Brig-Gen Abba Kyari, 1938 – 2018: Remembering a servant of two states

Brig-Gen Abba Kyari

If you are a resident of the city of Kaduna, Katsina, Zaria, Funtua or Daura and have today used a bucket full of water, chances are the water you used was prepared and delivered to your tap by the infrastructure put in place 50 years ago by the late Brigadier-General Abba Kyari. Virtually all the expansion and development works for water supply being carried out in Kaduna and Katsina states today are add-ons to what he started. There are, of course, new projects associated with new settlements, institutions and new urban expansions. But the basic frameworks of these infrastructural projects were started by Abba Kyari. All the major trunk roads across the two states, the major hospitals and educational institutions were either built or planned by Abba Kyari. Kaduna residents will cherish knowledge that the famous Mahmud Gunmi Central Market was constructed, courtesy of his effort.

It is now one year since the death of Kyari, yet millions of citizens of Kaduna and Katsina states know very little about this indefatigable public servant, to whom so much is owed. Is there anything we can learn about his style of management of public affairs? Can we duplicate his successes? There is no way can tell except if we carefully examine what he came to do, how he did it and what he achieved.

Who was Abba Kyari who passed away on November 25, 2018? He will for long be remembered by those who cherish his achievements and progress in Kaduna and Katsina, as well as those who admire and respect the efforts of public servants who worked without regard for personal gain.

Lt Col Abba Kyari arrived in Kaduna in August 1967 immediately after the military government under the control of General Yakubu Gowon created six new states out of the former Northern Region of Nigeria. Before his Kaduna assignment, he had been the commander of the 5th Battalion. As military governor he watched over the North Central State, made up of Katsina and Zaria provinces, which eventually became known as Kaduna and Katsina states.

What exactly were his orders? The military was never known for publishing its orders, but administrative offices, even if lowly placed, could easily decipher his marching orders. They were simple: “Go to Kaduna and set up an administration distinct from that of the former northern Nigeria, liaise with Interim Common Services Agency (ICSA) for staff deployment to your administration and establish physical offices and equipment, staff housing and other requirements of an administration. Leave the commander of the One Infantry Division alone as he had to prepare for an impending engagement with a rebellious South Eastern State. If you need any military clout, talk to the Kaduna Garrison commander. His battalion was specifically established for the defense of Kaduna. Drum up support from the traditional rulers for the continued unity of the country and pacify the population of the North-Central State.’’

The last two orders were as urgent as they were difficult. General Hassan Katsina, who had served briefly as the military governor of the entire northern states had called upon all his connections, experience and charisma to pacify the population seriously traumatised.

His success, though fundamental, was only partial as he had little time at his disposal. He would be recalled to army headquarters as chief of army staff.

The unprecedented traumatisation suffered by the North was the result of the treacherous action of a handful of ethnically driven soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Major Donatus Okafor and Major Onwuatuegwu. They had murdered Nigeria’s first prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa,  northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello,  western premier, Sir Samuel Akintola and virtually all senior northern military officers who never resisted or challenged them when they announced their intention to overthrow the government.

Col. Gowon, who had been away in England to attend a senior military course at Camberley and who had returned to Nigeria only a few days earlier, escaped only by the skin of his teeth. Their intention was to spare no high ranking officer from the North. The unintended consequence of their senseless action was to create a massive counterattack on eastern civilians resident in the North, which led to the massive exodus of innocent civilians back to the East.

General Gowon’s answer to the crisis when he assumed office as head of state after the removal of General Aguyi Ironsi, was to create 12 states out of Nigeria. Six were to be from the former North. The response of Lt Col Ojukwu, who was posted to the South Eastern State as governor, was to declare a breakaway Republic of Biafra as a consequence of which a civil war broke out.

Lt Col Abba Kyari wanted desperately to pacify and calm the population of the North Central State and demonstrate that there was a full fledged working government which would safeguard the interest of everyone.

