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Navigating Kogi’s confluence of conflicting interests


Kogi State Governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello.

In the early hours of November 22, 2015, barely 10 hours after the close of voting in the governorship election held the previous day, the Kogi State office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Lokoja, the state capital, was a beehive of activities.

The process of collating the results of the exercise from across the 21 local councils of the state was underway and once in a while, electoral officers were bringing their returns under police escorts into the heavily guarded office located on Marine Road.

Scores of weary reporters who had been on duty all day were keeping vigil and monitoring unfolding events while those from broadcast stations were setting up their cameras for live coverage as the process approached the climax of final announcement and declaration of the winner.

Just before dawn, they began to notice strange movements of casually dressed men in big cars with police escorts coming into the premises with telephone handsets clamped into their ears. Wearing long faces and talking in hushed tones, they seemed to be engaged in something much more serious than the business at hand.

Unknown to many at that moment, especially the thousands of voters that took part in the exercise and other high stakeholders in the Kogi project, Abubakar Audu, the Prince of Ogbonicha and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the election, who was already coasting home to victory judging by the unauthorized results in the public domain, had passed on some three hours earlier.

The story was that the moment Audu, the state’s most flambouyant politician breathed his last, a powerful leader of the APC in the South West who had played a big role in the election contest especially in the choice of the running mate, was informed. He was said to have told the family to keep the information under wraps until the results of the election was officially declared.

The reason was clear. Announcement of Audu’s demise after he had been declared winner would automatically transfer the mandate to the running mate in line with Section 141 of the Electoral Act and Section 181 of the amended 1999 Constitution.

But according to the narrative that was confirmed by sources close to the family, somehow, within the hour, the information got leaked to another powerful politician from the North whose camp Audu was in the contest for the presidential ticket of the APC and who, like the South West politician, was alerted when the condition of the candidate suddenly deteriorated around midnight.

He was said to have seen in the unfortunate circumstance, a rare opportunity to block the South West politician from spreading his influence into northern territory by getting the honour and the privilege of having facilitated the emergence of a governor for Kogi State.

After making frantic consultations with other powerful elements from the region, the politician allegedly moved to stop the electoral umpire from making a declarative announcement to prevent the transfer of mandate from the dead to the living.

Since the election was adjudged peaceful by local and international observers, the only way to stop the transfer of mandate was to declare the election inconclusive to create room for further political maneuvers. The only way to do that was to invoke the INEC election guideline that recommends a rerun if the number of cancelled votes was more than the winning ones.

This particular INEC guideline, which is to deter desperate politicians from instigating crisis d cancellations of results in areas where their opponents are popular to get undue advantage, had not been invoked in a major election before and only those very conversant with the electoral system were aware of its existence.

The real mission of the casually dressed men in big cars with police escorts in that nocturnal visit to Marine Road may probably remain in the realm of speculations but what was clear by morning and later announced by INEC even before Audu’s demise was made public, was that 49,353 votes had been cancelled in 91 polling units across the state. The number of cancelled votes was conveniently more than the 41,535 votes with which Audu led his closest rival, incumbent governor Idris Wada of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The poll was therefore declared inconclusive by the electoral body.

A confluence of interests
Apart from being the location of the symbolic confluence of Nigeria’s two great rivers, Kogi, a state in the North Central geo-political zone, is contiguous to ten other states, five of which are in the three southern zones of South West, South-South and South East.

A microcosm of Nigeria with its multi-ethnic population and highest number of inter-state borders in the federation, Kogi is a melting pot of the nation’s cultural diversity.

The state is also unique for its role in Nigeria’s pre-independence history being the location of the British trading outpost that became the first settlement of colonial engagement before the 1914 Amalgamation of the Protectorates.

The uniqueness of the state’s politics however came to the fore in the last weeks of 2015 when the conduct of the gubernatorial polls became a litmus test in election management for the new APC administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and the new leadership of INEC under Professor Mahmud Yakubu.

For an agency that received global compliments for the smooth general elections that brought in the change of baton in Abuja and some states, the electoral umpire failed to sustain the accomplishment as the Kogi experience started a round of inconclusive elections that have been plaguing Nigeria’s electoral system since then.

It was also the first time that the country’s process of democracy faced the task of addressing the unprecedented and vaguely described scenario of a leading contestant dying in the middle of a voting process thereby putting the ability of the system to handle the issue to test.

Above all, the November 21 election, turned out to be the first major trial for the fragile unity of the strange bedfellows that conveniently got together to chase the PDP administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan out of power.

In the process of resolving all the issues thrown up by this exercise, intrigues and power play among the forces that control Nigeria’s levers of politics took the centre stage and Kogi became the battleground for the supremacy tussle that ensued between the forces.

In the ensued battle, incumbent governor Yahya Bello, an Ebira man from the central senatorial district who was the runner-up in the primary election, was picked by the national leadership of the APC against strident protests from the camp of Audu and his running mate, James Faleke whose ambition was sacrificed on the alter of political exigency, insisting on the indivisibility of the mandate and accusing Bello of anti-party activities for losing his ward to the PDP during the election.

In fact, Bello whose emergence as the governor caused the much-touted power shift from Kogi East that had been producing occupiers of the top seat since the state’s creation was alleged to have worked against the APC during the election.

After the primary election, he was also alleged to have toyed with the idea of flying the flag of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and was actually instrumental to the submission of the name of the party’s candidate to INEC to secure the slot pending his declaration.

