He’s acclaimed for busting notorious kidnappers and gangs, receiving an “outstanding performance” award from Nigeria’s house of representatives in 2020, and from the wife of president Muhammadu Buhari two years earlier. On Instagram, there are pictures of him in casual conversation with superstar Davido. “Thanks for the visit bro,” reads one caption.
But beneath the veneer of professionalism that drove his public popularity, Abba Kyari, a senior police officer only a few ranks below Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, apparently had skeletons in his closet.
Last year, the FBI indicted him in a criminal case against Ramon Abbas, the convicted mastermind of multimillion-dollar business email compromise scams whose life will be made into a Hollywood movie. According to the FBI, Kyari used his position as a police officer to detain and intimidate one of Abbas’s accomplices who was going rogue on a scam operation, as a favor to Abbas who was his friend and, to an extent, benefactor. Kyari forwarded a bank account for Abbas to pay for that service.
While Kyari was suspended from his role, Nigeria’s police hierarchy largely let him live as a free man within the country, brushing off a possible extradition request from the FBI. Well, until now.
Kyari’s trafficking puts Nigeria’s police in a bad light
On Valentine’s day this week, the Nigerian police said it arrested Kyari and four other officers for seizing 25kg of cocaine from alleged smugglers and then trying to sell the spoils for cash. Kyari, it appeared, was foiled by a staff member of Nigeria’s anti-drugs agency who first feigned interest in the deal before exposing it.
The arrest represents a huge blow to the Nigeria police, an organization perpetually trying and mostly failing to improve its reputation with the public. Globally, it is ranked one of the worst in the world, thanks in part to units like the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that often used brutal means to abuse Nigeria’s tech professionals under the guise of hunting internet fraudsters.
Kyari also represents Nigeria’s problems with a policing structure that relies on strong-man officers rather than a transparent, accountable standard for all officers. It is now known that, despite his public super cop image, Kyari abused his position as head of SARS in Lagos, using torture to extract confessions and appropriating suspects’ assets to himself.
It remains to be seen what actions will be taken on Kyari, and how his rise and fall will influence thinking around police reform in the country. A panel has recommended that he be demoted, but with serious criminal allegations around his neck, it would stir further distrust if that were to be the worst thing he faced.
Kyari may be tried in the US since Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, thinks there are “reasonable grounds” for cooperating with the FBI’s extradition request. Until then, the super cop’s fate is in the hands of Nigeria’s justice system.
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