Before Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State was sworn-in for a second term alongside his deputy, Edward Onoja late last month, the deputy was the Chief of Staff during Bello’s first term and one of the most influential figures in the previous administration in the state. He became deputy governor following the impeachment of the former deputy governor, Elder Simon Achuba, by the state House of Assembly. They typified what political allies should be.
They were said to be bosom friends of many years standing, referring to themselves as “siamese twins”, thus inseparable, and nobody could come between them. Bello, Onoja political affinity Onoja has been a long time strong ally of Governor Yahaya Bello and an influential figure to reckon with as far as the present administration in Kogi State is concerned.
The choice of Onoja as deputy to Bello did not come as a surprise to many political watchers in the state. He is believed to have a played significant role in the development of policies and programmes of Yahaya Bello’s first term in office. Bello, while expressing the kind of affinity that exists between him and Onoja, had on many occasions openly referred to him as his twin brother. Governor Bello, an Ebira from Okene in Kogi Central senatorial district, appointed Onoja, an Igala from Olamaboro in Kogi East senatorial district, as his Chief of Staff on assumption of office in January 2016, a move described as unprecedented in the annals of the state. In the build up to the 2015 governorship election, Edward Onoja served as Chief Strategist and Director-General, Campaign Organisation of Alhaji Yahaya Bello.
Onoja was said to have led young men who were considered “political new kids on the block” round the three senatorial districts canvassing support for Bello. As Director-General of the APC’s presidential, national and state assembly elections campaign in Kogi State in the 2019 general elections, Onoja was able to work for the victory of the ruling party. The outcome of the election showed that the APC won all the 25 state assembly seats, seven out of nine House of Representatives seats and two out of the three senate seats in the state. Edward’s commitment and passion for the realization of the Bello-led administration’s policies during his first term has been described by his associates as second only to that of the governor.
Emerging frosty relations
But analysts have been pointing at what they observe are signs of an emerging frosty relationship between them. Daily Trust on Sunday reports that as Chief of Staff to Bello during his first term in office, Onoja had wielded enormous powers and influence and was at some point, referred to as the ‘de facto governor’ because he was said to be the decider of who gets what from government, including appointments.
However, sources close to the seat of power say Onoja has not been as visible in government as he was during the first term, and even his inputs are no longer sought before major policy decisions are taken. “Unlike before, even his list of commissioner designates and advisers were not considered in the recent appointments made by the governor,” a reliable source said. Sources said the candidates presented by Onoja for consideration as commissioners were reportedly turned down by the governor, thus sparking concerns of a possible rift.
Specifically, Onoja was said to have submitted the name of Mrs Rosemary Osikoya, a former commissioner during Bello’s first term as well as other nominees which were reportedly turned down. Mrs Osikoya who hails from Olamaboro LGA, same area as Onoja, first served as Commissioner for Environment and Natural Resources and later redeployed to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology where she served until the end of the first term of the governor. But Bello was said to have turned down the nomination of Osikoya and rather opted for one Gabriel Yunusa Olofu who also hails from Olamaboro.
According to sources, the governor preferred the candidacy of Olofu as commissioner in his cabinet to Osikoya given the significant roles he (Olofu) played in his re-election. Our correspondent gathered that Bello left the choice of who makes the commissioners list to the All Progressives Congress (APC) stakeholders at various local government areas of the state. “For the first time in the life of the APC administration in the state, stakeholders are being consulted for inputs in cabinet formation,” the source added.
Apart from the appointment issue, it was learnt that Onoja now has to book for appointment to see his friend and principal, unlike when he decided who visited the governor while he was Chief of Staff. Sources said matters came to a head when Bello allegedly refused Onoja’s proposal to organise their inauguration at the Confluence Stadium, describing the cost as “outrageous” and instead opted for a low key ceremony at the Lugard House.
Onoja’s perceived ‘sins’
It was learnt that the deputy governor’s perceived misteps and sins have accumulated overtime even as they were said to be many and diverse. Among them was his alleged disposition that he had the eastern flank of the state under his control as the perceived political leader of the area. He was alleged to have held down stakeholders from the zone from having direct access to his boss for the entire duration of Bello’s first term. “You can imagine Igala people who have the largest population in Kogi State, had only a single individual (Onoja) who had direct access to the governor and disallowed even the then deputy governor from seeing his boss,” a Government House source claimed.
