Abba Kyari and the politics of death.


By Emmanuel Ojeifo.

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne, English poet (1572-1631).

The death of Mallam Abba Kyari, former chief of staff to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, announced at 12:44am on Saturday April 18 2020 by Femi Adesina, presidential spokesman, on his twitter handle, has brought to the fore, once again, the blend between hypocrisy and religion in Nigeria, a subject that I love and hate to return to at the same time. Since yesterday, discussions of Kyari’s death from the ravaging coronavirus pandemic has, like many other typical Nigerian issues, played itself beyond the zone of politics into the den of religion. What I speak about here is the politicization of death on the basis of religion. As I perceived on social media yesterday, the attitude of some Christians was one of jubilation, excitement, gloating, and self-glorification. I could read through their comments. They seemed to be saying: ‘That serves him right!’ To be sure, not only Christians exhibited this attitude. One of the presidential media aides called out on twitter a commissioner in the Kano State Government, a Muslim, who was mocking his fellow religious compatriot in death. In the meantime, that commissioner has been sacked. But I have chosen to focus on the attitude of those Christians that I encountered on social media. I do so because Christianity is the religion that I profess, the one I have a moral right to pass judgment upon.

While in office, Kyari was perceived by many as the most powerful chief of staff in Nigeria’s history. In fact, some crowned him as de facto president who called the shots while Muhammadu Buhari played the role of a ceremonial figure. In their eyes, Kyari was also the arrowhead of the so-called cabal that has been holding Nigeria to ransom at the jugular and preventing her from developing. Thus, for these Nigerians, it seemed right that coronavirus finally succeeded in carrying out their bidding by doing what they had since been expecting it to do in Nigeria’s seat of power: decimate the one they consider the Number One enemy of Nigeria’s progress. Some have warned writers like us to desist from blackmailing people to show empathy; they say they should be allowed to vent their anger on the dead man and rain curses of damnation on him! With jarring satire, others have suggested that coronavirus should go after other victims in the villa in alphabetic order. Abba is gone, we can guess who they want the angel of death to call next. This has been the toast in the last 24 hours on social media.

Perceptions of Kyari’s omnipotence was created by the media. Many of us probably never saw him in person; we only knew as much as the media portrayed about him and from the palace-gossips that often percolate from the throne to the streets. Whether indeed he was as powerful as many thought or not, and whether he used this power for or against the interests of Nigeria, is a subject for history to judge. If anyone really is to be held to account for whatever happens to Nigeria, I think that it is the man we elected as president of Nigeria and not an appointee of government who can only wield as much power as he is allowed by the boss. But again, this does not absolve those who go into public service from truly serving the people, whether they are elected or appointed. However, what I focus on here is not the politics of power, but the fact that some Christians would consider it an appropriate gesture to jubilate at the death of Kyari and to even quote passages from the Bible to justify their mockery of the dead. Some have said that this is a human trait which is not restricted to any particular religion. Rightly so. But should a Christian be part of this as if it were a competition for those who could bring up more odium to ridicule the dead?

Permit me to veer off a little. At the risk of sounding immodest, I consider myself one of Nigeria’s budding writers, and since 2012 when I cut my teeth in public writing, I have been a fierce critic of bad leadership in Nigeria. I abhor the fact that with all the human and material resources that God has endowed us with, we are still where we are today as a nation. Millions of Nigerian lives have been needlessly cut short as a result of the kind of leadership we have had since Independence. Look at our hospitals, look at our schools, look at our roads, look at our transport system, look at our justice system, look at the faces of millions of Nigerians: do they reflect the wealth of this nation that God has so wonderfully blessed? No. I believe that the first culprit in this unacceptable condition under which we are currently living is bad leadership. Nearly 40 years ago, our literary genius Chinua Achebe beautifully summed up in his monograph, The Trouble with Nigeria: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which is the hallmarks of true leadership.”

In the over 200 newspaper articles I have published in the last seven years on issues in religion, politics, and society, I have not failed to deplore and celebrate, where necessary, the performances of men and women who hold power in the public space, whether they are political, religious, civic or traditional leaders. But my writing has titled more towards social critique because I agree with Achebe in his memoirs, There Was a Country that it is the state of health of a given society that cuts out the role of the intellectual or writer: “if a society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.” The Nigerian society has been ill for a long time, and it is this illness that has dictated the style and content of my writing. I have tried my best to deplore this gift of God for the advancement of our society. In this regard, I am sure no one can objectively accuse me of taking sides with the depredations of power against the powerless. I have tried in my own way to advance through writing what Bishop Matthew Kukah calls ‘prophetic outrage against the ills of society.’

