Nigeria’s next presidential election is in 2023, which means there are still two years before the poll.
Though the election is still some miles away, politicians interested in the presidential seat have started building alliances, reviving old political catchphrases like the perennial call for restructuring, power shift and the unending quest for ethno-religious consideration in power distribution, among others.
Aside chorusing old sentiments that seem to resonate with the populace whenever elections are nigh, potential aspirants have started testing the waters by sending out their foot soldiers, shadowy groups and emissaries to start mobilising support for them across board.
One of such early birds is the governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, a graduate of accounting from Northern Nigeria’s premier university, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Not counting the politically undiscerning, only a few Nigerians were shocked recently when his posters bearing different jocular inscriptions written in popular Nigerian lingos snaked into the public space, depicting his interest in becoming President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor in 2023.
For his initial introduction into the presidential ring via the posters, Mr Bello was largely a butt of ridiculous jokes and sarcasm by netizens of the country’s ubiquitous social media.
By the way, Mr Bello, 45, had denied it flatly last year when Kingsley Fanwo, his commissioner for information, said the governor was under pressure to vie for the number one political seat in the country.
Of course, as history has shown, most Nigerian leaders always initially denied their political ambitions until much later when the coast was clear. Moreover, they always say they are under pressure from their associates, friends and communities to run for elective offices.
Despite Mr Bello’s initial denial, his quest to be president in 2023 is beginning to gather momentum, courtesy of the activities of some of his political associates essentially from Kogi State, both online and offline.
Associates drumming support for Bello
In the interim, the most notable group of people working for the ‘Bello for President Project’ are the state’s lawmakers elected on the platform of the governor’s party, APC.
Shortly after the governor presented his budget 2021 proposal to the lawmakers last year, they passed a resolution, urging him to run for president.
True to their vow to mobilise support for the governor, early January, the lawmakers were in Plateau State to seek the support of their counterparts in the state for Mr Bello, in his latest political preoccupation.
Last week, the lawmakers, again, led by their speaker, Mathew Kolawole, met their counterparts in Kwara State and also interfaced with Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq on the need to support Mr Bello to become Nigeria’s president, come 2023.
The lawmakers’ message was unambiguous: it is the turn of the North-central to produce the president in 2023. In addition, they said Mr Bello is qualified in every ramification, going by the quality of leadership he is offering in his state, as well as his unifying roles in the APC at the national level.
Whether out of courtesy or sincerity, Mr AbdulRazaq praised Mr Bello’s efforts in bringing development to Kogi State while also emphasising that the North-central has long been denied its due in the Nigerian federation.
Mr AbdulRazaq said contrary to social media criticisms of Mr Bello, his visits to Kogi State show that the governor is bringing physical development to Kogi and making giant strides in maintaining security in the state that was once a haven of daredevil criminals.
Although the Kwara helmsman did not give an outright endorsement to Mr Bello’s ambition, he nevertheless offered a clue that his counterpart from Kogi State can always rely on him.
Besides the lawmakers who are doing a yeoman’s job to sell Mr Bello’s political credentials for the country’s plum job, he has a legion of online warriors, most of them based in Kogi, who continually tout his qualifications and suitability for the job.
Like the state legislators, these cyber campaigners, mostly in their 30s and early 40s, argue that it is the turn of the North-central zone to produce the president and that Mr Bello, by all metrics of assessment, is shoulders above every other person in the zone to become one.
As the country inches towards 2023, so is the call growing louder for presidential power to shift back to the south.
Although power rotation between the north and south is not enshrined in the 1999 Constitution or expressly stated in the constitutions of the two main political parties – PDP and APC – there is an understanding among the political elite that power should always swing between the two regions in order to avoid one lording it over the other.
Against the foregoing, therefore, if the common understanding of power shift between the two blocs is to be sustained, the next president has to come from the south because the incumbent, Mr Buhari, from the north, will complete his two-term tenure of eight years in 2023.
That said, there is a latent conundrum about the call for power shift to the south: where exactly among the three geopolitical zones in the region? Each of the zones is interested and has a compelling argument as to why it is more deserving of the seat.
Nigeria has six geopolitical zones with the two regions having three each. The north has North-east, North-west and North-central while the south has South-west South-east and South-south.
Since the country returned to constitutional democracy in 1999, only the North-central and South-east have not produced a president or vice-president.
That fact about the North-central is one of the best tools the ‘Bello for President’ canvassers are deploying to advance the interest of their principal.
It remains to be seen how the power shift game will pan out eventually as it is too early to make a definitive call on where the pendulum will swing.
Those rooting for Mr Bello say he is young, vibrant and agile and as such will be able to steer the ship of the country with all the vigour and energy it deserves, unlike the incumbent, who once acknowledged that age has weakened his ability to discharge his constitutional responsibilities.
They said Mr Bello becoming the president will align with the silent agitation of the Nigerian youth who want one of them to become president.
A youth group has even declared it would force Mr Bello to declare his interest to be the next occupant of Aso Rock, while another, North Central Coalition for Leadership (NCCL), promised to buy the APC expression of intent and nomination forms for the governor.