A leader of the ruling party in the state who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday on condition of anonymity lend credence to the claim, saying, “No one from Kogi East could see the governor throughout the first term without Onoja’s directive and approval”. Speaking further, he alleged that even the governor’s kinsmen from the Central axis were not spared the deputy governor’s excesses with a few of them who have direct link to the governor urging him to check the overbearing attitude of his CoS. Sources said such attitude was responsible for Bello’s low outing in the Eastern senatorial district during the last governorship election in the state. The outcome of the election also contradicted the notion that Onoja was in charge of his zone politically with Bello only able to win two local government areas of Olamaboro and Ibaji in the district. With the outcome, the governor was said to have realized the futility of relying on his deputy and thus began to search for a unifying leader who commands the followership of the zone, while also resolving to carry party stakeholders along. One of the outcomes of such decision was the recourse to stakeholders in all the local government areas to nominate those who would form his cabinet.
Beyond Onoja’s alleged sins and missteps, analysts argue that at the centre of the unfolding drama was the permutations and schemings ahead of the 2023 election. Daily Trust on Sunday learned that Onoja has been repositioning himself to take over from his friend and boss. Sources quoted him as saying that his wish is to be governor of the state after Bello, adding that all his schemings including the impeachment and eventual take over from Simon Achuba, the former deputy governor, are part of the larger plan.
It was learnt that Bello, with the face-off and misunderstanding between him and another ex- ally, Senator Dino Melaye, had initially bought into the idea of having his friend replace him with inner sources claiming that there was a “gentleman agreement” between the duo on the matter.
However, our correspondent gathered that key stakeholders from Bello’s zone and the West Zone had weighed in on him to shelve the decision which they said would be inimical to the power rotation plan already in the offing. Sources said the plan is for power to shift to the West senatorial zone after Bello’s second term with James Faleke being tipped as the likely successor. Faleke, who was the running mate to late former governor of the state and APC governorship candidate in the November 2015 election, Prince Abubakar Audu, was Bello’s arch rival, contesting the emergence of the incumbent following the death of Audu in court. He turned down the deputy governor position offered after Bello took over during the first term, leading to the emergence of Achuba as deputy. The bad blood between Faleke and Bello had continued until the run up to the 2019 election when a peace agreement to “support Bello’s reelection” move and get a “reciprocal gesture” allegedly championed by APC national leader, Bola Tinubu, was brokered.
At Bello’s re-election campaign in October last year, Faleke publicly announced the collapse of Audu’s political structure into that of Bello to prosecute the election. Faleke, a member of the House of Representatives, has been a visible figure around Bello since his recent victory at the poll. Daily Trust on Sunday learned that before Bello’s inauguration, Prince Audu’s supporters and loyalists had been meeting with those of Bello’s to presumably strengthen the alliance ahead of 2023.
Sources said in order to pave way for the success of the new alliance, Onoja was tricked into accepting the deputy governor position in a grand move to edge him out of the main corridor of power. And since the Bello’s second coming, Onoja’s influence around the government has continued to the wane, even as the rank of his lieutenants continue to dwindle and deplete with analysts predicting the worst in the near future.
The governor, according to sources, has decided to take full charge of his administration this time around and as such, decided not to leave the choice of those who would form his cabinet to anyone else. This is more so that some critics have blamed some of the governor’s failings during his first term in office allegedly on wrong counsels by some of those he surrounded himself with. The governor, while addressing the new members of his cabinet upon their inauguration recently, did not mince words about his decision to take charge of the running of his administration head-on. He said, “Bring your suggestions to the table and they will be given fair consideration, but run my blueprint and not your agenda if you want things to remain fine with you. “I congratulate those of you who made it as commissioners…. If you are new to the appointment, it is because we found you worthy in learning, but above all in character. “If you were with us in the first term, we reappointed you because you proved worthy of a second chance and also because the exigencies of time and politics, especially the zoning formular applicable in your various constituencies, permitted it. There are some of your former colleagues who also deserve this second chance but the circumstances were not as accommodating as in your cases, so be humble”.
Another sign of a possible cold war between the governor and his deputy, according to observers, is the recent removal of the Director of Protocol to the Governor, Dr Gabriel Ottah, who was said to have been earlier nominated by Mr Onoja for the position. Ottah was a senior lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at the Kogi State University prior to his appointment as Director of Protocol when the previous occupant, Pharmacist Jamiu Asuku, was appointed Chief of Staff to the Governor. His sudden removal and subsequent reassignment with portfolio of a Special Adviser on Education following the inception of the new dispensation got many people talking with different interpretations, especially given his (Ottah) astounding competence on the job for the period he served. We have no rifts, say Bello, Onoja.
