Travelogue: Yahaya Bello and the Audacity to Dream (1)
By Abdulrahman Abdulraheem
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable”
– Christopher Reeve
His emergence on the political scene is the stuff of dreams. His rise from grass to grace is the stuff of legends. His catapult from nothing to stardom is a standard material for Hollywood Blockbusters.
Making his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on January 27, 2016, the tearful governor made an emotional reference to his mother’s sacrifices that propelled him from childhood to this stage in life and this scene convinced the crowd that this was a child of destiny at birth who in adulthood had become a man on a mission.
That emotional outing also endeared him to a lot of young folks and women within and outside of Kogi state who saw (and still see) his life story as infectious and his personality as charming.
Yahaya Bello was not supposed to be governor, at least not in 2016. He stood no chance. He had lost the primaries. But he never lost hope. He took his defeat with philosophical calmness and prepared for the next opportunity. He never knew the next opportunity would come four years earlier than expected. He had no idea that he was the next governor. But he was prepared for the challenge…. The rest is now history.
He had a turbulent first term in office with an unending verification exercise which subjected the majority of civil servants and pensioners to untold hardship as they were not paid as at when due. His critics also said there was no visible project to point to despite the humongous monies that went to the state coffers in form of statutory allocations, Budget Support Funds, Paris Club refunds etc. The governor however dealt with security challenges, tamed banditry, kidnapping and cultism, and transformed the state from an unsafe place to a safe haven. His supporters also commended him for raising the standard of youth and women participation in politics and governance, as well as introducing policies and programmes to uplift them economically.
Despite his unremarkable approval rating, the Ayes outnumbered the Nays and Governor Bello won an imperfect election that gave him an opportunity to serve for a second consecutive term. This show of love, solidarity and loyalty from Kogites, he vowed, never to take for granted!
On resumption for second term, the governor turned the page, dropped some appointees, switched some, swapped some, and brought in some fresh hands whose competence he trusted was going to add value to his determination to leave behind a worthy legacy.
In no time, the projects started coming in. All the ideas that were on paper in the first term began to yield fruits and became visible. Even some of his critics have recently confessed that the new set of commissioners and aides assembled by the governor are showing more accountability, responsibility, dedication and patriotism than their predecessors. Salaries have now become regular and the long-lost smile has returned to the faces of Kogites.
The New Direction administration’s renewed vigour to change the narrative apparently attracted the attention of Image Merchants Promotion Limited (IMPR) and the management decided to commence a series of weekly articles on the activities, successes and challenges of the administration to be published on Politics Digest, one of the titles that I am privileged to supervise as Editor. Since the beginning of the series anchored by my diligent colleague, Nafisat Bello, our teeming readers have been exposed to the brilliant thought process of the governor, his clear-headed policy pronouncements and diligent execution of his lofty ideas in form of groundbreaking and unprecedented projects.
But having completed a total of 21 well-received articles since the series started late last year, the Management recently decided that it was time for the author and some other writers to visit the state and have a first-hand view of events and activities of the administration so that a new set of facts that will be gathered will govern the next phase of the series. We had prepared a team of three staff writers including the author to embark on the journey. 12 hours to the departure time, however, my boss and the publisher of all IMPR titles, Mallam Yushau Shuaib, called me and ordered that I should be in the office early in the morning with my bag and lead the team. Due to my familiarity with the state having lived in Lokoja for many years and being a proud alumnus of Prince Abubakar Audu University (formerly, Kogi State University), Anyigba, one of the target visitation points, everyone agreed that the boss took the best decision.
So we set out for the journey on Tuesday, March 22. The trip to Lokoja was smoother and faster than we expected due to the better condition of the road and presence of both federal and state security men who have successfully chased kidnappers and armed robbers away from the road. Barely two hours later, we were welcomed to the Confluence City via Nataco Park by the nearly 40 Degrees excruciating heat that Lokoja is known for at this time of the year.
