closely at what is inside.
Like Nigeria, government is not easy. But if we are to have better, more stable and prosperous future, we have no choice but to move forward.
Abba’s extraordinary achievements during the first period of the Buhari Administration were carried into the second term which began in 2019 but not before Abba had to go through a gauntlet of attacks by forces from both the opposition PDP party and even the governing APC. Not only were mobs rented to kick against Abba’s re-appointment, but the by-now familiar personal attacks, insults, vituperations, vilification and defamatory statements using the most vitriolic and vile language were used against him. He was demonized; even the term “cabal” was used loosely and derisorily to try to diminish his perfectability, this rare gem of the human species. But Abba was a man of mettle and his unflinching intrepidity and fearlessness always propelled him to ignore these attacks with the contempt they deserved. Yet, on a different level, the four years he worked—seven days each and every week—had taken a toll on his health and family life. For that reason, Abba did not want to be re-appointed to the position he had occupied. I encouraged him to accept re-appointment in the belief that his boss needed him especially when he was in the very front line of service in a wartime situation he himself had described. I told him, using military metaphor, perhaps inappropriate since he was not the President, that the captain was always the last one to leave the ship. He had got to make sure that the President’s policy objectives and development agenda were achieved and that was his job, and the reason why he had to stay on. My conscience compelled me in the circumstances to write an article titled: The Abba Kyari I Know and the Unfolding Empty Political Brouhaha (June 28, 2019). In that context did I also recollect to him the words of General Montgomery in his personal message to troops of the 21st Army Group—the powerful Allied Force in the European Theatre operating in Northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany—on the eve of D-Day (June 6, 1944) in the Second World War:
“To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and a righteous cause”.
Abba indeed had a “righteous cause” and he soldiered on. Of course, critical to Nigeria’s overall economic development is oil but over the years that development had been stunted by massive corruption alleged to have been perpetrated by the Nigerian political class with their foreign cronies. Abba portrayed this in 2010 in his article: Black Wednesday. He wrote:
Nobody is better placed to talk about corruption in Nigeria than oil executives and oil merchants; and Nigeria’s big business is oil. In his memoir, Lord Browne, the former Chief Executive of British Petroleum, contrasted two Countries afflicted with Resource Curse – Angola and Nigeria; his verdict: “I pushed things in the right direction in Angola. However, in one country I found it was not possible to make any headway. That country was Nigeria…… I felt we just could not operate in Nigeria. We sold our Nigerian licences and I never wanted to go back”. But Lord Browne is reportedly heading a private equity firm that is making a $4b bid for Shell’s assets in Nigeria. Never say Never John Browne! His putting Angola ahead of Nigeria is not supported by either the T.I. or Mo-Ibrahim Index. Nigeria is ahead of Angola in both. His U-turn on doing business in Nigeria, call into question the integrity of his judgment. But his indictment of Nigeria is on record and some people will be guided by it.
The second book is the biography of the acclaimed King of Oil – Marc Rich. It was he who broke the monopoly of the majors in the oil trade. At one time only about 5% of oil traded out of the circle of the majors, March Rich invented the spot market and broke the monopoly. He knows the oil business and has had a long experience of Nigeria and knows a lot about Nigeria’s oil business. His verdict on Nigeria is simple. It is “the global capital of corruption”.
Abba knew the oil or petroleum industry very well. I recollect that when we were students in Cambridge Abba took me in the company of some other students to watch the award-winning film by Francesco Rosi titled: The Mattei Affair. The film delved deeper into the death on 27 October 1962, of an Italian public administrator, Enrico Mattei, in a plane crash likely caused by a bomb which was put in the plane. During the Fascist era in Italy, the leader, Benito Mussolini, established the Italian Petroleum Agency Agip, as a state enterprise With the end of the Second World War, the task fell on Mattei to dismantle Agip. He instead restructured it into the National Fuel Trust, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI). To many Italians, Mattei was a national hero for the reforms he undertook in the oil industry but, he had the oligopoly of the ‘Seven Sisters‘ to contend with. In fact it was Mattei who coined the term “Seven Sisters” referring to Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (originally Anglo-Persian; now BP), Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil Company of California (SoCal, later Chevron), Gulf Oil (now merged into Chevron), Texaco (now merged into Chevron), Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Esso, later Exxon, now part of ExxonMobil), Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony, later Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil) which dominated the petroleum industry. The strategy adopted by Mattei to break the power of these powerful transnational corporations included the direct negotiation by ENI of oil concessions with some Middle Eastern countries. According to published information, Mattei, for example, offered Tunisia and Morocco “a 50-50 partnership for extracting their oil, very different from the sort of concessions normally offered by the major oil companies,” and to Iran and Egypt “he additionally offered that the risk involved in prospecting was entirely ENI’s: if there was no petrol, the countries would not have to pay one cent.” And, equally important, “he introduced the principle whereby the country that owned exploited oil reserves received 75% of the profits.”
