Yahaya Bello of Kogi State is Nigeria’s youngest Governor. He clocked 46 recently amid a deluge of accolades. In this interview with THE POINT Newspaper’s Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, Alhaja Yemi Kolapo, Governor Yahaya Bello speaks on his legacy as governor, the pressure on him to run for President and what he will do if elected.
In this clime, the thinking is that politics is dirty and that it is comparable to swimming in murky waters. What is your perception of politics and how have you managed to stay relevant among so many bigwigs in your party?
You will permit me to be very frank, blunt and straight to the point. Yes, it is often said that politics is a dirty game and all that. But the truth of the matter is that it will continue to be dirty until clean people get in there to clean it up. If you allow it to continue that way, then it will continue to be dirty, it will continue to be murky. It’s like a house that is dirty, if you don’t go in to clean it, how will it be clean?
Then, yes there are bigwigs, there are several people who have played politics from time immemorial before now, and you ask yourself a question, how well have they carried us thus far, in Nigeria, or in my state, Kogi State? It is because it is murky, that’s why we even have to come in to clean it in the first place. It is because it is murky and it has not taken us anywhere, that’s why people like us summoned courage to come in and God blessed the movement. We came in and we are changing the narrative from the old ways to the current ways of doing things – the right way. So, what I do and why I feel I am considered to be relevant is that I say the truth.
When I see the truth, I say it; when I see reality, I say it and what I do to make myself relevant is to always play the game differently, not the usual way. I don’t deceive, I don’t lie. I say it as it is and I apply the rules as they should be. I try as much as possible to stay within the rules, and not go outside the rules of the game. So, instead of playing the game as I met it, I’d rather change the game and I’m having results. So far, so good, from my state and even on the national stage.
At what point, while growing up, did you convince yourself that you would join politics or did it just come by accident?
Before 2007, I had always sponsored some people who were interested in politics at the state House of Assembly, House of Representatives and Senate levels. Then came 2007 when one of our own contested the governorship in Kogi State and he lost and we saw exactly that he was arm-twisted. There were lots of malpractices and I was touched. I told myself that I would contest in 2015. I took the decision in 2007 to contest the governorship in 2015.
In fact, at that time, I had a friend that I was working with, my current state Accountant General, Alhaji Momoh Jubril, who was working in NPA then in Lagos. I travelled to Lagos to buy a car, a brand new ML 500 4Matic. My number plate then, in 2007, was 2015. The car is still there up till now. So, anybody who saw me and asked: what is the meaning of this number plate, 2015? I would just say don’t worry, when the time comes, you will understand, and God actually made it happen. So, it’s not by accident. I didn’t just move in like that, it was as a result of challenges. What happened in 2007 wasn’t palatable and I felt by 2015, I should be ripe enough to contest. Some of my friends were asking me to go and contest for the state House of Assembly or House of Reps or even the Senate. I told all of them that look, when I contest, it would be for governorship because I wanted to make a difference and we are making that difference today in Kogi State.
Would you say there was a particular event that prepared you for leadership?
I have always been prepared for leadership from the cradle, not just any particular event. I grew up to know my mother as an old woman. As a matter of fact, my mother, according to what she told me and what I was told by elders, had crossed the age of menopause long before she had me. The gap between my immediate elder sister, Hajia Mariam and I is 10 years, eight months, almost 11 years. So, I grew up under an old woman, that is, my mother. And you know she died last year, at 101. And then, growing under my elder brothers and sisters also helped. They are far older than me; my elder brother can give birth to me, the next one can give birth to me, my late elder sister can give birth to me, so you can imagine how little I was under them. My late elder brother, Col. (Mohammed Abdul-Salam) Onuka, can give birth to me, former Military Administrator of Edo State.
So, if you look at how I grew up; it was under elders and their ways of doing things. I learnt a lot of wisdom from them. I must say I wasn’t born with a silver spoon but I learnt a lot of wisdom from my old mother, my elder brothers and the older people in the society while growing up.