Driving through the New Market to Kabawa, to Old Market, to the back of Kewon Hotels to the Local Government Secretariat to Alli Close, Yisab Communications, State Police Command and finally landing at the popular Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ) Press Centre in the heart of the city, Lokoja impressed me with the chaos, traffic and hustle and bustle that shows a thriving economy which has been reflated by the state government’s deliberate policy of paying contractors and civil servants as at when due. We saw several construction sites, both government and private-owned, countless plazas, parks and hotels springing up. Both the Old and New Markets as well as neighbourhood markets were booming with life and activities even though that day was not the official market day observed every five days in the town.
More impressive, though not surprising for me, is that the women who we saw on bikes, in tricycles, in shops and malls and markets actually dominate the micro economy of the state. They own and hold MSMEs and dictate the pace of the economy.
Let me confess one unique attribute I have noticed about Lokoja women over the years. At the risk of being accused of patronising them because my darling wife is one of them, Lokoja women are actually very ambitious, independent-minded, hardworking, resilient and restless. They are not comfortable with sitting back and waiting for their men to take care of all their bills. They want to be able to afford the expensive Ankara fabrics and jewellery in the market on their own. A typical Lokoja teenage girl would rather join her mum in the market to sell, raise some money to support her education (even if it is at Kogi State Polytechnic), get a federal or state government job before thinking of marriage. Lokoja women and girls are so busy that you won’t see them idling away or gossiping. This must be one of the reasons why Governor Bello believes in Kogi women so much that he has enabled them to get a lot of appointive and elective positions and also instituted a lot of empowerment and skill acquisition programmes for them to thrive and live their dreams.
We settled down at the NUJ Press Centre to eat, relax and wait for the directives of the Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to the Governor, Muhammed Onogwu (Galacticos), who was in Abuja for the National Convention of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Aside from taking pictures of the gigantic flyover bridge (first of its kind in the state) that the governor is constructing at Ganaja junction, we couldn’t do much on that first day. We had to call a long term friend, Mohammed Yabagi, a very brilliant journalist and KSU alumnus who works with the state-owned Graphics Newspaper. He drove all the way from Ankpa where he was on an assignment to meet us at the Press Centre that evening. After a few hours of catching up on old times, we mandated him to take us to a very good hotel where we could get 24-hour power supply, fully air conditioned rooms and a standard swimming pool which we needed to survive the murderous heat in the city. He did, we enjoyed the luxury of our accommodation in the GRA, just behind Lugard (Government) House.
Day 2: Two Vibrant Commissioners
The hardworking CPS was able to connect us to the Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology, for us to carry out our first interview appointment. Wemi Jones Ojo, a tall, nice-looking technocrat was kind on the phone with me and when we walked into his comfortable but modest office, we were not disappointed. To underscore Governor’s Bello’s genius, he listed the series of far-reaching steps taken by the administration to curb cultism both within and outside tertiary institutions in the state and to also keep all state-owned institutions running when others are on strike across the country. He informed us that the recently announced 30 percent budgetary allocation for education (above the UNESCO benchmark of 26 percent) is for real and it will be fully supported with cash when the time comes. With the lowest out-of-school children figure in the north, the Commissioner added that only Kogi state has a functional education law, among the 19 states of the north. The remaining 18 states still rely on the colonial laws of the 1960s to guide their educational activities. He added that the state WAEC rating has improved significantly since the administration came on board.
The Commissioner, a first-rate banker before joining the New Direction administration in 2020, personally took us to the Model Science Secondary in Adankolo in Lokoja where we had to ask him repeatedly if it was not a University or any other higher institution. The three-storey imposing edifice was fitted with 18 50-student capacity classrooms, six standard laboratories for Physics, Chemistry, Food and Nutrition, Agric Science, Home Economics, Wood Work & Metal Work, 1,000-capacity CBT Hall, 5 emergency exit routes, a large agricultural garden among other impressive facilities. The sport-loving governor also provided a standard pitch for Football as well as Volleyball, Basketball and Tennis Courts. The Commissioner informed us that the school which was still under construction was just one out of many that were undergoing construction or remodelling across the state. He urged us to visit others too, including the state university in Anyigba and the new Confluence University of Science and Technology coming up in Osara. We took up the challenge for Anyigba and Osara. Meanwhile, this Commissioner called his colleague in charge of Health for us to have a similar interview with him. We proceeded immediately.