It is against this backdrop that I don’t fancy the current crop of Nigeria’s democratic leaders. But when one of them dies, should a Christian, or anyone for that matter, be jubilant? No. Because it is against the teaching of Christ. Those who are jubilating have not hidden their motive. They are doing so because they have convinced themselves that death has finally decimated their ‘foe.’ I understand that Nigerians have an axe to grind with their rulers, but shouldn’t there be a moment to apply the brakes on our savagery and thirst for scapegoating? Should we vilify people even to their death? OK, let us even imagine for a moment that Kyari was indeed the man he was thought to be by many, is it Christian to mobilize his death as an agency for gloating and humiliation? When some people arrived and told Jesus about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with those of the sacrifices, they were expecting him to pass a word of judgment, but Jesus replied: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered thus? I tell you, No. But unless you change your ways, you will all die as they did.” (Luke 13:1-3). Instead of judging, Jesus used the story to drive home the lesson that all of us, without exception, are sinners and in urgent need of repentance. Their death should serve as a warning to us of what can happen unless we turn to God.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapter 5-8), which is said to be Christianity’s magna carta, Jesus delivered a powerful teaching on the ethic of human relations: “You have heard that it was said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good, and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what is special about that? Do not even the tax collectors do as much? And if you are friendly only to your friends, what is exceptional about that? Do not even the Gentiles do as much? For your part, you must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48).

These words of Jesus are revolutionary. Its veracity is not based on popular acclaim or on majority vote. Our acceptance or rejection of it does not quench its revolutionary spirit. This is what he has commanded us to do. Christ’s teaching remains for us the model upon which to build our lives. It is counter cultural. In essence, it goes against the grain of public opinion or the appeal of human emotion. And that is why at one of the most critical moments of his public ministry, many people rejected his teaching and stopped following him because they considered what he said scandalous and unacceptable. (cf. John 6:42-69). Down through the ages, many have rejected Jesus’ teaching because they consider the ideal he calls us to aspire towards as unattainable. Some others believe that Christian ethic is a veneer for the blessing of oppression. One of those in recent memory is the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who proclaimed the ‘death of God.’

In his book, The AntiChrist, Nietzsche goes all out to expose his vicious hatred for Christianity. He deplores the ethic proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and calls Christianity a religion of resentment because, in his view, it makes those who are cowardly and incompetent to try and avenge themselves by blessing their failure and cursing the strong and successful. At the end of his book, Nietzsche declares: “I pronounce my judgment. I condemn Christianity… This eternal indictment of Christianity I will write on all walls, wherever there are walls – I have letters to make even the blind see. I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.” ‘What did Christians do to Nietzsche to warrant this level of vilification?

A century after Nietzsche, Jacob Neusner, a Jewish-American distinguished research professor of religion published a brilliant book titled, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus where, unlike Nietzsche, he pays the supreme gesture of respect to Jesus and enters into dialogue with Jesus in order to disagree with the ethic he proposed in the same Sermon on the Mount. Neusner says that if he were present on the mount with Jesus when he first proclaimed this sermon to his disciples, he would certainly not follow Jesus, but would have instead continued to follow the teaching of Moses. Why? Because he considers the departure made by Jesus from the Torah as unacceptable. Whether it is Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, or Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, the entire history of opposition to Jesus’ teaching has been a battle between two alternatives: should we continue to live in the comfort of our base human instincts or should we rise up to a higher moral ideal as enunciated in the revolutionary teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which has marked a turning point in the history of human and Christian relations?

Today’s social media has become one of the most dangerous places. The level of hate, bile, and acrimony that denizens visit on each other is both frightening and alarming. We who are Christians cannot follow, much less, lead this dangerous descent into the valley of unreason. In a society that tends to celebrate vengeance and enmity, Jesus tells us that the way of the Christian should be one of love, forgiveness, and friendship. We will have to choose whether we want to be Christians or not. There is no middle ground. We cannot claim to follow Jesus and yet pick and choose from his teaching whatever suits our tastes. Christianity does not offer us a spiritual menu with a long list of options. We are either with Jesus or against him. I understand that following Jesus is highly demanding. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 39-year-old German Lutheran pastor and outspoken public foe of Hitler, who was executed in April 1945 by the Nazis at Auschwitz, knows this. In his all-time spiritual classic, The Cost of Discipleship, he tells us that when Christ invites us to follow him, he is calling us to come and die. That is the cost of being a Christian disciple! This death might not be the shedding of our blood, but it necessarily entails the killing of old, sinful habits and the embrace of kingdom values. It is difficult to follow Jesus. But should we say because it is not easy we will avoid taking the road less travelled or abandon the journey altogether? No. The difficulty of raising ourselves by the bootstraps to Christ’s ideal should not make us aim for the long hanging fruit.