Abba Kyari was lucky. The Interim Common Services Agency was under the control of Mallam Abubakar Imam as chairman and Mallam Adamu Fika as secretary. The pair were bold, imaginative and they understood the meaning of equity. Both had an intimate understanding of the role of civil servant: they were the depository of national morality. Working with a rump of the former administration, they were able, within weeks, to create an inventory of the assets and the working resources of the former government and to distribute them and deploy appropriate personnel.

Within a few short months, the administration of all the six states had taken off. The creation of the new administration with very little resources to start with, and with even less infrastructure in what were really provincial cities must count as one of the greatest achievements of the then civil service of northern Nigeria. All these were within seven years of Nigeria’s independence, three of which were turbulent.

The North Central State administration moved from Zaria and relocated to Kaduna. Abba Kyari, who was from Barewa (B1001) drew heavily from Katsina College and Barewa in appointing his first set of commissioners. He warned everyone of them to see their appointments as honour to their nation. There were not there to serve their local governments but to serve the entire state. They all lived up to expectation. In a very subtle way, he created a nationalistic outlook in all of them. There was none of the factious attitude which was to surface among Nigerian public servants a few decades later. It was trite, yet significant, for instance, that  more progressive commissioners, such as Alhaji Sani Zango Daura, who came from the far North of the state, had their personal cars with Kafanchan registration numbers from the far south of the state.

The civil servants deployed to the North Central State proved to be equally good.

There was the quiet urge for everyone to prove himself. They knew they were deployed to their new posting, not because of where they originated from, but for what they could do.

The mission of public officers was the heart of northern unity – a public service that would vigorously protect the interest of the populace. Their mission was to serve all and not their immediate clans. Politicisation of the civil service was seen as one step away from deadly ethnicity.

In August 1967 when Lt. Col Abba Kyari arrived in Kaduna, there were only two water supply schemes of any significance. One was in Kaduna, which supplied about 24,000,000 liters per day and another at Zaria, which supplied 6,000,000 liters per day. The Ministry of Works was responsible for water supply before the government created the North Central State Water Board, which then proceeded to construct a series of dams and barrages to impound water.

In Kaduna city, the Kangimi dam still supplies the bulk of water. In Zaria, the Galma River dam was constructed to provide 22,000,000 liters of treated water, in addition to water for irrigation in the surrounding district. Katsina city, which previously had only a minuscule water supply scheme based on boreholes had the Ajiwa dam, which to this day provides the only source of the city’s water supply. The Mairuwa dam served Funtua, while Dutsinma, Birnin Gwari, Kafanchan and Daura were all arranged for by the programme. Almost all the projects were by direct labour. Moreover, surveys and investigations were carried out in no less than 20 other water supply projects all over the state.

Many people today, who routinely drive on the Funtua-Yashe road, Malumfashi-Dutsinma road,  the Funtua-Birnin Gwari road, the Kafanchan-Manchok roads, which are now federal roads, may not be aware that they were originally constructed or upgraded by the state government during the eight- year period of Lt. Col Abba Kyari’s tenure. In 1968, there were only 406 primary schools in the entire state, by 1974, the number had risen to 646. The number of secondary schools rose from 18 to 27.

This may look to be insignificant at first sight, but it must be remembered that many of the then existing schools were expanded in some cases to three times their original capacity. Enrolment, for instance, was up to 63per cent of  primary school children.

In all their efforts, Lt. Col Abba Kyari and his officials were guided by a development plan they created, but which provided for a disciplined implementation and execution of the government’s programmes.

The Kaduna Central Market, which was later renamed Abubakar Mahmud Gunmi Central Market, was the brain child of Lt. Col Abba Kyari. The creation of the market was foreseen by the Max Lock Report, commissioned originally by the late Sardauna, the Premier of Northern Nigeria.