I did all my primary school at home, then secondary school, off home. I grew up in an academic environment, I grew up in the military environment. So, all this put together, prepared me for leadership. I’m a fast learner, even by mere observation, by mere listening to conversation among elders, my elder brothers, older people, old men and women in the society and then people that are well to do; by mere listening to them, I learnt a lot. I try to apply pockets of wisdom that I’ve garnered from these men and women of wisdom. So, all this prepared me for leadership. And then, it happened that from my primary school, I had always been the class rep from primary 2 to 6 when I became the head boy. Then in secondary school, I was always holding positions of authority and leadership up till when I was even serving. So, I have always led. Immediately after my service, I was retained in the Revenue Mobilisation Commission. I was posted immediately they opened a brand new office, along with others; and immediately, I was head of finance and accounts from Level 8, up till I resigned to join politics, and God made me the governor. So, I’ve always been in the lead, and in all of my peer groups, whatever group I found myself, I just naturally discovered that I was taking the lead.
Is there any leader, in Nigeria or outside Nigeria, whom you look up to as a role model?
Yes, of course. At any point in time, whenever I had the opportunity to be among these elders, they only talked about great men or women, who had attained success or great heights, and they always inspired me. Key among them, for instance, within the military circles, people always talked about late Gen Murtala Muhammed, and within the military circles as well, they always talked about President Muhammadu Buhari, who was General Muhammadu Buhari then, and the various leadership roles he had played in the military or in the various commands he had held until he became head of state. So, he (President Buhari) always inspires me, his incorruptibility, his frankness, his character and integrity. So, that has always inspired me. Outside the country, people like Lee Kuan Yew, Nelson Mandela, all of these people, they always inspired me, especially the way they led their country. These people were never materialistic, they always had the interest of their people at heart; they came to the seat of power to solve problems and lift their people. They were never associated with corruption or any form of selfishness and self-centeredness. They were always pro-people, either in the military or outside the military, and they were able to instill discipline and solve challenging problems in their various times. So these people always inspire me.
“SO, IF VARIOUS GROUPS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ARE LOOKING UP TO ME TO TAKE UP LEADERSHIP IN 2023, LIKE I SAID, WHILE I AWAIT THE PROPER TIME TO GIVE A POSITIVE RESPONSE, I WILL CONTINUE TO CONSULT, MEET PEOPLE THAT MATTER AND LISTEN TO THEM”
There have been calls by various groups across sectors and across the country for you to declare for 2023 presidency. When are you likely to make your decision public on the matter?
I will go straight to the point. Yes, based on what I’ve been able to achieve in Kogi State, especially meeting the various challenges, there have been calls for me to run in 2023. The challenges I met on the ground when I assumed office are 10 times more than whatever we are facing today in Nigeria. In other words, whatever challenges we are facing today in Nigeria are not up to one-tenth of what I inherited in Kogi State as challenges. But today, the story is fast changing. It’s not yet uhuru but its fast changing; it can never be the same again.
So, if various groups across the country are looking up to me to take up leadership in 2023, like I said, while I await the proper time to give a positive response, I will continue to consult, meet people that matter and listen to them. Let me see how serious those that are even asking me to run are, let me know how serious they are, because it is one thing to say yes, I will run, it is another for those who are asking you to run to give you the necessary support and attach seriousness to their call.
The President is doing his best in the circumstances he has found himself. I know surely that 2023 will be a different ball game and I am not going to disappoint Nigerians, especially those who are calling on me to run at an appropriate time. I wouldn’t come out now and say yes, I’m going to run, or no, I’m not going to run. I have to weigh the way things go and would not also want to break the law that governs the game.
You are a key leader in APC and also at the heart of the ongoing membership registration. How would you assess the success rate?
It is a very huge success. Before now, we did not have a solid membership register that captured all of our members across the country. And then between 2019 and date, there have been some members who have left the party and several more that have joined the party. So, it was just necessary that we carried out the registration and revalidate the membership of existing members. So far, so good; the target earlier was just about 12 million to be registered but by our estimation now, we are heading towards 36 million Nigerians. A polling unit that we were thinking of just registering 100 before, some have exceeded 300 as I speak with you now and there are still many more who are trying to come in. So, eventually we are going to exceed 36 million. It’s a very huge success.
