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Yahaya Adoza Bello and memories of Mohammed Abdulsalam Onuka

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By Debo Alabi

Each time I see television reports, online videos and snippets from the actions, activities and pronouncements of Yahaya Adoza Bello, the governor of Kogi State, I cannot but draw comparisons between him and Mohamed Abdulsalam Onuka. Not many remember the latter, but he was a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian Army, who was deployed to serve as military administrator of Edo State, during the administration of Gen Sani Abacha.

In a state brimming with top class military talent across the services at the time, Abacha favoured the young Onuka at the time and made him chief executive of one of Nigeria’s most politically sophisticated states. Just in case you have forgotten, Edo State is the home of Brig-Gen Samuel Osaigbovo, who as military governor of the Old Midwestern State, was easily one of the greatest success stories of the Yakubu Gowon dispensation. Edo State is also the birthplace of Admirals Augustus Aikhomu and Mike Okhai Akhigbe, who served at various times as Nigeria’s Number Two citizens, in the official designation of Chief of General Staff, CGS.

Onuka was famous for intemperate language, abrasive comportment and unbridled arrogance of power. He was brusque, brash and impulsive. He traversed the expanse of Edo State, with his trademark swagger stick, barking orders, spewing threats, sacking and dismissing workers in tow. He seemed overzealous to impress his masters in Abuja, who were even more discerning and genteel than he was, as the Abacha gang strove to legitimise itself in the immediate post ‘June 12’ era.

I cannot forget one of Onuka’s televised appearances on Nigerian Television Authority, NTA Network news, in the course of his visit to one of the many state-owned parastatals, sometime in 1994. I recall I was visiting a friend in his Oregun, Lagos accommodation that day and like the newsmen we are, we tuned to the news telecast to catch up with the day’s events. And there was the voice of Onuka belching out of one of the news reports, his eyes blazing like the furnace of the bronze casters on Igun Street, Benin City: ‘This is the last time I want to see things this way. The next time I have cause (to) come back here, you will see the redness of my eyes.’ Then he stormed out, military escorts and security personnel fawning over themselves to clear the way for him…

I don’t know if Abacha watched that Aminian dramatization by Onuka. I wouldn’t know if it was the CGS to Abacha, Lt. Gen Oladipo Diya who did. Better still, I can’t recall if it was the revered royalty in Benin, the Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, N’Ogidigan, Oba Erediauwa II himself who put a call through to Aso Rock, Abuja, seeking an end to the continued repression and mistreatment of his subjects by Onuka. What I know for sure is that a few days after that inglorious outing on national television by Onuka, his tour of duty as military administrator of Edo State, came to an unceremonious denouement.

Appointed as chief executive of the state on December 9, 1993, Onuka got the boot on September 14, 1994, after barely nine months in office. He was promptly replaced by a more mature, more charismatic, less noisy and controversial Bassey Asuquo, an army colonel. And trust the military with its punitive, if not vindictive reward for misdeamenour, Onuka was flung, with immediate effect, to the battlefields of Sierra Leone on a peacekeeping mission in a nondescript capacity. And that marked the beginning of the end of an otherwise promising career, the same pedestal on which the Hamid Alis, the Jafaar Isas, the Olagunsoye Oyinlolas and the Buba Marwas, among others, rode to subsisting national acclaim and relevance.

I have been checking Wikipedia recently and it tells me Yahaya Adoza Bello of Kogi State and Mohamed Abdulsalam Onuka, are indeed first cousins! Maybe herein lies the uncanny congruences and affinities in their destinies, persona, official carriage and administrative demeanour.

Yahaya Bello loves the military swagger stick. It is a part of his customary sartorial make-up. The only times I have not seen his walking stick with him, are in those short video clips of his boxing trainings where the gloves he wears, prevent him from adorning the stick. From the biography of him in the public space, he was most probably still in secondary school when his older cousin was military administrator and strutted about with that trademark stick. And he loved it.

Very much like Onuka, Bello was awarded the governorship of Kogi State on a platter of platinum. Here is a man who didn’t campaign to be elected governor, whose name was not on the ballot paper, who didn’t contest to be governor, but who was woken up by a phone call and presented the position as a fait accompli! Yes, Abubakar Audu, a two-time governor of the state and candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, was coasting home to victory in that November 2015 gubernatorial election, when the unexpected happened and he died just before the conclusion of the election. Against all electoral and political permutations, a strange legalistic invention to the effect that the runner-up in the primary election which produced Audu as candidate, become beneficiary of the votes cast for Audu, and by extension, ‘duly elected’ governor of Kogi State! And thus entered Yahaya Bello. Bello, before then was totally unknown in Kogi State.

Yes, he contested the APC governorship primaries in the state in 2015, but he walked away as soon as he lost. There is no record of him accompanying the campaign train of the APC in the build up to that election, because he was sore and bitter from his predicted loss at the primaries, and he opted to abstain from the process.

Onuka, his cousin, was as well an unknown quantity in the Nigerian Army, probably serving as Staff Officer or Battalion Commander in Bama or Bakassi, retiring to a bottle or two of kunu or Trophy lager beer at the close of work every day, before fate catapulted him to the leadership of Edo State.