Wole Soyinka, who can conveniently be classified as a worshipper of Orisha has pointed out that there is something worthy of emulation in Christianity namely, the religion’s incredible capacity for forgiveness. In The Burden of Memory, Soyinka confesses: “Even those of us who, conceding our unsaintliness, distance ourselves from the Christian beatitude do acknowledge that forgiveness is a value that is far more humanly exacting than vengeance.” This heroic act, he believes, is what heals society. This ideal could not have been better stated elsewhere than in the words chosen by the renowned South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu for his 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness.

Does this mean that God supports evil? No. Does it mean that we should remain silent, fold our arms, accept our fate and bless our oppressors? No. Does it mean we should turn away our faces as human locusts continue to turn our country into a paradise for maggots? Not. However, if we are going to build a sane society where our children can live happy, healthy and prosperous lives, we must begin by instilling a culture of civility and decency in our public conversation, something that must go right up to respect for the dead, which is the hallmark of all religions. It is this culture that will make our demand for accountability, quality leadership, good governance and transparent management of our nation’s resources sensible. Sadly, the savagery on social media today knows nothing about when and how to apply the brakes. All is fair in love and war. In this way, we are grooming a hateful society, which seems to be oxygenated by a brand of Christian sadism. This un-wholesome situation has been growing over time because many of us Christians have consciously or unconsciously been drinking from the bitter chalice of corrosive Pentecostalism that rejoices in the misfortune of others and mobilizes ‘Holy Ghost fire’ for the destruction of one’s enemies, both real and perceived. This is totally un-Christian.

When a corpse is being carried through a village, it is a log for onlookers. But when the corpse is of one’s own family member, the picture changes, it becomes the body of one who is known and loved. This is why scapegoating and mocking the dead should never be condoned. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt talks about the ‘banality of evil.’ She asserts that as human beings we all possess an extraordinary capacity for evil; there is an awful depth of depravity to which we could all sink. Those who do evil are not outwardly grotesque; they are normal people like you and me. Hitler and Stalin, with all their despicable acts, had families. They made loved to their wives and played with their children. And yet they still could go out to orchestrate the murder of millions of other people’s husbands, wives and children. Likewise, each one of us is capable of the most heroic good deed. This is the reality of our human condition. When we think about this, we come to realize why we must use the death of someone to focus the searchlight on ourselves. For Tutu, “There is no room for gloating or arrogant finger-pointing.” Of course, finger-pointing can be fashionable when we think that evil is reposed in other people and not us. But as the Soviet thinker Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes in his 1973 book, The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

At the end of this day, what the public celebration of Mallam Kyari’s death brings to the fore is the distance between those who wield power in Nigeria and those they govern. Many of Nigeria’s rulers have been men who lacked the political reflex of good leadership and have used their position to advance their personal interests rather than the good of those who swore on oath to serve. Last Thursday evening, Daily Trust ran a news report on its twitter handle with this headline: ‘No single ventilator, but Nasarawa buys N500m cars for lawmakers.’ I was going to write an article about this. Granted that Nigerian lawmakers at both the federal and state levels are in the habit of buying new cars every four years, in spite of massive public outcry against such waste of resources, I was outraged that this was happening at a time when we are battling with the coronavirus pandemic, which has imposed severe hardship on our people. I thought that the timing was poor, and the act was grossly insensitive to the plight of the poor. This tells you all that is wrong with Nigeria: leaders who have no iota of interest in the public good but are only concerned about their personal comfort. I am in my mid-30s, but my generation has not known what a good society looks like. Maybe this is why ordinary citizens who have long been at the receiving end of the harsh realities of Nigerian life, rejoice when death carries away one of those they see as enemies of Nigeria’s progress.

This is a stale yet recurring lesson in leadership; stale because there is no reasonable person who does not know that he or she will die one day. The reality of our finitude should temper our pride and subdue our arrogance. We are simply specs of dust, like a puff of wind. Placed on the scales we may rise, but we weigh less than a breath. No matter how much power we wield or how much resources we amass, we are all mortal. Death is the final leveler of all human distinctions: rich vs. poor, educated vs. illiterate, powerful vs. powerless, president vs. peasant, wise vs. fool, Christian vs. Muslim, white vs. black. The same fate comes to us all. We are here today and tomorrow we are no more. What matters is the positive impact we make in the lives of people while we live. This is what we will be remembered for.

May this serve as a lesson to all those in power. We are stewards of God’s gifts in whatever form they come, be it political power or material wealth. At the end of our lives, each one of us will be called to give account of our stewardship. If we choose to do evil, we will have our day in the high court of history. If we evade the high court of history, we cannot evade the supreme tribunal of divine justice. And in this supreme court, there is no room for appeal. Now is the time for us to do right, to serve the cause of justice for the millions of poor and oppressed Nigerians, to make our beloved country a place where all of us, our children, and our children’s children can be proud of. Abba Kyari is now spoken of in past tense. The dice is rolling for the rest of us.

May the soul of Mallam Abba Kyari rest in the bosom of the Almighty. Amen.

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