Words are powerful. They can incite or influence public policy, especially when they come from influential individuals or officeholders. Because words spoken by some people could be powerful, and the fact that supporters of such individuals believe them , every expression matters and every word becomes part of public record, even when apology is given. The January 6, mob attack on the Capitol Hill, America’s symbol of democracy by former president Donald Trump supporters, is a case in point.
That’s why, for a leader, words should be carefully weighed, both their connotative and dennotative meaning before they are uttered in public. This is so because, very often, a public apology for comments made is always a high-risk move. Therefore, to avoid such gaffes, foolhardy stonewalling and unnecessary contrition, leaders are advised to avoid a ‘kick in the teeth’. Sadly, such bad behaviour has become the occupational disease of some of our public officials . Their words have become so nauseating and controversial that they provoke a sort of frothing at the mouth.
I take no pleasure in writing about hard-headed public officeholders who, for whatever reason, don’t acknowledge their own mistakes or accept responsibility for wrongdoing. But when their conduct involves matters of national importance and public safety, writing about such individuals is within permissible intrusion. I am talking about Gov Yahaya Bello of Kogi state.
Since he came to limelight like a silent mystery after the sudden death of Alhaji Abubakar Audu, the charismatic former governor of the state, on November 22, 2015 during the gubernatorial election, and who, between Bello and James Faleke, would takeover the governorship mantle of the All Progressives Congress in the state, Bello has become, arguably one of the controversial governors in the country. Almost always, his comments never fail to grab screaming headlines. He seems to enjoy the oxygen of publicity that he gets from his comments.
Last week, Gov. Bello basked yet again in the limelight when he kicked against the Covid-19 vaccines, saying it was meant to kill people. This man has given himself far more leeway to operate without anyone calling him to order. According to DAILY SUN of January 20, Gov Bello spoke to a crowd of people in a video that has since gone viral. He said he doubted the authencity of the vaccines that are expected in the country soon.
He had claimed falsely, that since “vaccines are being produced in less than one year of Covid-19, …they want to use (Covid-19) vaccines to introduce the disease that will kill us”. God forbid! He probably, and carefully recorded the video message to raise the alarm ahead of the virtual meeting of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) that held last Tuesday. Top government officials, including President Buhari, vice president Yemi Osinbajo, and state governors are expected to receive the vaccination on live TV, to encourage Nigerians to take the vaccines as a preventive measure against the dreaded virus.
And now, Gov Bello has ambushed the arrival of the vaccines. It’s like a coup. It’s disturbing but not totally surprising to anyone who has been following Bello’s attempts to undermine the reality of this pandemic. Recall that sometime last year, some miscreants from the state prevented officials of the NCDC from entering the state. Hear what Bello said in that controversial video: “We should draw our minds back to what happened in Kano during (sic) the Pfizer polio vaccines that crippled and killed our children. We have learned our lessons”. He added, “if they say they are taking the vaccines in public, allow them to take their vaccines, don’t say I said you should not take it, but if you want to take it, open your eyes before you take the vaccines”.
This is beyond free speech. It is a call to reject the vaccines. The rebuke by the NGF is not enough. While dissociating the governors from Bello’s comment, Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi who’s also chairman of the NGF said last week that the forum will continue to be “informed and guided by science, and will ensure that every decision it takes will retain public and professional trust and not compromised by conflicts of interest”.
For what’s public knowledge, since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been no letup by Bello in spreading misleading and false information about the virus. Last year, he alleged without any proof that Covid-19 was a scam by some people in government to fleece the country. Nobody challenged him to substantiate his allegation. The Presidential Task Force against Covid-19 could only say that the allegation was a “distraction”. Many believed Bello was not far from the truth. It still sticks in the minds of many Nigerians that the pandemic is a hoax. That’s how Bello’s conspiracy theory is gaining ground.
His message is simple: Nigerians should not take the raging virus seriously. It’s his own alternative reality based on conspiracy theories that the virus is a hoax by a great cabal, comprising of Bill Gates, George Soros and some pharmaceutical companies to profit through the manufacture of new vaccines. Even in USA, that’s the falsehood that is being peddled by Trump supporters. How glib and cheap this proposition can be. The truth is that Covid-19 is real, and the health threat is very serious.
As Dr Anthony S. Fauci, Director of U.S National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease says, “we are living through a historic pandemic that the world has not seen in 102 years”. Yet some people are peddling false information that the pandemic is not real. This is no time for rambling contentious and misleading information as Bello is doing. It could put the lives of millions of people in danger. Contrary to what Bello thinks, Covud-19 is based on science and evidence. It’s not a matter of politics or demagoguery.
It’s disheartening and demoralising that while the world is united in Covid-19 response, to mitigate its impact, strengthen our health institutions, advance epidemic preparedness for the future and improve the health and well-being of citizens, some individuals are using words that infuriate to dismiss the seriousness of the disease. I can hazard a guess why Bello is doing this. It’s all about power, what a leader does when he doesn’t need anybody anymore.
Gov Bello has surpassed his own expectation. Against all odds, he became governor. Again, against all odds, he was re-elected for a second and final term in office. What else? With this feat, nobody should begrudge Bello if he thinks nothing is beyond his reach, including the presidency in 2023. Why wouldn’t he be in ‘cloud nine’ and feel immune to any infection, including Covid-19? As American historian Robert Caro, a student of power and leadership says, ‘many people want to be leaders, but very few are leaders in the true sense of it: using power for great purposes’. Look at our politics: Our politicians see politics and use power in its raw, unadorned essence to bend people to their will. And that’s most unfortunate.