Are you saying even with all the negatives in the media and all the insecurity issues facing the nation, Nigerians still want to be part of the APC?
Exactly, Nigerians appreciate what Mr. President is doing in solving Nigeria’s problems and what we, the governors, are doing in our various states to solve the problems of Nigeria. You take it from insecurity. In the past, you were hearing of bombing every day, you hear how many have been killed – mosques, churches, market places, bus stations and what have you, but all these things are not happening again. The UN House was bombed here, police headquarters was bombed, and several others, it’s not happening again. Corruption has been cut down to a certain level. You no longer see corruption as mere stealing or stealing as not corruption.
Today, even those that are in power are being checked. In the past, it was not like that. You talk of economic prosperity, take it from agriculture, then you look at it from infrastructure. What President Muhammadu Buhari has done in terms of infrastructure is unprecedented. It is just unfortunate that it is just not being well projected in the media. Road infrastructure, railways, our airports, hospitals, support for schools, support in terms of health care. The President is even bailing out various states that couldn’t pay salaries. He came to our aid, giving us infrastructural facility, budget support facility. So, for all of this, Nigerians really appreciate him despite the fact that there are still some pockets of challenges here and there. So, this is what is inspiring the people to come into our party.
Remember in the past, once there was an opening in a ministry or parastatal and it was advertised, a lot of people gathered and even died, eventually nobody would get the opportunity of being employed. But these days, such is not happening again. It is now online. A lot of people are being employed in various ministries and parastatals without necessarily passing through much hassle and nobody will come out to say this is how much I paid to be able to access this job opportunity. There have been several other social investment programmes by the current administration that have taken a lot of people out of poverty, a lot of interventions to market women, trader moni, farmers money, several others. So, this is actually attracting the low-income earners, the poor of the poor to really see Mr. President and the current government as saviour. So, a call for them to come and register in our party is like telling them to come into heaven.
Again, Nigerians are actually seeing that, look, for more changes to take place; you must be part of it to be able to effect the change. So, people actually want more, but it will not happen except people come in to make that change from inside before we go outside. In politics, people just think to make changes is only when you go to vote during election, no, there is a lot more. You must be able to select the good ones that you will vote for during election. So, it’s an opportunity for Nigerians to come in and select who they want to vote for in the general election. That’s the sensitisation that we have been able to do, especially under my leadership. That is the mobilisation we have been able to do. Now, here are youths, women who have been agitating for good governance, better Nigeria and so on. Mr President has graciously signed the “Not Too Young To Run Bill” into law, it’s now a law. So, we are saying youths should be the leaders of today, not tomorrow again because today is the future that we have been talking of. Mr. President has, through the APC, given the opportunity again for us to come in, and under my leadership as the youngest governor today, and from my track record today of bringing women and youths on board, I was given the charge to lead the way. So, what I have done is to tell Nigerian youths that I’m advocating, sensitising and mobilising them, that here comes an opportunity, let’s not allow it slip by. So, they saw the opportunity, they saw the window and they have come in their numbers.
“AS YOUNG AS YOU ARE NOW, THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS THAT YOU USED TO DO 10 YEARS BACK THAT TODAY, YOU CAN’T DO, TALK MORE OF ADDING 10, 20 YEARS TO YOUR AGE. PRODUCTIVITY WILL DEFINITELY DROP”
Let me tell you, out of the 36 million that we are expecting, youths and women constitute nothing less than 80 per cent of the total number that have come in so far, fresh. So, it means we are ready for a total, complete positive change in 2023. I’m sure that is one of the reasons various youths and women groups are urging me to come and run.
The youths have been saying that older people should begin to take the back seat in ruling Nigeria. Does age have anything to do with ruling and ruling well, particularly now that Joe Biden, who we know is an old man, is President in the United States?
