Kogi 2023: A race on the faultlines

Clockwise from top left: Usman Ododo of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC; Senator Dino Melaiye of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, PDP; Muritala Ajaka of Social Democratic Party, SDP; Leke Abejide of African Democratic Congress, ADC; Olayinka Braimoh of Action Alliance, AA; and Admiral Usman Jibrin of Accord, Party. 

Richard Elesho

Kogi State prides itself as the Confluence State. Her capital city, Lokoja, is the rendezvous of Rivers Niger and Benue, from where in unity, they pour their waters into the Atlantic Ocean. This natural profile may present a theoretical template for the people’s unity. The power struggle is, however, shaking the state to its very foundations.

A governorship election is imminent, pushing citizens’ political consciousness into the super-active mode. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC timetable, the off-cycle poll will also take place in two other states, Bayelsa and Imo, on 11 November.

In Kogi, preparations for the election have accentuated the fault lines, especially of ethnicity, perhaps in a manner never witnessed before, since her creation more than three decades ago. The poll is shredding to pieces, Kogites’ pretensions to unity, at a speed that would make Aristotle, the father of political science, cringe in the grave.  A sampler:

Brothers at war

The date was Tuesday, 11 July 2023, at the popular Ganaja Junction, in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital. A commercial motorcyclist, aka Okada Rider, addressing a colleague as ‘brother’ asked if he could help change his N1,000 note to lower denominations to balance his passenger. To his surprise, the colleague casually retorted: “Who is your brother? My people and your own are at war over who governs the state. I beg keep your bros till after the election.”

In absolute dissonance with his response, Ojo exchanged the money for the required lower currencies, and the two resumed their usual banters. Although the jollity of the exchanges of that afternoon cannot be mistaken, the conversations speak to the issues as Kogites breathe the contaminated air of a highly divisive gubernatorial contest.

Rowdy field of candidates

All eighteen political parties and their candidates are participating in the race to succeed Governor Yahaya Bello in Lugard House. However, not more than half a dozen are in contention. They are Usman Ododo of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC; Senator Dino Melaiye of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party,  PDP; Muritala Ajaka of Social Democratic Party, SDP; Leke Abejide of African Democratic Congress, ADC; Olayinka Braimoh of Action Alliance, AA; and Admiral Usman Jibrin of Accord, A, Party.

One takeaway from the build-up to the poll is the elevated role ethnicity is playing in it. Indeed, the biggest issues dominating the campaigns loudly and in whispers are not merit, capacity, or track record of a candidate, but his tribe and sometimes religion.

A three-horse contest

Like other states, Kogi is made up of three Senatorial Districts. Each of the zones is dominated by an ethnic nationality. The Igala constitute eight of the nine Local Government Areas, LGAs in Kogi East; Okun controls five of the seven LGAs in Kogi West, and the Ebira owns four of the five LGAs, in Kogi Central.

The state enjoys a lopsided history of power equations. Since her creation in 1991, the East has been in power for more than 16 years. The Central for about eight years and still counting. No indigene of the West has ever been elected governor. The debates on power shift, power retention, or power return have been at the centre of the campaigns.

Kogi West people are asking for a power shift. Those from the Central want to measure up with the records of the East. They are, therefore, bent on another eight years before they can let go. Conversely, harping on their numerical advantage and recent unpleasant political subjugation, people of the East have been unapologetic over their wish to reclaim power, unwittingly codenamed  Igala Agenda.

The upcoming poll presents an interesting scenario for each of the tribes to test their strategy. Its unique aspect is the fact that all three ethnic groups have candidates in major political parties. The campaign colouration is fast shaping up into a tribal contest, a triangular dogfight among the Ebira, Okun, and Igala stocks.

Except for Kogi West, which has so far been lackadaisical in its pursuit, the front-line candidates are flying two flags. At best, the Okun seems undecided between Dino, Abejide, and Braimoh, the three people from the area who are in the race. On the other hand, Ododo, the APC standard bearer, is a solo candidate from Kogi Central. Ajaka of SDP has evolved as the face of the Igala Agenda. No less than six candidates of Igala extraction are said to have abandoned their insignificant flags and coalesced to the Ajaka team.

Analysts are unambiguous about the import of the situation. A political scientist and technocrat, Simeon Olukotun, said it is not healthy. ‘The picture is not good for the unity of the state. Our people have never been this divided ahead of any governorship election. The tension created from the ethnic polarisation is not good for the polity.”

Danger signs

Tribal politics is already taking an enormous toll on peace in the state. Governor Bello, who is statute-barred but remains the major promoter of Ododo, his kinsman, and Ajaka have been managing a fierce battle. They were at the same party and once enjoyed cordial relations. A parting of ways came when Ajaka was schemed out of APCPrimary Election. Promptly, he defected to pick up the SDP ticket. Both men have accused each other of harbouring murder plots.

For instance, on 3 June, a major security breach was narrowly averted in Banda, an outskirt of Lokoja, when the motorcade of the two Titans had a clash. Dangerous weapons were freely put to use by both sides. In addition, security agencies have turned the heat on alleged criminals said to be supporting the SDP Candidate. One Bala Okwo and a woman were neutralised in Ofu LGA, in circumstances described as extra-judicial.

There has also been a breakdown of law and order on other fronts. A government-owned radio station in the East was recently vandalised. Similarly, a hotel was set on fire even as the SDP campaign secretariat in Lokoja was destroyed by unknown rascals.

The State Government and Ajaka have been trading tackles on the issues. The SDP candidate presents himself as the underdog and victim of oppression, while the government tags him as the aggressor. Commissioner for Information and Communication, Kingsley Fanwo heaped blames on the SDP, calling for Ajaka’s arrest.

“Muritala Yakubu Ajaka knows what he has done and should carry his cross boldly instead of hiding behind one finger. We have no hand in the problems that his unbridled inordinate ambition has brought upon him.

“As a government, we will not condone reckless statements as we urge the security agencies to arrest the current trend by acting decisively against inflammatory statements. A lack of action has emboldened some political opportunists to think they can spread lies, incite the people, play politics of ethnic profiling, and still get away with them.”

The import of the infractions is not lost on other stakeholders. The Kogi East Elders Council has raised the alarm over what they claim to be an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and insecurity being created by the ruling party ahead of preparation for the election.

The group spoke at a press conference in Abuja last Tuesday on what they claimed is the state-sponsored insecurity in Kogi East According to Ambassador Ali Ocheini, leader of the group, the state has been polarized in unimaginable terms through the use of the twin weapons of poverty and ignorance against the people.

“The polarization of the citizens has reached the extent that Ebira traders in  Kogi Central are now afraid of coming to the regional markets in Ejule, Abocho and Anyigba in Kogi East.

“As Elders in Kogi East, we wish to use this opportunity to inform our brothers and sisters in Kogi Central that Kogi East is safe to all Kogites and Nigerians.

“We, therefore, call on them to resume their trading activities in Kogi East as we have never seen them as enemies or adversaries. Citizens of Kogi State must be allowed to choose whoever they want to lead them, regardless of party affiliation.”

Kogi West is watching from the sidelines. Who will reap benefits from the acrimonies? Time will tell.