The lessons learnt from the Mattei episode were never lost on Abba. It is true that when he returned home from Cambridge, he worked with one of the oil giants, ExxonMobil, but he never subordinated the interest of his country to any of the transnational oil companies. In the past year or so, Abba would forward to me on my WhatsApp any information he had on the bad practices and malfeasance of these oil companies. One such was a Financial Times Report on the Oil and Gas Industry, which Abba forwarded to me on December 17, 2019, revealing that Shell paid no corporate income tax in 2018. As quoted in the Report: “The fact that Shell and other major oil companies are regularly getting huge tax rebates, despite making vast profits, is a feature that is now baked into the U K oil and gas tax system.” Abba’s comment on this sent simultaneously simply read: “This is what I am fighting against now!”
In the true sense, Abba was very much like Enrico Mattei, the nationalist. Abba confronted the oil companies with a passion, strategic vision, deep knowledge of the industry and a result-oriented mind to use Nigerian oil for national transformation. Some success was achieved by Abba when, under the direction of President Buhari, he worked hard to see the passage of the amendment to the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act, Cap D3, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN), 2004. It was in 1993 that the Nigerian Government began to execute
deep offshore production sharing contracts (PSCs) with the transnational oil companies. This became necessary due to changes in the oil industry brought about by deep offshore exploration which was expensive and required huge outlays of capital and technology. Consequently, very attractive incentives, which included a lower rate of petroleum profit tax, profit oil split, investment allowance and cost recovery limits, were offered to the companies to encourage them to invest in the fields. The companies were only to pay royalty in various percentages for oil explored between 100 meters and before 1000 meters.
On March 23, 1999, the then Military Government promulgated the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Decree (No 9, 1999), with January 1, 1993, as commencement date. By the terms of the Decree, the contracts were to be reviewed after 10 years and every five years thereafter when crude oil prices went as high as $20 per barrel. The insertion of a review clause in the Decree looked progressive since transnational companies usually oppose some such arrangements. That notwithstanding, on May 10, 1999, less than two months after Decree No.9 came into force, it was amended to become Decree No. 29 of 1999 to extend the years of review of the terms from 10 years to 15 years and after oil prices exceeded $20 per barrel. It was Decree 29 which “metamorphosed into the Deep Offshore Act, 2004.
Significantly, no review of the terms took place in 2008; that is 15 years from the specified commencement date of January 1, 1993, This was despite the fact that the price of crude oil had since 1999 been on the rise. As sourced from a writer: “At a point, the “contractors” were taking 80% of the deep offshore oil and while the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) got just 20%. We were not bothered: those who should defend the national interest were more interested in what-have-you.” Another writer also put it pointedly when assessing the Deep Offshore Act: “This law was ignored by every government for whatever reason. Nigeria lost billions of dollars as a result: an estimate puts the short payment at $62 billion in the last 11 years, but a moderate figure would be between $1.6 billion and $2.8 billion per year.”
In effect this was the state of affairs affecting the oil industry in Nigeria which Abba fought so hard against culminating in the amendment to the Act which the President formally signed into law on November 4, 2019. The oil companies had maximized their profits while exporting those profits beyond the shores of Nigeria, but that was no longer going to be the case under the amended bill which according to estimates would generate $500m in additional revenues for the Federal Government in 2020, and over $1bn yearly after 2021.