In its hay days, the market was thought to be the most modern market in West Africa.  It was secure, well spaced, and laid out with incredible facilities, such as bathrooms, fire station, police post, stores, first aid, post office, facility for a bank etc. It was designed for hustle-free shopping. Foreign dignitaries were regularly but proudly conducted around the market.

Lt Col Abba Kyari was also responsible for creating the North Central Cooperative Bank. Returning from a tour of Lere district through Saminaka, he was pleased with the maize farm he saw on the road. He spent that night in Zaria at the Government Guest House on Queen Elizabeth Road.

That night, as he sat for dinner with the attorney-general, Alhaji Mamman Nasir, Alhaji Garba Ja Abdulkadir, the secretary to the government and head of civil service, they pondered on what more to do for the farmers they passed by.

On their return to Kaduna, they charged the chief registrar of cooperatives, Alhaji Shehu Abbas, and an English guy called Chief Webster, to produce draft articles and memorandum of association of a bank.

This was how the North Central State Cooperative Bank was born. The bank, which was renamed the Nigeria Universal Bank, had 18 branches, two of which were in Lagos. It provided loans for thousands of farmers, businessmen and traders and financed the construction of homes and institutions.

At the instance of the Central Bank, the Nigeria Universal Bank never paid any dividends to its two shareholders (Kaduna and Katsina states), but it was never in distress, nor did it call on its shareholders to provide it with additional fund.

Years later, through sheer inattention, the bank’s shareholders lost it to new owners, FCMB Plc, who proceeded to close down all the rural branches established by the Nigeria Universal Bank. By an incredible coincidence, the Nigeria Universal Bank produced two civilian governors who left mighty foot prints in the state. Mallam Balarabe Musa was a onetime chief accountant of the bank. Years later, Alhaji Muhammad Makarfi also served as the chief accountant of the bank before he  became the governor of the state.

Col Abba Kyari was loyal to the Federal Government and General Gowon. When General Gowon ordered that abandoned properties owned by fleeing easterners must be safeguarded for their eventual return after the war, Col Kyari went further. He instructed that any abandoned property which was intact should be rented off and the rent proceeds carefully safeguarded. Consequently, many easterners were delightfully surprised when they returned to the North Central State. Their properties, ,especially those in Kaduna, Zaria, Funtua and Kafanchan, were handed back to them, together with the rent proceeds. This act of generosity went a long way in assuring easterners that Nigeria was their home, no matter what.

In May 1973, the Federal Government published Decree 24, which created the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The decree aroused serious fears and concern in the minds of graduating students and their parents. Many saw it as a way of forcing hapless students to spend another year of meaningless hardship. Among parents of female graduates, the fear was even more palpable.

Col Kyari drummed it in the minds of all senior civil servants that they must support the programme to succeed. He said the programme was designed by the Federal Government “to transcend political, social and ethnic loyalties and to foster loyalty to the nation. It would inculcate discipline in the youth and help them acquire a sense of self reliance. It would raise moral tone by the infusion of higher ideals of national achievement. It would encourage Nigerian youths to seek career employment irrespective of their state of origin.’’ Few people would fault these noble objectives

By an act of providence, three of the first set of graduates posted to Kaduna that year were girls. Col Abba Kyari charged heads of ministries where they were posted to pay special attention to the needs of the girls and help them succeed. The girls themselves were highly intelligent and really determined. One of them was to become the first female chief judge of Kaduna State. Another one, whose father was one of the first permanent secretaries appointed by the Sardauna in the 1960s joined the Federal Civil Service and rose to become a permanent secretary. She was to be seen in places like Vienna, Austria where she represented Nigeria at OPEC meetings. The third girl became the first female head of the Nigeria Leasing Enterprise.

In the subsequent year, the NYSC posted young men, who were equally good. One rose to be a federal minister, and one, a deputy governor of Kaduna State. Another one became one of the most influential special advisors of the governor of Katsina State.

