ANALYSIS: In high-stakes Kogi governorship election, referendum on Yahaya Bello’s chaotic tenure looms over candidates’ prospects
When Yahaya Bello assumed office in 2016, the people of Kogi felt they had a rare opportunity to redefine leadership at the state level. Only 40 when he was sworn in, seemingly affable and objectively lucky to have earned the fortunes that sudden death seized from Abubakar Audu.
But as his second term breezes out on January 27, 2024, Mr Bello’s reign has brought more controversies than many residents said they could bear. He started with a rudderless attempt to prune the state’s bloated payroll and ended with serious corruption charges after the nation’s top anti-graft office EFCC said he used his wife and other cronies to siphon billions in state funds into his business interest at home and overseas.
Poverty has worsened in the state since Mr Bello assumed office on January 27, 2016, with public finance analysis firm Dataphyte finding that over 61 per cent of residents were living in multidimensional poverty as of mid-2023. This more than doubled about 30 per cent of the state’s population under the same conditions in 2019.
These and more would agitate minds when approximately 1.9 million registered voters besiege polling stations across Kogi to choose a new governor on Saturday, one of the three off-cycle statewide elections that will be keenly contested that day. Governors Duoye Diri in Bayelsa and Hope Uzodimma in Imo are also facing reelection challenges.
In Kogi, there are 18 candidates on the ballot Saturday, of which only one is a woman, Suleiman Taiye Fatima of Zenith Labour Party (ZLP). At 40 years old, Muhammad Umar from the Boot Party, is the youngest candidate.
Yet, the race has been largely seen as a three-horse exercise between Usman Ododo of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Dino Melaye of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Murtala Ajaka of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), 1.8 million people have obtained their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), while about 100,000 PVCs have not been collected.
In this election, there have been concerns about state-wide violence and crime. However, INEC has guaranteed a free and fair election in Kogi, with results transmitted electronically to 2,548 polling places in 239 wards throughout 21 local government areas.
As with most elections in Nigeria, Peoples Gazette expects factors bordering on finance, security, political clout, incumbent authority, and ethnic sentiment to play out in Kogi.
How candidates stack up
Based on the political campaigns and media dominance wielded by the front-runners, it is clear that there will be three candidates in the race, with Mr Ododo, the candidate of the ruling APC, emerging as the clear favourite, although not because voters were comfortable with his political godfather, Mr Bello.
Fears have recently intensified across the state that Mr Bello might wield his power of incumbency to push his anointed candidate, Mr Ododo, over the top —even if it involves employing violence, ballot-snatching and other crooked tactics— as was the case in the 2019 elections where he won re-election despite the outcry of observers that the elections were not fair.
Mr Ododo hails from Okene, the South Central Senatorial District comprising only five local governments —the least of three districts in the state. The LGs are Adavi, Ajaokuta, Okehi, Okene and Ogori-Mangogo. Outgoing governor Bello is also an Okene native.
The APC contender says he’s been assured of victory, asserting the outgoing governor did well in his two terms and that the people would reward the party with their votes.
“As for us in the APC, we know we are winning. Governor Yahaya Bello has done the people proud and it is time to reward the party,” Mr Ododo said while addressing journalists on Tuesday.
Mr Ajaka is considered a strong contender because he hails from Kogi East Senatorial District, which has the highest number of local governments in Kogi. The district comprises Idah, Ibaji, Igalamela-Odolu, Ofu, Dekina, Ankpa, Olamaboro, Basa and Omala, making up nearly 50 per cent of the total registered voters in Kogi.
According to INEC pre-election data, this region is home to over 900,000 of the 1.9 million Kogi registered voters. Should they all vote for the SDP, Mr Ajaka’s victory is all but guaranteed.
Mr Ajaka accused Mr Bello of attempting to assassinate him, claiming that, in the early hours of Tuesday, gunmen opened fire on the home where he was supposed to spend the night in Ayangba in Dekina LGA.
“They thought I was there; their target was to get me assassinated,” Mr Ajaka said on social media, estimating that the attack occurred between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. The Gazette was unable to independently verify the claim, and a police spokesman delayed comments.
The SDP standard-bearer said 23 people, including three police officers, had died as a result of the attack on Tuesday and begged President Bola Tinubu to replace the heads of security agencies like the State Security Service, navy, and police, saying they were all compromised.
“Both the head of the navy, DSS and the police have been compromised. They are recruiting thugs moving around with them. They want to eliminate me. I have survived 30 attacks. They want to kill me before the election,” Mr Ajaka said at a presser in Abuja on Wednesday.
Mr Melaye, a former senator from Kogi West district and PDP gubernatorial flag bearer, says he intends to reunite the people first, asserting they had become sharply polarised under Mr Bello’s contentious leadership.
According to Mr Melaye, the disunity in Kogi inspired his campaign slogan, ‘One Kogi, One Destiny’.