I am always an advocate of applying local solutions to a lot of the problems confronting us as a people. You see, we cannot cut and paste always. This cut and paste at all times will not help us. Let me take it from history. Nigeria was built by young men. The current leadership, elders or leaders, as we have in some quarters, were young as at the time they assumed positions of authority. That is number one. Number two, America and Nigeria are two different countries. America has a system that is working. America is on auto-cruise or auto-pilot. Nigeria is not on auto-pilot. We still have to mechanically and physically be involved in the drive of Nigerian polity as a nation. We can’t copy from America and just apply it here. Biden has been in the system for ages. He is part of those that built the system that is working, not the system that is not working. America is on auto-cruise like I said, so you can’t apply that one here. I will ask this question, I was once in the civil service. Today in the civil service, there are age limits that are set for you to retire or the number of years you have to serve before you retire. Today, it is 60 years in Nigeria. Why are we asking these people to retire? It is generally believed that your productivity will drop, will definitely reduce. Every day we are faced with new, modern challenges in this country. We are not saying they are not relevant, they are relevant. You can’t compare the Peugeot of 1980 with the current Peugeot. The Mercedes of 1980, you can’t compare it with the current Mercedes.
“THE WORLD BANK, HAS RATED KOGI STATE AS THE BEST, I MEAN 100 PER CENT, IN TERMS OF ACCOUNTABILITY, TRANSPARENCY AND PROBITY. THAT IS WHY WE SCORED 100 PER CENT – STATE FISCAL TRANSPARENCY SYSTEM; WE SCORED 100 PER CENT IN KOGI STATE”
Yes, the soul, mind or heart may be willing to do a lot of things but the body may no longer be the same. As young as you are now, there are certain things that you used to do 10 years back that today, you can’t do, talk more of adding 10, 20 years to your age. Productivity will definitely drop. And then, new ideas are coming up but you can’t keep tabs on them. You can’t really meet up; you just have to give way for the younger ones. What we would rather do, what I expect the elders to do at this moment is prepare the younger ones to take over, so that they can rest. We need them to live longer for us, we don’t want them to go with the ideas they have without imparting them into the younger generation for them to put these ideas into practice and then develop them in their presence before they join their ancestors. If my mother for instance, as I was growing up, used to go to the kitchen to prepare meal and cook for me, and then, up till she died at 101, she was still the one going to the kitchen to prepare my meal, imagine now that she’s gone, what will be happening to me? Will I stay hungry? Or what’s going to be the way out? But she prepared me well early enough to face challenges for this period. That is my expectation from our leaders. Our elders currently should give way to the current generation. We are not saying they are not relevant any longer, no, they are relevant. As fathers, they should take the back seat, and allow the younger ones take the front seat and drive the system. We shall make mistakes surely and we shall correct them as well. Then they will give us advice and we will cherish their memories. Certain memories that we will work with, reflect on, and then juxtapose them with the current reality to be able to face future challenges.
With the current challenges, do you think the APC can still get overwhelming votes from Nigerians in 2023?
We can, but it will depend on how we play our own internal politics. First, we must be democratic enough to ensure that we allow the people to select who they want. Let the people select who they want to present in the next general election because we have great men and women in our party today, professionals, men of high integrity, men who are really patriotic, men and women who are really passionate about Nigeria. They are willing to take positions of responsibilities to change things. If we allow such men and women to come on board and represent our party in the next general election, we are going to win overwhelmingly. I’ve done that in Kogi State and that is why today Kogi is more or less like a one party state. We have 25 over 25 House of Assembly members, it has never happened before; where we have 21 over 21 local government chairmen; where we have all the vice-chairmen as women, where we have at least three women as councillors in each of the local governments; where we have women as council leaders in all the 21 local governments in Kogi State, where we have youths from National Youth Council of Nigeria as secretary of the local governments in all the 21 local governments because we allow the people to come, own and drive the system in Kogi State. So, if we allow that to happen in the country, allow the people to decide, allow them to choose who should be their leader and not impose, or skew it using one semantic or the other; and allow it to go naturally, APC will sweep the 2023 general elections.
It is the practice in this part of the world for successive governments to find one fault or another in what their predecessors did, talking about persecuting people who have just left office and I know that no governor is immune to this. Are you prepared for persecution after office?