Just like his counterpart in Education, the Commissioner for Health, Dr Saka Haruna Audu, was hospitable and kind. He told us how infant and maternal mortality rate had been on the decline since the administration came on board, and how they moved immunisation coverage from 36 percent to 71 percent. Aside from a robust health insurance scheme, the Commissioner informed us about how the Governor is addressing the issue of medical tourism by putting in place a list of world class General Hospitals, Specialist Hospitals,Teaching Hospitals and Reference Hospitals across the state. He urged us to visit all these places and instructed his Personal Assistant to raise a letter of authorisation for us so that the contractors would allow us access to the facilities.
Day 3: Emotional Return to my Alma Mater
We went straight to Anyigba to see the wonders in the state varsity. I had to reach out to my classmate, Anderson Unwchola, who is now a lecturer in the same Department of Mass Communication, to take us round. We started at the massive, 300-bed Teaching Hospital the governor is constructing which is fitted with standard elevator, wards, pharmacy and other necessary structures and facilities. We were also at the School Clinic where we saw a new building being put together by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Marietu Tenuche. According to our sources, the Clinic building was meant to take care of terminal and serious illnesses and will help curb medical of tourism.
We proceeded to the Campus Stadium which had received a huge facelift from the Governor. Opposite the stadium are an array of new world class sporting facilities like a football pitch, Volleyball, Basketball, Tennis and Handball courts. In fact, the state varsity students now participate in the annual National University Games (NUGA), due to the priority the Governor has given to sport as the best way to unlock youth energy for positive use. The School was well represented at the just concluded NUGA which was held at the University of Lagos.
All the major roads within the campus were tarred and wearing a new look. The students that we spoke to thanked the Governor and the VC for their efforts. The latter is not new to the system as she actually rose through the ranks to become Dean, DVC and now she is the VC. The students commended her for boosting the academic profile of the School and making sure lecturers don’t miss classes and for volunteering to go round by herself to ensure strict compliance with this rule. They expressed huge relief over their ability to remain in school and continue their academic pursuit while their counterparts from other parts of the country are agonising over ASUU strike. They thanked the Governor and the VC for making them immune to such frustrating disruptions.
Using three different layers of security comprising armed men from Anyigba community, School management and state government, Governor Bello has put an end to the menace of cultism in and around the campus. While some of the dare-devil cultists who held the school by the jugular years ago, were made to renounce cultism, some were apprehended and some simply disappeared into thin air as the School was too hot for them.
All attempts to speak with the VC proved abortive as she was locked up in a Council meeting when we visited. The PRO of the School who received us warmly in his office said he would have loved to speak with us on her behalf but he needed to get clearance from her. He therefore said we should send questions and official letter to them and prepare to return on another date.
The journey to Anyigba started on a challenging note. The drive from Lokoja to Ajaokuta was full of ups and downs with some embarrassing potholes and bad portions on Ganaja road. Connecting Ajaokuta to Itobe was also challenging because aside from the too many bad portions on the road, we missed our way and were going to Okene instead of Itobe. It took over 30 minutes of driving before we realised and when we stopped to ask some kid cattle herders in the lonely bush, they ran farway from us, thinking we wanted to harm them. Their father had to come out to explain that we needed to turn, that we were on the wrong road. Aside from a minor drama staged by an overzealous FRSC official, we encountered no further challenge until we got to Anyigba. We quickly connected the bridge that links Ebira land via Okene to the eastern flank (Igala) via Itobe. And from Itobe to Anyigba was the easiest ride as the newly tarred road by Governor Bello helped to smoothen the journey.