And what has Yahaya Bello done with this fairy tale opportunity since his inauguration as governor of Kogi State in January 2016? He has striven assiduously, committedly and consistently to make the state the headquarters of national scorn and public opprobrium in all ways possible. Kogi State is easily the capital of mass suffering, pervading misery, palpitating insecurity, inestimable despondency and crippling despair across the country.

Workers’ salaries and emoluments are unpaid. Labour unions have been unanimous and consistent in saying that the salary backlog is in hovering around the 40-month mark. The civil service has been phenomenally degraded and debased such that permanent secretaries at the topmost echelon of the bureaucracy commute to work on motorbikes! Pensioners who gave their active and productive years in the service of state and country are deprived their gratuities and entitlements.

The economy of the state, largely powered by the civil service, is virtually crippled. Sales are low, businesses folding up. Many businessmen have indeed folded up and left the state. Hunger walks on all fours in the state, poverty has become a way of life. Kogi State today holds the infamous national medal for the state with the highest rates of depression, stroke and suicides.

Amidst such despair and hopelessness, ‘GYB Boys’ as the clique of like-minded characters around Yahaya Bello brand themselves, live in such grandeur and opulence, with contrasts so disturbingly sharply with the overall morass around and about them. They ride the choicest, automobiles adorned with women procured from tertiary institutions in the state, move about with bands of police escorts and live large like tomorrow will never come. They virtually talk down the people by their body language, as though saying: ‘This is our time, to hell with you.’ Kleptocracy is at its despicable best, even as a recent intelligence report indicated that an attempt to convert the sum of N7 Billion for a serving, top government official in Kogi State, to USD, was discovered, blocked and reported to the President.

Gangsterism, thuggery and lawlessness have become critical aspects of governance and statecraft by a governor so power-drunk he’s ever taking an aim at critics, enemies and antagonists, real or imagined. The Office of the Deputy Governor has been virtually abrogated and the powers transferred to the Chief of Staff. Even as the National Judicial Council, NJC, found no merit whatsoever in the governor’s petition seeking his summary removal, Bello has since instigated the pathologically genuflecting state assembly to orchestrate the ouster of the Chief Judge. Such is the reign of terror foisted on Kogi State by Yahaya Bello.

You descend into the lounge of your hotel in Lokoja, and you are greeted by gruff-looking, gun-wielding fellows in unfamiliar uniforms pacing about. They are operatives of the private army of the Bello government, christened the Kogi State Vigilante Services, whose very activities as they patrol in unmarked vehicles is a recurring source of trepidation for the people.

The recent general elections witnessed a new high in provocative, state-sponsored illegality and brigandage, where state appointees, notably commissioners, advisers and local government administrators personally bore arms and targeted hapless citizens, as they fell over themselves attempting to impress the Capone in the hall of infamy. This is the abyys into which Yahaya Bello has dragged Kogi State, in the last 40 months.

Traditional rulers who were once the conscience of the people, who spoke truth to power in the service of their subjects, have become an integral part of the propaganda machinery of the administration. Except for the revered Ohinoyi of Ebiraland, Alhaji Abdul Rahman Ado Ibrahim (the paramount ruler of Bello’s home ethnicity by the way), who has been typically blunt and courageous in telling the governor some stinging truths, the others have been cringing and caterwauling before him, for fear of being deposed or not being presented their staff of office, for those who haven’t been installed.

Those of us who believe in the energy, the vibrancy, the resourcefulness and the creativity which the youth can bring to any sphere of human endeavour and have always canvssed youth inclusiveness, as well as members of the younger generation themselves, must be thoroughly disappointed and embarrassed by the below par outing of Yahaya Bello in Kogi State. Yet, our democracy has thrown up genuinely youthful bright lights across the political spectrum who left positive imprints on the sands of time. Donald Duke was 37 when he was elevated governor of Cross River State in 1999. His legacies still echo around and about the state. Nnamani Chimaroke became governor of Enugu State at 39, Bukola Saraki became chief executive of Kwara State at 41, we can go on and on with examples.

My mind just keeps going back to how people stroll into irredeemable oblivion, after handcrafting the mismanagement of providential opportunities, very much like Yahaya Bello.

There are loud insinuations that he may not get the governorship ticket of the APC at the August 2019 primaries. If the party desires to begin the process of salvaging whatever is left of its battered reputation in Kogi State, that would be strategically face-saving. Yahaya Bello is a grievously unsellable brand.

If the courts rule that his sack of Haddy Ametuo-led APC executive last year and his singlehanded installation of a new executive is null, void and of no effect like we’ve witnessed in Rivers, Delta and Zamfara states, that report card of his conquest in the last elections, culminating in two senatorial positions, seven House of Representatives seats and 25 State House of Assembly offices, becomes ash dust.

If perchance he survives these two landmines and confronts the rage of the people at the polls on Saturday November 16, 2019, not even the fear of guns, bullets and machetes will break the resolve of a people he has so Pharaonically suppressed.

And Yahaya Bello, head bowed, shoulder dropping, takes the long walk to join his ageing kinsman and mentor, Mohammed Abdulsalam Onuka, on the vacant, lonely roadway to Agassa.

* Debo Alabi is a public affairs analyst.

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