“I have never heard of the Igala, Okun, or Ebira agenda,” Mr Melaye said on an Arise TV programme last month. He said the divide-and-rule tactic of the APC would immediately end if he emerged the winner of the Saturday election.
Like the SDP candidate, Mr Melaye also claimed to be a survivor of four assassination attempts, asserting the APC to be violent in intimidating opponents.
“I have survived four assassination attempts; I have been attacked several times. It is not new, as it is in the DNA of the APC to be violent,” the PDP candidate said on October 13.
Overall, Mr Melaye believes himself to be the messiah Kogi people need to rescue the state from the clutches of underdevelopment, disunity and poverty.
Natasha Akpoti, who recently drew large crowds in the wake of Appeal Court’s ruling confirming her election as Kogo senator, is also expected to help Mr Melaye pick up votes in the central parts of the state.
But his candidacy might be imperilled by ADC’s Leke Abejide, another governorship hopeful, also a native of Kogi West district comprising seven local governments —Kaba Bunu, Kogi-Koto Karfe, Mopa Muro, Ijumu, Yagba East, Yagba West and Lokoja.
Mr Abejide, aka Elder Leke, is the African Democratic Congress (ADC) candidate and a staunch advocate of President Bola Tinunu’s ‘Renewed Hope’ platform. It is possible for voters in this district to split their votes for Messrs Melaye and Abejide, which would reduce the PDP’s chances of winning.
Despite having a running mate from Igalaland, Mr Ajibaje, who represents the Yagba East/Yagba West/Mopa-Muro federal constituency, is generally not deemed a serious threat to his rivals.
History of voter turnout
Data indicates that Kogi has consistently had low voter turnout every election season, even with many voter cards.
Dataphyte, a Nigerian data platform, conducted a study ahead of the November 11 election and found that three in every five voters might not vote on Saturday, indicating a high rate of voter apathy.
For example, Kogi had 1.33 million registered voters for the 2011 gubernatorial election. However, just 518,949 people voted on election day, amounting to a pitiful 39 per cent voter turnout.
The number of people registered to vote rose from 1.33 million to 1.38 million in 2015, a 4 per cent rise. However, from 39 to 37 per cent, there was a 2 per cent drop in voter turnout. Furthermore, just two out of every five voters who were registered to do so actually cast ballots in the state’s 2015 gubernatorial election.
In other words, three out of every five registered voters did not vote.
In the 2019 election, 1.65 million people were registered to vote, a 19 per cent rise from the previous election. However, over a million of the 1.65 million voters registered did not turn up to vote. With only 624,514 voters, the voter turnout was a mere 38 per cent, with two out of every five eligible voters participating in the election.
Kogi state has a history of state-wide violence during elections, which jeopardises the electoral process as well as the safety of voters, security personnel and ad hoc staff. In the past, such violence has been perpetuated through the use of thuggery, intimidation, ballot box snatching, and conflicts between competing factions.
This history of violence has produced a tense and hostile environment during elections, raising questions about the next elections’ integrity and impartiality.
The last off-season elections, particularly in Kogi, which returned Governor Yahaya Bello for his second and final term in 2019, were marred by widespread violence and electoral fraud, according to media reports and election observers.
Many polling units, particularly in Lokoja, Ganaja, the Ajaokuta axis, and many other parts of the state, were hotbeds of violence, with at least two notable observer groups, YIAGA and Situation Room, advocating for the Kogi elections to be cancelled completely.
Witness reports from the elections claimed that the two individuals were killed as voters stood up to face hoodlums. Additionally, a police squad tasked with securing the Ugwolawo community in Ofu local government was reportedly ambushed by a group of thugs believed to be contracted by the ruling party.
But as voters prepare to cast their ballots on Saturday to choose Kogi’s fifth democratically elected governor, there is concern about a recurrence of violence.
Their fears are not misplaced, as the state shivers in a fever of violence in recent months. Kogi is notorious for its propensity for electoral violence based on historical data and the current security situation, according to a report, ‘Nigeria’s 2023 State Elections: Mirroring Hotspot States’ by Nextier, a local democracy think-tank.
“On July 24, 2023, arsonists burnt down the Social Democratic Party campaign office in Lokoja, the capital of Kogi state. On July 10, 2023, it was reported that suspected thugs invaded the SDP campaign office and destroyed billboards, showing the picture of President Bola Tinubu alongside the SDP governorship candidate,” said the report.
It added, “On June 3, 2023, the Kogi State SDP governorship candidate, Muritala Ajaka, escaped assassination by whiskers when gunmen attacked his convoy.
“A similar attack was reported on Governor Yahaya Bello’s convoy, allegedly by the supporters of the SDP, where some aides of the governor were said to have been injured. The security situation in Kogi has attained mind-boggling proportions.”
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