Col Abba Kyari understood that state government officials had to work with and cooperate with federal government officials if they wanted to succeed. He was amply rewarded for this outlook. Yours sincerely was in attendance, albeit as a minor official, in January 1970 during a meeting of the Supreme Military Council when General Gowon turned to Commander Diete-Spiff of  Rivers State and said, “This is the third time I’m reminding you about your offer to give us land to build the National Eye Centre. Where is the land?’’ Diete-Spiff replied that he was working on the local chiefs to release the land. Gen Gowon turned on to the other members of the council and demanded, “I have secured help and assistance from major international institutions to build a world class eye centre, which is in our development plan. I wanted this centre to be Port Harcourt, but I can’t get the land for this. Who can give me land in his state?’’

Col Kyari raised his hand and made an immediate offer. This was how the National Eye Centre came to Kaduna. It was precisely this kind of drama and frustration that prompted the military to think of creating the land use decree in later years.

Abba Kyari was loyal to Gen Gowon, who was always a lover of Kaduna. Indeed Gowon was incontestably a Kaduna indigene although his ancestors may have come from elsewhere as did the ancestors of millions of Nigerians.

In January 1950 when Yakubu Gowon arrived at the Government College, Zaria, (it was later renamed Barewa College, Zaria), he was registered as no 783 from Zaria. He was registered in the same year as Macido Dalhat (B813), Yahaya Hamza (B820), Rilwan Lukman (B867) and eight others from Zaria. No one had ever challenged their indigeneship. So, Gowon was from Abba Kyari’s territory.

By early 1969, Gowon had rescued Nigeria from disintegration and ignominy. There were only a few pockets of resistance, even in the heartland of the secession.

Gowon decided to get married, but from where would he choose his bride? Even the staunchest enemies of Gowon had to agree that he was charismatic, handsome and attractive. He was smart, in and out of uniform. He could walk into any African country and pick up a bride. He must have ranked as the most eligible bachelor in Africa, very much in the way Prince Charles of England had ranked as the most eligible bachelor in the UK before he married Princess Diana.

Lagos was a strong contender for a wife. Their girls were sophisticated, pushy and assertive. They have been known to line up Igbosere and Lewis Streets as Gowon made his way from Dodan Barracks through Keffi Street to the Ikeja Cantonment, or to the airport, just to get a glimpse of him. Gowon never looked their way. The South-East had ruled itself out. There was no way Gowon could have courted a southeastern girl while he was prosecuting a war against their dangerous kinsmen. There were rumours of a claim based on a childhood promise from Benue-Plateau State.

In the end, Gowon picked his bride from Kaduna,  an event which pleased Col Kyari in no small measure. But did he play any role in the courtship?

Mysteriously, the Kaduna press, the New Nigerian Newspapers, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) and correspondents from national dailies never got to know of the courtship until it was officially announced.

Was the courtship a state secret? Victoria was an accomplished girl and had come from the home of a renowned public servant. They were not given to flamboyance of any sort. Victoria’s home on Bakori Road was less than 2 blocks away from the hub of Kaduna – the Office of the Administrator and less than 2 kilometers away from the FRCN and the New Nigerian Newspapers.  Perhaps Gowon’s most authoritative historian, Professor Isawa Elaigwu might come up with an answer, but the marriage was a historical plus for the North Central State.

When Brigadier Abba Kyari left Kaduna after almost eight years of service, he was not paid gratuity and did not draw pension from the State Government. Even while he was in office, he was paid only his military salaries. He did not take special allowance afterwards. He did not take car or any official furniture with him. No house was build for him by the state government. As was the official procedure, he never handled any public money, including the so-called security vote. Every financial transaction of the government was handled by designated officials.

Even if no major street, square or public building has been named after him in Kaduna, Katsina, Zaria, Funtua or Daura, Brigadier Abba Kyari will never be forgotten by those who cared about the progress and development of the two states and the people.

Yazid was a permanent secretary in the Governor’s Office before he became the Secretary to the Government and Head of Civil Service of the old Kaduna State.



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