Anyigba was worth it as we managed to escape from the hell-fire standard Lokoja heat and enjoyed the accommodating weather and rural peace of the university town. But we had to return to Lokoja that night.
Day 4: Okene
Before driving to Okene, we visited the befitting Civic Centre that Governor Bello built for the state. Named “Muhammadu Buhari Square,” the Centre has a sitting capacity of 4,304 (4,000 for regulars, 304 for VIPS). The entire standing space is about 10,000 sq metres which means about 15000 people can stand in that Centre without concern about overcrowding. The Centre is completed but is yet to be commissioned for use.
When we got to the Specialist Hospital in Lokoja, we discovered that the Bello magic wand had also touched the place. A visible remodelling of the Hospital was going on with new Reception Halls, Maternity, Theatre Halls, Male and Female Wards, a Psychiatric Clinic, new furniture and roofing sheets, new doors and windows, new staircases etc.
We bid farewell to Lokoja and proceeded to Osara where the new Confluence University of Science and Technology was located. It is an unbelievably ambitious project with huge land mass and gigantic structures dominating the Okene end of the Abuja-Lokoja-Okene expressway. Even though it was still largely under construction, it had about 19 courses already accredited by the National Universities Commission (NUC). Aside from TETFund’s huge investments, the School had, according to the Commissioner for Education, gulped about 6 billion naira from the state coffers. The VC was not around to speak to us but the officials we met on ground promised to fix a date for that at the shortest possible time.
Talking of dreams, it takes a ‘reckless’ dreamer and an extremely ambitious state chief executive to even think of the mouth-watering edifice Governor Bello is putting together in the heart of Okene which he called Kogi Reference Hospital, in this era of cash crunch and dwindling revenue from federation account. But this is Yahaya Bello doing what Yahaya Bello does: breaking new grounds and daring the impossible.
Being the last place we wanted to visit before leaving Kogi state, when we approached the building located directly opposite the palace of the Ohinoyi of Ebira land, we were convinced we actually saved our best for the last.
They say great things don’t come easily, despite going there with a letter from the Ministry of Health which we used in accessing other hospital projects, the contractor in charge of this particular edifice refused to honour the letter and take us round the place . They said the State Consultant in charge of Projects must approve our mission before we could proceed. We were stuck there for about three hours before the CPS came to our rescue again and called the Consultant on the phone. Going round the mighty buildings in the Hospital was tiring but exciting.
The Commissioner for Health had told us during the interview that the machines which will be coming to the Hospital are not yet available in any Nigerian Hospital and that the vision behind the Hospital Project is unprecedented.
It is indeed a world class Hospital with 300 bed spaces, four consultancy rooms, eight call rooms, three elevators and eight pharmacy sections. The Hospital also has in it Surgical wards, Medical wards, male and female wards, VIP wards VVIP wards, all numbering more than 10 each.
The Hospital is also fitted with Hematology Lab, Histopathology Lab, ultra sound room for scanning, Mammography – scanning for breast cancer- Hyperbaric Oxygen Center and Antenatal Clinic.
Installed with an automatic fire fighting equipment and water sprinklers, fully covered walkway and other facilities meant to protect the x-ray machines from the impact of thunder and lightning, the Hospital also has a dental ward, more than 12 electrical rooms, 5 theatre halls, 60-seat capacity conference hall, a standard seminar room and also an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with 9 bed spaces.
It is often said that seeing is believing. The trip to Kogi was an eye opener for all of us even though we couldn’t reach most of the Commissioners we wanted to interview on the success story of this administration. Aside from the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism who was said to be out of the country, the Commissioners for Works, Health, Information, Sport and Agriculture were said to be in Abuja for the APC Convention so we could not interview them as planned. Out of the six world class medical facilities the Commissioner for Health asked us to visit, we were only able to visit three. We also need to interview the VCs of the two state universities – CUSTECH and PAAU. We will love to be able to accomplish all of the above on our next ‘missionary journey’ to the Confluence State.