My Recollection of the Late Mallam Abba Kyari


Abdullahi Usman


The late Mallam Abba Kyari was perhaps arguably one of the most generally misunderstood Nigerians in recent memory, which all boils down to his now famously very taciturn disposition.


Another possible explanation for the widespread misconception about who he was and what exactly he stood for and represented, had to be his famously very strong stance against telling his own story, or have someone else do that for him, with a view to dispelling some of the vicious rumours and extremely damaging accounts being peddled out there against his person and office. But those who have known and related with him at some point in his eventful life and rich career history are not the least surprised, because that has always been his preferred way of going about his business.


A senior colleague of mine and Head of Corporate Affairs in the old United Bank for Africa (UBA), where the late Mallam Abba served as Executive Director, Management Services for two years from 1995, before rising to the position of Managing Director in 1997, up until his departure in June 2001, had explained in another fitting tribute to the late COS that throughout his four years as MD, the bank never had cause to write a single rejoinder to correct whatever may have been spewed out there in the press against the bank at the time. The reason being his strong belief that a rejoinder often inadvertently ends up drawing the attention of its reader to the original story or misconception it was out to correct, which the person might have completely missed before then. 


Mallam Abba was arguably the simplest, most unassuming, humble, and easy going bosses I have had the fortune of working with in my entire career. We used to marvel at the fact that, as the MD of the behemoth that was UBA even at the time, none of us had ever seen him seated at the back of his official car - what people generally refer to as the "owner's corner" in these parts; he would always be found calmly seated beside the driver, with the back seats left occupied. And, unless he went on to learn how to drive after leaving UBA in June 2001, Mallam Abba might very well have spent his entire 67 years sojourn on this planet without learning how to drive a car. 


I recall an interesting story related to me by a recently retired top bank executive and senior colleague of mine about an incident that happened while we were both at UBA, well over 20 years ago. They were having their secondary school reunion meeting slated for 3pm on a Sunday afternoon in Lagos and, being the highest ranking old student they had at the time, Mallam Abba was pencilled down as the guest of honour at the event. 


When he failed to show up in time for the scheduled commencement of the meeting, they were all shocked, considering his known penchant for keeping to time. On second thoughts, they concluded that he may well have decided to leave his house after the late afternoon 4pm Asr prayer, and they opted to wait for a while before deciding on their next line of action. When he failed to arrive by 4.30pm, my colleague decided to drive down to his house to check if all was well with him (there was no mobile telephone in operation at the time).


On getting to the house, he met Mallam Abba seated alone in the living room, with his official and personal cars parked all around the compound. Our boss apologised to my friend for not getting to the venue as scheduled. He also explained that he did not know how to drive and, being a Sunday, he had given his drivers the day off, as usual, forgetting that he would be needing one of them for that particular engagement. The wife, who normally drives the car whenever they needed to go out together in the absence of the drivers, had also gone out for another engagement, leaving him with no one to bring him to the event. My friend had to drive him to the reunion venue and back home afterwards. That was how completely detached and totally unconcerned Mallam Abba was about most of the worldly things that would ordinarily interest many a normal individual.


I also recall another funny incident that happened between the two of us when we were both at UBA. In addition to our paths inevitably crossing once in a while within the massive UBA office complex on the Marina, especially whenever I had cause to visit the 18th floor where his office was located, we often met every Friday at the weekly Juma'at prayer sessions at an open Mosque under a bridge within the bank's car park unfailingly, whenever he was in town, where we usually exchanged pleasantries after the prayers. I noticed the unusual way Mallam Abba was looking at me one particular Friday, which got me really worried, and also left me wondering as to what might have been the possible reason for that eerily unfamiliar occurrence. 


About two hours after I got back to the office on the 14th floor, an immediate elder brother of mine called to inform me that he had just returned from his Umrah trip to Saudi Arabia. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he met my MD at one of the Holy Mosques in Saudi, and the man was looking at him in a certain way, probably thinking I was the one he was seeing. I asked my brother if he had greeted my boss during their encounter, and as soon as he responded in the negative, I quickly ended the call and ran up straight to Mallam Abba's office on the 18th floor. 


I greeted and welcomed him back from his Umrah trip (which I didn't even know he had embarked upon before then), telling him that a brother of mine had just informed that they met in Saudi Arabia. He looked at me, puzzled, and asked, "was that not you I met there?". When I replied I wasn't the person, he said that we really look so much alike. At that point, I immediately responded that I do not even look like the person he saw that much, prompting him to ask what I meant by that. I disclosed to him that the person he met has an identical twin with whom they share a striking resemblance; so much so that many people find it very difficult to tell them apart. Having cleared myself, I left him there smiling and went back to my office. And, till today, I still don't know whether he actually figured out why I felt the compelling need to go and explain the situation of things after that very unfamiliar look he gave me at the Mosque, just a couple of hours earlier. 


That done, I called my brother back once I got back to my desk and pleaded with him - being my older brother (I would probably have scolded him if it was the other way round) - that, going forward, any time he happened to bump into anybody he happened to know to be my boss, or indeed any other person that may happen to be looking at him in a manner that tends to suggest that he might have either known or met him somewhere before, he should PLEASE endeavour to say hello to that person, in order not to put me in any unnecessarily difficult situation in the future, and we both laughed over the whole incident. 


The unquestionably spartan Mallam Abba was undoubtedly a very quiet and reserved individual that many people did not get to understand well during his lifetime. But he had many good and interesting sides to him that are just coming to light now, courtesy of the numerous personal tributes emanating from many of those who have had the unique opportunity of working or relating with him at close quarters during his eventful life. That may run contrary to the way and manner he might have preferred or chose to live his own life, alright, but it is still imperative that people get to hear and appreciate a completely different side to him, away from the now very familiar unrelenting media bashing he had been exposed and subjected to during the last five years of his eventful life.


May Allah SWT have mercy on the soul of Mallam Abba, forgive his shortcomings and grant him Aljannah Firdaus.