Before I leave office, I am opening my books to all law enforcement agencies and anti-graft agencies. Currently, my Commissioner for Finance, Accountant General, Head of Civil Service, Secretary to the State Government, Commissioner for Local Government, and many of my government officials have been invited several times to either EFCC, ICPC, even by the police, and at all times, I’ve always allowed them to go and grant the interview, and none has been found wanting. World financial body, The World Bank, has rated Kogi State as the best, I mean 100 per cent, in terms of accountability, transparency and probity. That is why we scored 100 per cent – State Fiscal Transparency System; we scored 100 per cent in Kogi State. If there is anything that is fishy, the World Bank will not give you such rating. And we even earned some little money by such practice. So, by the time I would have completed my term in office, I want to leave like a bird, to be very free, to be able to live everywhere I want to live, to move around.
So, whoever is going to come when I leave office, I will be open to any form of probe or whatever as the case may be. When I came into office as well, there was a lot of pressure that I should probe my predecessors. Out of pressure, I had to constitute a panel to look into what must have transpired, but I had to be focused. Sometimes, when you are looking forward and you are looking backward, you may not make progress. There are a lot more to attend to than to be looking backward. The challenges I met on the ground were enough for me than to begin to look backward. So, I never really went into probing my predecessors. I had to draw the line and move forward. I’m not saying whoever is going to take over from me should draw the line as well, no, look into what I must have done. However, circumstances warranted that I shouldn’t look backward, let me be looking forward in order to achieve more for my people and that was exactly what I did. So, today, we have a system in Kogi State that nobody will be able to come in and be corrupt, nobody will be able to come in and swindle any resources whatsoever because a lot of our things have been automated. You talk of salaries, contract issuing and what have you? Our law is watertight. That, currently, you can’t abuse, not now, not in the future. That is the system we are leaving behind.
“SO, TODAY, WE HAVE A SYSTEM IN KOGI STATE THAT NOBODY WILL BE ABLE TO COME IN AND BE CORRUPT, NOBODY WILL BE ABLE TO COME IN AND SWINDLE ANY RESOURCES WHATSOEVER BECAUSE A LOT OF OUR THINGS HAVE BEEN AUTOMATED”
Can you remember one major event in Nigeria that almost made you give up on the country?
It will be controversial but I’ll still hold my view. When this issue of coronavirus started, I was really angry because I felt it was not what we should give prominence to. Then, shutting down our economy, the whole system because of the coronavirus frustrated me, sincerely speaking. I was a lone voice, I was alone in it. But thank God, I’ve been vindicated several times. I sincerely told some people that look, it’s not worth it.
There are several diseases that have come, we managed them. There are several other diseases that we are still living with. We shouldn’t because of this lock down our people, and I did state what would be the resultant effect and all of it happened. I said our economy would nosedive, we would go into recession, we would begin to import junk again and open our borders again for foreign goods to come when we are striving to produce what we eat and eat what we produce, there would be crime and criminality. All of what I said have come to pass. I did mention that, rather; let us improve on our health care system. All of this virtually fell on deaf ears, so I was rarely frustrated that time. I think that was the major event that really shook me, I was ready to resign. I was ready to resign if actually what I postulated, what I envisioned happened to be wrong. On my own, I said I was going to resign because it meant I misled my people, but I have been vindicated. Here we are in Kogi State, not one single positive case. At the National Sport Festival in Edo State, a contingent of over 80 from Kogi went there to participate. But despite our coronavirus certificate that we presented there, the NCDC insisted that they must carry out the test on people from Kogi. Others were accepted but they said no, they won’t accept our certificate until they carried out their own test. So, they carried out their own test and all our people tested negative, to further confirm what we are saying.
Let’s talk about the media now. Has there been any misconception in the media that made you almost give up on the Nigerian media?
