Bello, the white lion turned hunted squirrel

In Nigeria’s political space, few leaders have commanded attention quite like Yahaya Bello, the immediate-past governor of Kogi state. Relatively unknown before his meteoric ascent to power, his youthful demeanour endeared him to the people, heralding a new era from the politics of the old.

Following the death of Kogi state All Progressives Congress, APC, governor-elect, Abubakar Audu, during the gubernatorial election in November 2015, there was a dramatic turn of events, leaving a power vacuum and plunging the state into uncertainty.

In the midst of grief and chaos, Yahaya Bello emerged as a polarising figure, ultimately ascending the governorship and reshaping the political landscape of Kogi state. Enamoured by his political bravado, Bello took the moniker of the ‘White Lion’.

Bello, a relatively young and untested politician, suddenly found himself thrust into the spotlight, tasked with leading the state at a time of deep uncertainty and confusion.

Bold, charismatic, and often controversial, Bello’s rise to prominence seemed destined to culminate in a legacy of power and influence. Yet, as the sands of time shifted and the winds of fortune changed, the once-mighty ‘White Lion’ recently found himself transformed into a hunted squirrel, navigating a treacherous landscape of adversity and uncertainty with various cases of alleged fraud and other malfeasance traced to his administration. This has led to a huge “Bello-hunt” by the the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, the anti-graft agency.

The first sign of trouble for the Yahaya Bello administration was the refusal of his deputy-elect, Hon.  James Abiodun Faleke, to accept the position of deputy governor and, for the first time in Nigeria’s political history, an elected governor would be inaugurated without a deputy.

Faleke, who was the running mate to Abubakar Audu in the 2015 Kogi state gubernatorial election, objected to the party’s decision and approached the election tribunal in the state, asking it to declare him governor-elect. He contended that the election had been won and lost before Audu died and that he (Faleke) should have been pronounced governor-elect.

Bello’s ascension to the governorship was met with both optimism and skepticism. Supporters hailed him as a dynamic and visionary leader, a breathe of fresh air in the polluted Kogi state political atmosphere,   capable of steering the Confluence State towards a brighter future. Critics, however, questioned his credentials and suitability for the role, pointing to his lack of experience and the cloud of controversy that surrounded his candidacy.

Yet, despite the doubts and challenges that lay ahead, Bello remained undaunted, determined to prove his critics wrong and fulfill the mandate entrusted to him by the people of Kogi state.

One of the primary challenges Bello faced during his eight years tenure was the specter of alleged corruption and mismanagement. Several allegations of corruption swirled around his administration, tarnishing his reputation and eroding public trust. The once-vaunted ‘White Lion’ now found himself ensnared in the traps of his own making, as scandals and controversies threatened to consume his legacy.

For a few weeks now, the EFCC has been on Bello’s trail. The anti-graft agency had declared him wanted regarding the alleged disappearance of about N80bn from the state treasury during his eight-year as governor. 

A mild drama however played out on April 17, 2024, when operatives of the EFCC made a futile attempt to execute an arrest warrant at the residence of the former governor in Abuja.

The anti-graft agency’s operatives, which had arrived Bello’s residence in Wuse Zone 4, Abuja, were obstructed by police personnel attached to the house.

The stand-off lasted about seven hours after it was suspected that the incumbent Kogi state Governor Usman Ododo had sneaked Bello out of the house in his official car.

Several court cases have however ensued between the EFCC and the former governor since attempts are being made to get him to answer to several charges of alleged corruption during his administration of the state.

Besides the alleged N80 billion fraud the EFCC is hanging on Bello, the agency is also accusing him of money laundering involving over N10 billion, following years of beaming its searchlight on him and family members.

The commission’s longtime investigations of the former governor had resulted in the alleged N10 billion money laundering charges it instituted against his nephew, Ali Bello, and a co-defendant in 2022.

The prosecution named former Governor Bello in one of the newly introduced counts as an accomplice, but not as a defendant.

