Clipped Mane of White Lion


MAHMUD JEGA VIEW FROM THE GALLERY

The biggest drama on the Nigerian national political scene last week was Wednesday’s botched attempt by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] to arrest former Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello and charge him to court on charges of allegedly laundering N80 billion. That is a staggering amount. Bello, whose personal alias is White Lion, ruled the state for eight years, during which it received a few billion naira every month as Statutory Allocation from the Federation Account, plus a much smaller internally generated revenue, IGR. To be able to siphon away N80 billion, the lean Kogi treasury must have staggered and reeled.

The spectacle of EFCC agents laying a siege on Bello’s Abuja house while his police and DSS guards prevented entry, his protégé and kinsman Governor Ahmed Usman Ododo arriving with a large contingent of police escorts and an army of thugs to spirit Bello out of the house while the EFCC men stood askance, only to later declare Bello wanted, to get Attorney General of the Federation to advise him to surrender and advise all Immigration posts to look out for him in case he tried to flee from the country, while two courts in Lokoja and Abuja issue contradictory orders to arrest and not to arrest Yahaya Bello, was a script fit for a  Nollywood epic.

Was this all what it came to, after a glorious and sobbing start? Yahaya Bello’s governorship of Kogi State should not have been but for the most spectacular case of Divine Intervention in Nigeria since the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998. APC candidate Alhaji Abubakar Audu had virtually won the November 2015 off-season election when he died. If he had been declared winner, his running mate Abiodun Faleke would have inherited the mandate, just like Supreme Court made Boni Haruna to inherit Atiku Abubakar’s abandoned governorship mandate of Adamawa State in 1999. But because the election was declared inconclusive, APC was asked to nominate a replacement and, with President Buhari’s hidden hand, it nominated Bello, a former member of Buhari’s CPC who finished second in its primary election.

On the day of Bello’s swearing-in on January 27, 2016, the media celebrated him as the youngest governor in the country. Some of that youthfulness manifested very early. While delivering his inaugural speech, Yahaya Bello broke into a trembling sob as he paid tribute to his mother. Ok, because of the age factor, most of the people who get to become governors in this country do not have their mothers around to witness the glorious moment. The luckiest men in this regard were Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. Not only did their biological mothers witness their rise to governorship, but also witnessed their rise to the Presidency. While President Jonathan’s mum lived in the Glass House of Aso Rock Villa, Yar’adua’s mum, who is still living, only managed to make a journey to Otta, at the head of a family delegation, to thank former president Olusegun Obasanjo for railroading her son into State House. Sometimes a governor’s  living mum complicates governance matters. Such as Abia State Governor Orji Uzor Kalu’s mum, who was said to have wielded enormous influence when her son was governor in 1999-2007.

While Yahaya Bello sobbed at his inaugural, the occasion’s master of ceremony, Senator Dino Melaye, electrified the event and poured encomiums on the new governor. It was a cruel twist of fate that Melaye released a viral skit on social media last week mocking Yahaya Bello and gloating over his current troubles. One commentator said it was because Bello “permanently retired Dino from politics,” forcing him out of APC, back to PDP and to a humiliating third place finish in last year’s off-season governorship election.

Within weeks of Bello’s governorship, I personally wondered if his youthfulness was an asset or a liability. In March 2016, a local Kogi newspaper led with a story about how Bello sent bulldozers to tear down six roundabouts around the state capital, Lokoja. When I wrote a column about it, I received a call from a man who said he was the governor’s close friend. He said, “You Mahmud, you don’t know Igalas! Do you know what they buried inside those roundabouts? Do you know that we found bloodstained amulets inside the Government House when we came in?”

He offered to handover the phone to the governor for more explanation, but I said there was no need, let me just offer a piece of personal advise. If your predecessors buried amulets inside round abouts, you didn’t have to demolish the round abouts. Since it is spiritual and not physical, why not bring your own marabouts and babalawos to shout incantations, sprinkle water or oil and spiritually destroy the buried amulets, instead of ripping apart roundabouts built by your military and civilian predecessors?