Abba was so ecstatic about this drive to increase public revenue away from the old payment regime. He wrote as a Guest Columnist in the THIS DAY newspaper on November 1, 2019:
The decision by the National Assembly to amend the Deep Offshore (and inland basin production sharing contract) Act is a huge victory for Nigeria. The articles and clauses of complex legislation may not appear to be the stuff to set pulses racing. But there should be no doubt: this is a watershed moment for our economy, our institutions and our people. As a result of this amendment, Nigeria could earn an extra billion dollars a year from our oil. These are funds that will help restore our schools and hospitals, repair our roads and infrastructure and give our armed forces the support they need to keep us safe. That is a big win…
But it should not be seen in isolation, or as a ‘one off’. President Muhammadu Buhari pushed for the amendment as part of an ambitious programme to overhaul a corruption-saddled and under-performing oil and gas sector. This is the key to the delivery of a more diverse and productive economy that will provide the jobs and sustainable growth we need in the coming decades to end poverty and raise living standards. Headline increases in our GDP will be matched by policies that ensure growth is inclusive and evenly shared, and provide protection and opportunity for the most vulnerable. The President has worked with the 9th National Assembly, its leadership and members, to deliver this amendment. This is the kind of partnership that we have seen all too rarely since the restoration of democracy in 1999. We have shown how national institutions, the executive and legislature, can come together to work for the common good and the National Interest. A sense of patriotism and the drive to deliver reform is replacing the sterile self-interest that has for too long dominated public administration. The passage of the amendment shows that the 9th National Assembly has the ambition and commitment to help make the real changes Nigeria needs if we are to move forward. The Senate and House of Representatives have shown that we can replace exploitation of the system by the few for the benefit of the few with a new spirit of co-operation – to build a fairer, more efficient system for the benefit of rich and poor alike. Our vision is for an oil and gas industry that is attractive to investors and competitive in a crowded international market. Operations should be driven by commercial principles, transparent and free from political interference. We will deliver a new deal for host communities and proper guarantees for environmental standards.
Characteristically, Abba ended the article by quoting from Winston Churchill. Churchillian rhetoric is something that Abba and I always loved! He wrote:
As Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.’ We have a lot of work to do. But this amendment shows where we are going- and that now, within our grasp, is a Nigeria that works for us all.
Again like Enrico Mattei, “everything” was thrown at Abba by the oil companies and their local henchmen. The personal attacks were incessant; the lobbyists stretched their tentacles and foreign governments resorted to pressures and threats even after the passage of the amendment. To his eternal glory, Abba did not yield, but in fact he outwitted them by forging a strategic close link between the Executive and the Legislature which ensured the passage of the amendment. He even hurriedly had to go all the way to the United Kingdom, for which he received a lot of flack from his political opponents, to have the President who was then in that country affix his hand and seal to the bill. This episode also reminded me of what Abba had written on the eve of the general elections that took place in March 2019 in an article titled: “No Matter What, Tomorrow Never Dies”
Our transition has been difficult because Nigeria needs radical change, which we have been delivering, despite ingenious and often disingenuous resistance from vested interests and the business-as-usual brigade. Which begs the question: is there a difference between what suits Nigeria’s real national interest and what suits the interests of the Great Powers? The years of failure were characterised by hypocrisy and betrayal by our leaders, who were in turn easy targets for manipulation – much easier for foreign powers to manage than a government genuinely looking to repair and revive today so that we can build tomorrow. And tomorrow never dies.
I always knew that business-as-usual had a powerful self-interest in resisting CHANGE. I had hoped their tentacles did not stretch so far or so easily beyond our borders, that a good case, well made, would receive a fair hearing. In three and a half years in government, I have learned that decent argument and hard facts face stiff competition from vested interests that seem so easily to sway people who should know better. A convenient lie is not better than an uncomfortable truth.
Abba did not rest on his oars. There was more work to be done. Equally joyous was Abba when for the first time in umpteenth years, Christmas 2019 was celebrated without the proverbial queuing, and true to form this was organized by Abba, There was even humour about it when cartoons emerged in the papers in his country with people wondering if they lived in their own country or another world. Meanwhile, through his efforts, millions of dollars stashed abroad during the period of General Abacha’s rule in Nigeria were being returned. For example over $300 million was returned by the United States Government, and in a tribute paid him by that Government after his passing, it was stated that Abba “envisioned the funds going to three geographically disparate infrastructure projects as a way to unite Nigeria economically.”
Considering the importance of the power sector to the overall development of Nigeria’s economy, it was not surprising that on assumption of office, President Buhari made this his priority. Consequently, following a meeting which took place on August 31, 2018, between the President and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, an Electricity Roadmap Agreement was signed by the Nigerian Government with the German energy company, Siemens, on July 22, 2019, for the generation and distribution of 11,000MW of electricity by 2023. This was an opportunity to fix the country’s perennial power problem that previous governments had struggled with. But, in fact, the strategic framework was what was important in achieving a solution. President Buhari put it squarely: “Our intention is to ensure that our cooperation is structured under a Government-to-Government framework. No middlemen will be involved so that we can achieve value-for-money for Nigerians. We also insist that all products be manufactured to high quality German and European standards and competitively priced.”