But both Bello and Onoja have denied the existence of any cold war or rift. The Chief Press Secretary to Governor Bello, Onogwu Mohammed, said the claims of any rift were mere imaginations of people who don’t mean well for the state. “There is no cold war between the governor and his deputy. On the issue of appointments; the governor is a man of probity, integrity and honesty.
Prior to his inauguration after the election, he asked the stakeholders in every LGA, federal constituency and senatorial district that those that would make his cabinet should be those that are accepted by their localities, constituencies and senatorial districts including party stakeholders. “Everybody who was recommended for appointment in his cabinet was a product of that arrangement to engender unity and acceptability by their people”, he said. He said the deputy governor being the leader of Kogi East as it stands today, played a significant role in the team that produced all the people that were recommended for appointments, adding that there was no issue of being sidelined whatsoever on the issue of appointments. “Coming to 2023, they are just putting the cart before the horse. The governor and his deputy were sworn-in just on January 27, 2020, just about two weeks ago. They are concentrating all their energy to see how they can run the affairs of the state until 2023 when the tenure will elapse. “We are not talking about 2023 or 2024 as the case may be. We are talking about how we can deliver on the mandate that has been given to us by the people of Kogi State. Those who are speculating 2023 are just putting the cart before the horse, we are not interested in that at the moment. He also said there was no rift over issue of venue for the last inauguration, explaining that the choice of the Government House for the event was the decision of a committee set up for that purpose. “The choice of the Government House was generally acceptable by the committee. They agreed that the place was suitable for the purpose. That also afforded the people to see how the Government House has been transformed to a modern administration center. We have the best facility that can entertain any occasion. There was no need for going to the stadium. There was nothing like the governor and his deputy disagreeing over the choice of venue for inauguration”, he said.
On the removal of Dr Ottah as Director General, Protocol, the CPS said it did not connote any rift between the governor and his deputy as being interpreted. “Let me tell you categorically that Dr. Gabriel Otteh, a Ph.D holder in Mass Communication, was elevated from DG protocol to Special Adviser on Education, Science and Technology, it was an elevation.
Also reacting, the Chief Press Secretary to the deputy governor, Emmanuel Promise, said there was no rift between Onoja and the governor. He said, “On January 27, 2020, was the day Governor Yahaya Bello and his deputy, Chief Edward Onoja were sworn-in to power for a second term in office. “This was what the governor himself said and I quote: ‘I thank my team in the New Direction Administration most especially His Excellency, Chief Edward Onoja, my Siamese twin and the deputy governor of Kogi State for the hardwork and loyal followership which enabled me pilot this ship with minimum of distraction’.
He went further to say, Edward Onoja is a Godly politician and an astute, visionary and talented strategist who has proved his worth again and again. First, as my Chief of Staff and now as my deputy. “That was from the lips of the governor. Now, when people say there is cold war between the governor and his deputy, what they are trying to tell you is that they have not been able to distinguish between the duties of Onoja as a Chief of Staff from his functions as deputy governor. Of course, as Chief of Staff, most of the time you follow the governor to most of his events but the deputy governor assists the governor. It therefore means that if governor Bello is in Abuja, his deputy has to be in Lokoja to take care of the affairs of governance. “They refer to themselves as Siamese twins, though not from the same parents, the uncommon brotherhood they have demonstrated is something you cannot find among most governors and deputies in Nigeria. “We see that some people are praying that they break apart. The rumours you hear about cold war is more like them planting their own imagination into the public, there is nothing like that, these two people have come a long way. “Edward Onoja was the point head and other indigenes of Kogi State who gave the APC inroads into Kogi East. How can you come out of an election with government yet to be constituted and even settle fully and somebody somewhere in their imagination and wickedness of their hearts say there is cold war going on somewhere? What exactly should be the reason for the cold war? “I can assure you that there is no rift whatsoever. What should be the reason for rift? Are they dragging power?
Tinubu: Count me out of Kogi politics
National Leader of the All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, denied brokering any power ahead of the 2023 governorship election in Kogi. Tinubu’s spokesman, Tunde Rahman, said Asiwaju is not from Kogi State and has got nothing to do with the governorship election in Kogi.