A month later, in April 2016, there was serious altercation in the Kogi State House of Assembly, apparently between pro and anti-Bello factions, leading to its shutdown and policemen taking over the premises. The House of Representatives even ordered the Police Inspector General to shut down the assembly to avert break down of order. Three years later in 2019, Bello got the Assembly to impeach and remove his deputy governor, Simon Achuba. A court however quashed the removal a year later but it was Pyrrhic victory because Achuba’s term in office has already expired. Among other controversies, Yahaya Bello was said to be at loggerheads with his own traditional ruler, Ohinoyi of Igbirra Alhaji Ibrahim Attah, who died last year.  Ahead of last year’s general election, there was the outrageous spectacle in Kogi when Governor Bello sent bulldozers to rip off the road leading to PDP candidate Natasha Akpoti’s village in order to deny access to her and to election officials.

Then there were loud cries from Kogi that Bello was not paying salaries as and when due, that pensioners were being owed their dues for months or even years on end. Even when, in 2015 and 2016, President Buhari advanced loans to state governments to clear the debts, Kogi civil servants and pensioners were still being owed. Given that kind of record, no one expected Yahaya Bello to be re-elected in 2019. In the event, Kogi State’s off-season governorship election of 2019 was probably the most shameful in this country since NPN’s “win” of Ondo State in 1983. Thugs unleashed violence all over the state. Remarkably, Yahaya Bello’s supporters publicly celebrated the chaos, with one women’s group posting a video of themselves, dancing and singing that anyone who opposed Bello will hear ‘Ratatata,” i.e. the sound of gunfire.

Then came the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. Governor Yahaya Bello, without any supporting medical evidence, declared that Kogi State was free of Covid. This was most improbable, since Covid had been detected all the way from the coast to the Sahel, and Kogi is smack in-between. When a medical team from the anti-Covid task force in Abuja arrived in Lokoja to discuss the matter, Bello detained all of them, saying they must be quarantined lest they import Covid into his state. He was the only governor in Nigeria who adopted this stance. His colleagues were scrambling to build Covid testing facilities and treatment centers. In contrast, I was in Akwa Ibom State at one time and saw the great lengths which then governor Udom Emmanuel went to erect Covid treatment facilities, including oxygen generating plants.

Then there was Yahaya Bello’s incredible run for the presidency in 2022. Given his rather sorry record of rule as governor, it was remarkable that he thought of himself as presidential material. When Northern APC governors near-unanimously brushed aside President Buhari’s wishes and conceded their party ticket to the South, Yahaya Bello was the lone rebel. There was a viral video of him storming out of the meeting, shouting invectives, while Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum pursued him, pleading with him to be patient and accept his colleagues’ decision. Hausa social media wags claimed that Zulum said, “Kiyi hakuri!” playing on Kanuri speakers’ tendency to mix up genders when speaking in Hausa.

Yahaya Bello then erected a splashy campaign secretariat at Wuse Zone 2. I don’t know if it is one of the houses that EFCC seized. Hafsat Abiola-Costello, late MKO’s daughter, was his campaign’s director general. I received an invitation to attend a meeting at the place and meet Yahaya Bello, which would have been my first time ever of seeing him. When we turned up at the appointed hour, Mrs. Costello said the governor suddenly travelled out of Abuja that morning, but that a new meeting would be set up. It was never done. On the night of the APC convention, while nearly 20 aspirants were stepping down one by one for Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Yahaya Bello gave a fiery speech, said he did not come that far to step down and he bagged 47 votes. His supporters are now saying that EFCC is pursuing him at the behest of the Tinubu Presidency because of that stance. In fairness to EFCC, it long ago charged his nephew and friend to court for alleged money laundering but could not charge Bello alongside them because he had immunity from prosecution.

Unless he flees from Nigeria, Yahaya Bello is likely to be in court soon. The man who hid him, Governor Ododo, is in Akure to conduct controversial APC governorship primaries. His action last week is likely to haunt Ododo for a long time, a governor who willfully obstructed anti-corruption agents from performing their duty in the service of his political godfather. As for Yahaya Bello, whose rich White Lion’s mane has been severely clipped by recent events, he could draw some comfort from the fact that dozens of former state governors were charged to court for alleged corruption since 2007 but only six of them were ever convicted, one of them by a foreign court. Three did time, one paid a small fine in lieu and one got the conviction quashed. One former governor even got a perpetual injunction to stop all security agencies from charging him to court, and that order is still subsisting after nearly two decades. With his loyal godson ensconced in Government House of a state where incumbents tend to have their way, the White Lion of Kogi could yet regrow his mane.

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