Here again, it was Abba who the President appointed to lead the project execution process on the Nigerian side. By now it was clear that Abba’s blueprint for executing the President’s projects was his “government-to-government, no middle men, no Commission agents,” which had his boss’s imprimatur. That blueprint or model was even an article of faith for Abba. He derided the role that the political elites across Africa had played as the agents, contractors, and the compradors of foreign business interest groups and organisations in perpetuating poverty, He challenged the orthodoxy of Western liberal capitalism model which had produced and reproduced these negative elements in society. Above all, he believed in the central role of the state in rapid economic transformation, and was in search of this alternative development model that could gain some traction in the so-called “Third World” African countries. I sided with him and he won the admiration of many of my Ghanaian compatriots!
Abba and I last met in Cambridge on December 31, 2019, when together we had a “great reunion” (as later described by Abba) with some friends of old from our Wolfson days. Prior to that, we had met a couple of times during that same week in London. Since Abba joined the Government in 2015, he had never taken a holiday or leave so this was his first opportunity. Even so Abba during this period fulfilled some official engagements while spending some time doing the usual rounds of buying books. Upon our return to our respective countries, we continued to be actively engaged on WhatsApp. It was on March 7, 2020, that Abba travelled to Germany as the head of the Nigerian delegation to hold follow-up meetings with Siemens. Upon returning home from the trip, which also took him to Egypt, and at the time of the outbreak worldwide of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), he posted to me on my WhatsApp on March 13: “I have passed through Frankfurt, Munich and Heathrow airports in the last seven days. None has the protocols we have here. Here you fill a form giving your details and contacts and temperature tested and therefore stand a better chance to contact passengers if the need arises. If these basic precautionary measures are followed it will mitigate a major outbreak and the bonus of our population being largely young we may avoid large number of deaths but no room for complacency.” (Unedited) From that date, I would recollect that Abba and I actively engaged on WhatsApp about the threat posed by the disease and the efforts our respective Governments were taking to tackle it. Then on, March 24, following media reports, Abba confirmed to me that he had contracted the disease and that a formal statement was going to be made later. I kept in constant touch with Abba from that day. He always thanked me for my concern and prayers whilst assuring me that his general health was as good as it had been.
Abba’s last chat with me on WhatsApp was March.28 The next day he issued the now famous statement on his health status announcing to the whole world that he was infected with the disease and hence, his decision to move to Lagos for “further testing and observation.” He also in the Statement hoped to be back at his “desk very soon” and exhorted the “team of young, professional, knowledgeable and patriotic colleagues, whose dedication has been beyond the call of duty, who continue to work seven days a week, with no time of the day spared [to] continue to serve the President and people of Nigeria, as we have for the past five years.” Sadly, on April 17, 2020, Abba, the man who was given the honour of striking a blow for a better Nigeria, was taken to eternity.
A great man of courage, Abba joined his friend, long-time ally and boss, President Buhari, to prosecute a war. He fell in battle and no greater tribute could have been paid him than what the President said: “Abba’s true focus was always the development of infrastructure and the assurance of security for the people of this nation he served so faithfully. For he knew that without both in tandem there can never be the development of the respectful society and vibrant economy that all Nigerian citizens deserve.”
Still, there was more to Abba that needs to be told. True, the position that Abba occupied in Government made him extremely powerful, but, Abba, the man I came to know so well, derived his power primarily from the virtues he was blessed with and the knowledge he acquired from books. Abba was always buying books and like Prospero, the enigmatic character that Shakespeare created in The Tempest, and whose source of power was books, so also was Abba’s, the essential difference here being that Abba used his matchless power for the good of man.
Abba, my dear friend, my brother, the pain of your loss still reverberates in me and my heart grieves because I was not with you in your last moments. I am now only left with the pain of a hard good-bye. As I gauge my words, I pray you look down upon me kindly as you had always done, from the high pedestal of the restful arms of Allah, whilst I seek refuge from the words of Churchill, who you often quoted, to bid you farewell:
“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
FAREWELL ABBA, THE MOST HONOURABLE MAN I EVER MET!!!!!
WRITTEN BY: PROFESSOR EMMANUEL YAW BENNEH
SCHOOL OF LAW, UNIVERSITY OF GHANA