As the race towards the 2023 general elections starts to gather momentum, albeit unofficially, indications are that the polls will throw up a rather interesting line up for the top prize, which is the presidency. The race is likely to pitch members of the entrenched old guard, politicians who have played prominent roles and held high office since the return to democratic rule in 1999 or even beyond against some young Turks, who have in recent times emerged as leaders in their own right and are pushing for a significant power shift towards the younger generation.
The recent #EndSARS debacle also appears to have demonstrated the power of the youth to force social change by at least bringing to an end the reign of terror inflicted on young Nigerians by a notorious arm of the police, even if it all descended into a fiasco marked by riots and looting. Ominously, the events also show that public anger, articulated by an usually apathetic middle class and acted out on the streets by youths plagued by poverty and hopelessness can also be galvanized as a potent political force.
The question then may be; which set of political actors can take advantage of this? As it is, some of the notable names coming up include APC leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; Kaduna Governor Nasir el-Rufai; Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State; Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State; Yahaha Bello of Kogi, former Senate President, Bukola Saraki and even Atiku Abubakar, the PDP candidate in 2019, who may be contesting for the fifth time.
However, things still look a bit fuzzy as the main political parties, especially the ruling APC, which clearly has an upper hand as at today, still have to deal with the knotty issue of zoning – an unofficial gentlemen’s agreement that power should rotate between the North and the South even as as key Northern politicians are showing interest. For some observers, the northern push to retain power despite zoning is based on the fact that the presidential election cannot be won without northern bloc votes, estimated at 44.8 million compared with South’s 39.1 million.
The generally higher voter turnout in the north west and north east compared with the south south and south east, which largely accounted for Buhari’s victories in 2015 and 2019, might also just weaken the case for zoning and the northern candidate can simply inherit the northern bloc votes while other candidates divide what’s left in the south. Of course, the southern politicians are insisting that this agreement be kept as the south west, led by Tinubu, paved the way for Buhari’s ascendancy while the south east has been clamouring for a shot as well having never had that opportunity.
Indeed, this potential face off had been predicted in October 2019 by a former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Linda Thomas- Greenfield who had described Nigeria’s politics as “an old men’s club” and anticipated that the next election in 2023 will be “a challenging one because of a gentleman’s agreement to rotate power.” With the elections certain to hold under the clouds of a fragile economy worsened by a pandemic induced recession and oil price volatility, rising inflation and poverty levels as well as the alarming insecurity nationwide, the perception that the “old men’s club” has failed and is only fixated on power for power’s sake has increasingly gained traction even in the north, which is worse affected.
The general clamour is for leaders that can galvanize Nigeria and Nigerians to become effective, efficient and competitive players in the 21st century world, defined by innovation, tech and new ways of doing business and creating wealth.
The upside is that a new kind of leadership that is required appears to be emerging, one that is sufficiently experienced in power politics and occupied high office but not particularly rooted in the past. Looking at the field of play, Yayaya Bello, the current Kogi State governor clearly fits that bill and in his characteristic manner has minced no words in indicating his interest on the prompting of yet to be identified backers, which many feel will emerge in no time. While it is easy for skeptics to dismiss Bello’s candidacy given his tendency to embrace controversy, this possibility is worth examining in detail.
First, Bello’s emergence as Kogi governor was fortuitous, coming on the back of the sudden demise of Abubakar Audu, the former governor, who was set to win the gubernatorial election in 2015. Rather than elevate his running mate, James Faleke, to the substantive post replacement candidate, the APC leaders chose Bello, already a wealthy businessman and chartered accountant, to run in a supplementary election, which he won to became the youngest ever elected governor at 39. Over time, the Kogi governor has shown that he is not one to shy away from taking hard decisions, which has pitched him against civil servants in the state. His argument has always been that workers who do not earn their pay cannot have scarce resources expended on them which has ultimately resulted in better accountability in wage administration in the state.
Again, the Kogi governor also appears to have scored high marks in tackling insecurity in the state with crime, especially kidnapping and highway robberies falling drastically in recent months on the notorious highways connecting the south to the north while he has overseen improvements in IGR and investments in agriculture, education and infrastructure in his five years in office. Bello has markedly advanced the cause of women, appointing a significant number to high office, ensured that positions of deputy local government chairmen are reserved for women, providing free healthcare for pregnant women and has campaigned for equal rewards for members of the highly successful national female football team, the Super Falcons with the Super Eagles. He even has a female aide-de-camp! Perhaps what has put Bello in the news more than anything else is his controversial stance on COVID-19 which he insists does not exist, especially as far as his state is concerned.
Bello has questioned why COVID-19 vaccines were being produced in less than one year when there is no vaccine yet for HIV, malaria, cancer and for several other deadly diseases. Virtually no infection and Covidrelated deaths have been reported in the state, which the federal health authorities attribute to non-testing, but so far, he has not been proven wrong as well.
Interestingly, the highly influential General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Enoch Adeboye, tacitly endorsed Bello’s position describing him as a “man of faith”. Also very important is that Bello, being from Kogi neither belongs to the core north nor falls within the ranks of the southern campaigners for power rotation and his candidacy might just resolve that question. He is also a strong ally of President Buhari whose endorsement is critical for any candidate that will fly the APC flag in 2023.
In declaring his interest to run, Bello cites promptings by youths and women as well as an ”objective elite”. He may yet run as a unifying factor with youth on his side, his origin and zone he represents, and not being a stranger to the forces that hold the levers of Nigeria’s power politics.