The EFCC accused Bello of conspiring with Ali Bello, Dauda Suleiman and Abdusalam Hudu to convert over N80 billion belonging to Kogi state to their personal use. The case, which has seen EFCC call witnesses to testify, is before Justice James Omotosho of the Federal High Court, Abuja.

Besides the fraud charges against  Bello, his administration was also known to be notorious in not paying  salaries of civil servants  running into months while Bello and other elected and political appointees allegedly made Abuja their permanent base where they squander the resources of the state in riotous living. 

His deputy, Simon Achuba, once stated that he is being owed over N800 million by the Bello administration, an allegation the then governor promptly denied,  challenged  Achuba, his then deputy,  to head to court if he believes he has a case.

The governor in a statement by his spokesperson, Kingsley Fanwo, said the salaries of the deputy governor had been paid up to the same date as that of the governor and other political office holders in the state.

The governor was to later admit that some of the claims of the deputy governor have not been paid because they were either not approved or there were no funds to pay them.

Bello’s leadership style was characterised by a combative and divisive approach, alienating allies and adversaries. His penchant for political brinkmanship and confrontation only served to exacerbate tensions within his own party and the wider political scene, further isolating him from potential allies.

Indeed, Bello’s tenure stands as a stark reminder of the perilous consequences of placing authority in the hands of the undeserving.  Bello was a master of deception, cloaking his incompetence and self-interest behind a facade of false promises and hollow rhetoric.

Yet, beneath this veneer lies a dangerous reality, one that serves as a cautionary tale for societies embracing leaders lacking in integrity, vision, and competence.

One of the most glaring manifestations of Bello’s mediocrity was his failure to prioritise the needs of the state. Instead of focusing on key areas that will help in improving the livability index of the state such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and job creation, his administration was mired in petty politics, cronyism, and self-aggrandizement.

Public resources were allegedly squandered on frivolous projects and personal indulgences, while the basic needs of the populace were not attended to.

Bello’s leadership style was characterised by incompetence, braggadocio and vendetta. Rather than surrounding himself with knowledgeable advisors and subject matter experts, he surrounded himself with sycophants. He elevated cronyism to an art in Kogi state and deployed instruments of terror against anyone who refused to worship at his altar. He operated as an emperor who can do and undo without accountability.

As a result, critical decisions were made haphazardly, without due consideration for their long-term consequences or the interests of the people.

Instead of answering to the charges of alleged corruption while in office, Bello had sought help from the APC administration calling on President Bola Tinubu to “call EFCC to order”. He has also been using media and other platforms to sway public opinion in his favour, a mission that has failed woefully as the citizens insist he comes out of hiding and answer to acts of alleged misdemeanour when he was in office.

Bello has continued to use the incumbent governor of Kogi state to evade justice, further undermining the foundations of democracy and good governance.

As the walls closed in around him, Bello has now found himself increasingly isolated and vulnerable, like a hunted squirrel scrambling for safety in a hostile forest. His once-loyal supporters are said to have deserted him; disillusioned by broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.

Meanwhile, political opponents are circling like vultures, eager to capitalise on his downfall.

In the end, Bello’s tenure as governor came to an ignominious end. The ‘White Lion’ had been vanquished, his roar reduced to a whimper as he slunk away into obscurity, leaving behind a legacy of disappointment and despair.

Amidst the ruins of his political career, there lingers a lesson for all aspiring leaders – a cautionary tale of the perils of hubris and arrogance, and the dangers of losing sight of the true essence of leadership. For Yahaya Bello, the journey from power to obscurity serves as an unambiguous reminder that in the unforgiving jungle of politics, even the mightiest of beasts can be brought low by their own folly.

The weight of corruption and embezzlement charges against Bello is a big blow to the “Not too Young” to run movement as a youth in politics has failed the integrity test. The hitherto poster boy of youth in politics has turned an albatross and a huge disappointment.

Kalu Okoronkwo,  a good governance and leadership advocate, writes from Abuja via [email protected]