I realised early that the Nigerian media in some quarters, especially the social media, most times, reports negatives and celebrates fake news. So, immediately I realised that, I just generalised that look, I would never take anything that is coming from that side too seriously. Rather, let me stay focused on what I’m doing. Today, I am wearing white, then somebody will go to the media and say no, he is wearing black. What I would just naturally do is come out for people to see that I’m wearing white. But because it has been reported that it was black, someone who is seeing me in white will say go and say it out there that you are wearing white. And I would say ‘but you can see me that I’m wearing white, so why should I go out there and say that I’m wearing white and not black as painted?’ So, I don’t think I was ever discouraged. I prepared my mind from day one that nothing would ever take me aback, in terms of negative reports. The people I am serving know exactly what I’m doing and this has played out to be in my favour in Kogi State, prior to my re-election. From 2016 up to 2019 election, the assertion was that I won’t be able to even win a ward or my local government, or at best, I would win only two or three local governments in that election but it happened that the citizens of Kogi State, believing in what I had done, overwhelmingly voted me. Half of my votes beat the next opponent and that is the general public acceptance of my leadership style in Kogi State. It has further affirmed that I should believe in what I am doing, irrespective of negative perception from some quarters.
I believe that once I satisfy the objective ones, people who are objective, people who can read in between the lines, then I’m good. Eventually, those who were carried away by negative news; when they realised their error, they returned. Today, I have a lot of fan base that are fanatical. Before, they also believed the fake news, but now they’ve realised who Yahaya Bello is. They now know that Yahaya Bello says the truth, Yahaya Bello is fair, just and equitable. Yahaya Bello is natural, he’s just himself. No any amount of negative news said about me or reported about me will cover the truth. The truth will always overshadow lies.
“NIGERIA WAS BUILT BY YOUNG MEN. THE CURRENT LEADERSHIP OR ELDERS OR LEADERS, AS WE HAVE IN SOME QUARTERS, WERE YOUNG AS AT THE TIME THEY ASSUMED POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY”
Tell me some fond memories you have of your late mother and perhaps your father.
I was about four months when my father died, so I don’t have any memory of my father, but my mother, there are several wonderful memories. One is the song she usually sang for me in those days. Whether I was just coming from school, or doing anything else, whenever she saw me, she would always pray, and after the prayer, she would sing. So, the song is always resonating in my memory and the direct translation of it is what I am today. She has always called me Governor from the cradle. You know this is North and you know I have lived in the North for so long, so she always called me Governor of the North, that I should be ruling the entire people, that is the direct translation of the song. She sang it up till almost the last day she was going.
“I ADVISE NIGERIAN YOUTHS AND WOMEN THAT WE SHOULD GET IT RIGHT IN 2023. IF WE GET IT WRONG, GOD FORBID, I DON’T KNOW WHERE NIGERIA WILL BE. THERE IS A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY FOR US TO GET IT RIGHT IN 2023”
What legacy do you hope to leave in Kogi State?
The man who came and saw a very difficult and hopeless situation and changed it for the best, incorruptible, a man that is fair, a man who has come to unite the divergent ethnic backgrounds and religions, a man that is truthful, who is fair and just to all and equitable. I think I want to be remembered for that. The infrastructural developments and what have you, these are things that anybody can achieve but the most difficult one is he who came to unite the people.
If you become president today, what will be your first action in office?
If God made me to be the Commander-In-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, my first action will be to depict a man that has come to unify the country and that action should depict fairness, equity and justice and once that is assured, security will be assured and once security is assured, economic prosperity and development will follow suit.
Your advice for the youth out there who aspire to become leaders in Nigeria tomorrow…
Well, we should, like I said, have role models. Who do we want? As Nigeria is today, is this exactly how we want it to be? And to have role models like I have in President Muhammadu Buhari today, we should try to emulate one or two of his footsteps. We should come into the political party, APC, and choose who will represent our interest the best way. We shouldn’t be carried away by stipend or money; let nobody buy our conscience this time. I advise Nigerian youths and women that we should get it right in 2023. If we get it wrong, God forbid, I don’t know where Nigeria will be. There is a golden opportunity for us to get it right in 2023, let’s not miss it. We should all be up in arms, not arms against the state but our arms should be our conscience, let nobody take it away. Let us jettison ethnicity. It is our turn, it is their turn, it is North’s turn, it is South’s turn, no. We should just go for who can fix the problems head on and have a country that we so desire. That is my advice.