Although the December 5 rerun poll sealed the deal in favour of Bello, who garnered just a few over 6000 votes to clinch the seat, attempts by the camp of Audu which brought the outlandish proposal of the son of the deceased politician inheriting his father’s mandate and Faleke’s suit against the exercise which he pursued to the apex court, failed to change the situation.

The insistence of INEC to stick to its declaration of the earlier election as inconclusive despite the fact that only about 25,000 of voters were eligible to vote in the exercise that had less than 40 percent voter participation and the APC decision to field Bello, have also been traced to the politics of presidential election primary of the party during which Audu and his group did not support Buhari.

Since Bello’s inauguration however, the cracks within the state’s political structure, especially that of the APC, which appeared during the controversial election, has continued to widen thereby pitching the various camps further apart from each other with consequences for party and individual ambitions.

Instead of finding a way to bring members of the party who were truly aggrieved for working for someone to take the trophy, the governor is said to have continued to alienate them by closing the doors of his administration, an allegation that sources close to the governor has denied.

The cracks within
As it is, the ruling APC has been separated along the three divides of supporters of Bello, who are mainly those who did not participate in the Audu election, the Audu/Faleke group which is still aggrieved about the whole process and the Dino Melaye faction which initially threw its weight behind Bello but has now parted ways with the governor.

Melaye who represented Kogi West Senatorial District where Faleke hails from, was one of the frontline supporters of the governor who took it upon himself to fire many verbal salvos against the South West leadership of the APC for trying to install Faleke, who still represents Lagos at the House of Representatives.

In what played out as a supremacy contest over the political control of Kogi West, made up mainly of the Okun people, a Yoruba sub-group, between Melaye and Faleke, the senator denied his kinsman the needed support and was reported to have said that “the people of Kogi voted for Audu but God chose Bello, anybody that is against him is against God.”

Melaye however parted ways with the governor four months into the administration when the senator was allegedly sidelined in the composition of local council administrators, a deft move to checkmate his growing influence and deny him the control of local politics in his domain.

Constituents in Melaye’s Kogi West District are however united against the other two districts in the clamour for the replacement of James Ocholi, the Minister of State for Labour and Productivity who died in a car accident on March 6, 2016 few weeks after Bello’s January 27 inauguration.

Their position, which has been made public at several fora, is that since the governor is from the Central and his Deputy, Simon Achuba is from the East; the West should produce the Minister.

This is against the arguments of politicians from Audu’s Kogi East who also claim that since the deceased Minister who hailed from Dekina local council was from their area, the replacement should come from the place to placate the people, who with the loss of Audu and the governorship seat, deserve a sense of belonging.

The late Audu was arguably the most experienced politician from the state having been governor after the creation of the state during the aborted Third Republic and at the start of the current dispensation in 1999. After losing his 2003 re-election bid, Audu also had two unsuccessful attempts to stage a comeback before death robbed him of the trophy on the night of his success.

Having lost someone of such a big political status on the verge of victory, a situation made more tragic by the painful death, four months later of Ocholi, who was another star from the area, Kogi East politicians, rising from a stakeholder’s meeting in Lokoja, demanded that the zone should produce the new minister.

But the politics of the minister’s replacement seems deeper than the tussle between the two contending senatorial districts because member of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), one of the platforms that collapsed into the APC which has been enjoying preferential treatment from Buhari, not only in Kogi but also in some other states of the federation, still see the position as their right. The CPC entered the alignment that culminated in the formation of the APC towards the 2015 presidential elections with Buhari as its leader.

On the other side of political party divides, the mainstream PDP that had been in power for the better part of the state’s contemporary politics are believed to be preparing a return to the Government House in the 2019 elections.

Although some of its leading members were part of the formation of the APC, they are believed to be having a rethink because of the need to have a formidable platform to retrieve power from the current holders.

Indeed if there is anything that almost all the movers and shakers in Kogi politics are united about, it is their desire to have a change of baton in 2019 and intense politics towards that have already began.

At a press conference in Abuja last month to appraise the state of affairs in the one year of Bello in the saddle, some stakeholders led by Melaye alleged that the governor had brought “unprecedented hardship” to the people.

The conference, which was attended by the state APC Chairman, 20 out of 35 members of the party’s executive committee and local council party chairmen among other prominent leaders, accused Bello of “maladministration and high-handedness resulting in system failure in the education, security and economic sectors of the state.”

But the governor speaking through his media aide, Kingsley Fanwo said the critics rose against him because he had blocked all avenues of corruption through which politicians fleece the system.

According to him, “Popularity secured through the protection of corrupt practices and corrupt individuals can never last. Between such popularity and saving Kogi from ruins, the government of Kogi State has chosen the latter.”

In the midst of this, former Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Clarence Obafemi, has offered to facilitate the resolution of the crisis within the party as he called on the governor and the aggrieved stakeholders to give peace a chance.

According to him, “The way out is that we still have elders like me that are not taking sides. Senator Melaye is my man whom I worked for during his campaign, Alhaji Yahaya is my governor, I supported him the day the party presented him as replacement for late Prince Abubakar Audu as governor and I have remained with him. I am capable of bringing peace to the APC but the governor, Melaye and others must agree to peace.”

How far he can go in achieving this peace agenda depends on the disposition of the stakeholders in the state’s political field before real politicking for 2019 begins.

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