Nigeria: COVID-19, Governor Bello and Limits of Demagoguery

2 July 2020
opinion

Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello, is an interesting character. At 45 (he was born on June 18, 1975), he is presently the youngest state governor in Nigeria. When he assumed office on January 27, 2016, after he was declared governor following the death of the winner of the 2015 Kogi governorship election, former Governor Abubakar Audu, he was just 41 years.

In a country where the common refrain by many when discussing political leadership has been the "recycling of old, tired leaders without fresh ideas", Bello's governorship was seen as a positive development despite the controversy that heralded his ascension to power. He was young, educated and looked urbane. Many had hoped that he would be the breath of fresh air which the rancid political environment sorely needed.

He has turned out to be the exact opposite, disappointing woefully. Tetchy in his disposition to those with opposing political views, Bello proved in his first four years in office that age has nothing to do with political sophistication and adroitness. He orchestrated the illegal impeachment of his deputy, Simon Achuba, on October 18, 2019 by the House of Assembly, even when the seven-member committee set up to investigate allegations of gross misconduct against the deputy governor declared him not guilty.

That impeachment was contrary to Section 188(8) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), which provided for stoppage of further impeachment action by the House of Assembly immediately the person on trial was not found wanting by the report of the Investigative Panel of Inquiry set up by the Chief Judge.

On Thursday, February 27, 2020, Justice John Olorunfemi of Kogi High Court IV sitting in Lokoja declared the purported impeachment of Achuba as the deputy governor by the state House of Assembly illegal, null, void and of no effect. But, of course, nothing came out of it. Bello had become an emperor whose every wish had become the law in Kogi. Civil servants were owed for months and that didn't bother him. Even by Nigerian standards, his re-election was a study in violence.

The long-suffering people of Kogi decided after the elections, to borrow a Nigerian political parlance: to move on, hoping that at least, a second term will usher in a new Bello. How wrong they were! An educated, young and knowledgeable governor is leading the vanguard of conspiracy theorists in the wake of COVID-19, a virus that has killed well over 514,979 people globally and infected not less than 10,629,917 people.

In Nigeria, 25,694 people are infected with over 590 fatalities that include President Muhammadu Buhari's former Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari; immediate past Oyo State governor, Abiola Ajimobi; senator representing Lagos East in the National Assembly, Gbenga Osinowo; Kogi State Chief Judge, Nasir Ajanah, among others.

As I write, at least six of Bello's governor-colleagues have either survived or are still battling the virus that has killed over 130,000 people in the United States, the latest being Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, a medical doctor, who is presenting self-isolating with his wife and daughter after contracting the virus.

Rather than face the reality of our time, and confront a pandemic that has proved to be the most lethal existential threat to confront humanity in a century, Bello is living in denial. On Tuesday, he said the virus was an "imported" illness that was "forced on people" to shorten their lifespan while disagreeing with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, over the cause of Justice Ajana's death.

Ajanah who died on Sunday at the Gwagwalada COVID-19 Isolation Centre was buried at the Gudu Cemetery, Abuja, where Kyari was also buried, in compliance with NCDC's COVID-19 burial protocol. But an incensed Bello would have none of that.

Speaking at the third-day prayer for the late judge, the governor accused the NCDC of making up the fatality numbers, describing the situation as worse than banditry, insurgency and genocide put together. Insisting that Justice Ajanah died naturally, Bello told Kogites who are looking up to him for leadership at such a critical time not to "give in to fear and evil of the issues of COVID-19", reiterating what has become his swan song that the disease "has been imported, propagated and forced on the people for no just cause".

"Nothing kills faster than fear. I urge you all not to accept cut and paste as COVID-19. It is only out to create fear, panic and pandemic, orchestrated to reduce and shorten the lifespan of the people. Whether medical experts and scientists believe it or not, COVID-19 is out to shorten the lifespans of the people. It is a disease propagated by force for Nigerians to accept," he said.

This is not the first time Bello would go on this regrettable, self-denial tangent. In May, he rejected two cases of coronavirus reported by the NCDC and barred an NCDC team from conducting tests in the state. Instead, he asked the NCDC officials to leave or go on a 14-day quarantine. They left the state as he decreed.

Then, on May 19, he organised a public lecture at the Kogi State Government House, Lokoja, and procured a Professor of Genetics and Animal Breeding at the Novena University Ogume, Delta State, Otoohhiaus Cyril, to amplify his conspiracy theory.

The professor didn't disappoint. "COVID-19 is a 'yahoo' format brought by the Western world to deceive people while they were making money in trillions of dollars at the detriment of African countries that are locked down at home depriving them of their legitimate earnings," he said, while praising Bello for not succumbing to the so-called scam.

An obviously elated Bello said not only Kogi State but the entire country was under siege. "It is no longer news that we are under siege in Nigeria over COVID-19. Kogi State is under siege even though we don't have a reported case; but we are on lockdown not by our design or by our wish."

Admonishing the people not to pay heed to the advice of NCDC and other global health authorities, he thundered in self-adulation: "I am the Executive Governor of Kogi State and it is incumbent on me to create an avenue for my people to be enlightened, to really know what COVID-19 is all about."

I have wondered what game Bello is up to. Assuming, without conceding that coronavirus is, indeed, a scam, what will the good people of Kogi State lose by taking the necessary precautions as recommended? Will it not be wiser to err on the side of caution than to insist that it is a scam? What if it turns out not to be?

Governor Bello's dangerous demagoguery has got to a stage where President Muhammdu Buhari has to call him to order since the president, I suppose, believes that COVID-19 is real. Bello's anti-coronavirus activism is not leadership. By wheedling the unwary with his unsubstantiated, errant conspiracy theory, he has become an existential threat to Nigerians and must be stopped in his tracks before he causes maximum damage because even demagoguery should have its limits.

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