His supporters say he has already demonstrated what he can do at the national level through his cabinet picks in Kogi, which is significantly populated by young men and women.
Be that as it may, it is uncertain if Nigerians are ready to elect a president younger than 50 years in 2023. The two leading candidates in the 2019 election were men in their 70s.
Before Mr Bello’s coming to power in 2016, Kogi was a haven for violent criminals, especially high-grade kidnappers.
A year or two into his administration, the volume of crimes and criminalities in the state was said to have reduced, even if marginally, although those in the opposition and his critics say otherwise.
The governor’s supporters said he has shown kidnappers and cultists hell in the state.
For his commitment to stem the tide of insecurity in the state, Ibrahim Idris, a former inspector-general of police, named him the Best Governor of the Year on Security in 2016, an award the PDP described as undeserving.
Similarly, his supporters recalled that the Northern Governors’ Forum chose him to head the forum’s security committee because of his achievements in the sector in Kogi.
Among the 36 state governors, Mr Bello is said to be one of the most gender-sensitive in terms of distribution of appointments and political offices.
It was during his term in office that a woman was appointed for the first time ever in the state as Secretary to the State Government, in the person of Folashade Ayoade. The state’s Head of Service is also a woman.
Mr Bello is also the first governor in the state to appoint a female chief press secretary during his first term in office. His current Aide-de-Camp is a woman too.
The vice-chairpersons in all the 21 local governments in the state are female, also a first-time occurrence in the state. Some local commentators said the governor deliberately persuaded his party to pick women as deputies to the chairpersons.
A United Nations body, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, recently commended Mr Bello for facilitating the election of women as deputy chairpersons of all the local councils in the state.
In a commendation letter dated January 26 sent to the governor, UN Women Representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Comfort Lamptey, described the appointment as a ”bold effort” on the part of the state government.
Ms Lamptey, in her letter, asked the governor for a meeting with him on how the body could help Kogi State in promoting issues that have to do with the female gender.
Interestingly, however, a group, Emerge Women Leaders in Nigeria, criticised the commendation letter, urging the UN to withdraw it with immediate effect based on what the group described as an act of illegality on the part of the governor.
The group said rather than allow the women to run for elective offices, the governor decided to shunt their participation by choosing them as deputies.
Also, the group said the reelection of the governor in 2019 took the life of a woman, Salome Acheju Abuh, a PDP woman leader, who was burnt to death in her house after the election. It also cited the malicious attack on Natasha Akpoti, the gubernatorial candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in the election.
Before the UN commendation letter to Mr Bello, a non-governmental organisation, the National Council for Women Societies (NCWS), had also conferred an award on him for promoting gender inclusiveness in his cabinet, though the PDP condemned the award saying Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike was more deserving of it, going by the number of women, elected and appointed, holding different positions in the state.
While Mr Bello and his supporters say has done well as governor in terms of improved security, infrastructural development, among others, his critics say he is the worst governor the state has produced.
They said Mr Bello has squandered the enormous goodwill that heralded his coming to power by failing to leverage on the momentum through quality performance in office.
One major dark spot of his administration, especially during his first term in office, was the endless staff verification exercise his government embarked upon.
The exercise left many civil servants unpaid for months to the extent that some died because they could not take care of their health.
But things have changed in that area. A lecturer in one of the state-owned institutions who did not want his name mentioned told this newspaper that the state government has improved in salary payment in recent times.
Both online and offline, except for his associates and supporters alike, many Nigerians do not appear to take Mr Bello seriously. In fact, some see him as a comedian just passing time in office and not ready for the real business of organic governance.
Unfortunately for Mr Bello, this negative perception is beginning to assume a life of its own as it is often said that in politics, perception is reality.
Although Mr Bello won the 2019 governorship election in the state according to INEC, which was also judicially affirmed by the courts, many reports by local and international observers decried the way he achieved reelection.
The election was characterised by violence and claimed a couple of lives, including that of the PDP woman leader in Igalaland in Kogi East senatorial district.
The PDP and the SDP said Mr Bello would not have won the November 2019 election but for the violence he allegedly unleashed on the opposition and electoral manipulation.
Mr Bello is also believed to be one of those slammed with visa restrictions by the U.S. because of his roles in the 2019 general election in the state where members of the opposition were gagged, harassed and assaulted by non-state actors believed to be loyal to him.
Regardless of whether the North-central has never produced the president or even the VP since 1999 or not, the zone is still considered a part of the north where power would have stayed for eight years by 2023. This ordinarily implies that power should shift to the south in the next presidential contest, other things being equal.
The question then will be: if power is shifting to the south, will Mr Bello qualify to vie for the seat of the president, given that he is a northerner?
Presidential quest a ruse?
Some analysts say Mr Bello’s real desire may be to become the running mate to whoever his party picks from the south, having realised it is only fair for power to return to the south in 2023 in the spirit of equity.
If Mr Bello’s real quest is to become VP, then some commentators say he stands a good chance. As a Muslim, he can run with a Christian candidate from the south as there is also the need for religious balancing in picking candidates for the country’s two topmost political positions.
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