Chubby cheeked, fresh faced and imposing, Edward David Onoja, 41, is arguably the most powerful man in Kogi today.
Scratch that. He’s been the most powerful man in Kogi for a while.
As Chief of Staff to Kogi Governor Yahaya Bello since 2016, Onoja practically knows where “all the bodies are buried” in the confluence state. He is a smooth and abrasive political player all at once, flipping his mood to fit the occasion.
His emergence as running mate to Bello for the November 16, 2019 governorship election in Kogi, was therefore not a surprise to keen watchers of the politics of the North-central state.
The fallout with a deputy governor
Governor Bello’s current Deputy, Simon Achuba, is only one in name these days. Bello doesn’t care for Achuba and their fallout has now been well documented.
Achuba has been so cut to size by Bello, he only swings by his office once in months. He has been told in not so many words that he is no longer welcome within government house.
“I want the police, SSS, IGP to know that if anything should happen to me, my family and aides, the governor should be held responsible," Achuba wailed in August.
Achuba even alleged that Bello has withheld his travel allowances, hotel bills, pledges, and outstanding monthly impress and salaries totaling N819,709,980.
Sources in Kogi tell Pulse that plans are underway to impeach Achuba and get him out of his misery before Bello’s first term as governor elapses.
With Bello and Achuba not being able to stand the other, in stepped Onoja. His emergence as running mate was actually a no-brainer. Bello needed a new deputy for his second term.
When Pulse asked an aide of Bello’s if Onoja orchestrated the acrimonious and fractured relationship between Achuba and the governor, the aide said Onoja had nothing to do with it.
“It was actually Onoja who brought Achuba into the power set-up in Kogi. Gov Bello didn’t know anyone called Simon Achuba before Onoja.
“Onoja nominated Achuba for consideration as deputy governor and sold him to Bello as a good man. Of course Bello picked Achuba as his N0. 2 on Onoja’s recommendation. To say this same Onoja would engineer the war between Achuba and Bello is to be really mischievous”, said the aide who pleaded that his name be left out of this story because he had not been authorized to comment publicly on the subject just yet.
Onoja did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
The rise and rise of Onoja
As Gov Bello’s Chief of Staff, Onoja bestrides Kogi like something resembling a colossus. He is perhaps the most powerful Chief of Staff in the Nigerian power corridor at the moment.
A graduate of Geology and a former banker, Onoja is known as the de facto governor of Kogi.
“He actually runs Kogi State. Bello is just the face of the administration. Onoja is the one who controls the state, barks instructions, decides which contractor gets paid for what and so on. He's very busy behind the scenes. Handpicking him as a running mate is just reward for his loyalty over the years, because, really, who else would it have been?”, one source asked Pulse rhetorically.
Pulse has also been told that as governor, Bello spends more time in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, than in Lokoja, the Kogi state capital.
Bello's absence from his duty post has left Onoja with enough room to run the state however he pleases; and to continue to grow in power and influence.
One pundit describes Onoja's rise in the Kogi power corridor in such a short time, as "meteoric".
Why Bello really picked Onoja
There are 21 local governments in Kogi. 9 of these local governments are located in the east of the state, 5 are nestled in the central region while 7 of the lot are in the west of Kogi.
Kogi East is dominated by the Igalas. Kogi Central is inhabited by the Ebiras and Kogi West is occupied by the Okuns.
Due to their superior numbers, voting strength and local governments, the Igalas usually decide who governs Kogi. The Igalas maintain a stranglehold on the politics of Kogi, contributing some 49 percent of total votes cast in any state-wide election.
Bello, an Ebira man from Kogi central, was the exception rather than the rule when he emerged governor in 2016 following the death of Prince Audu.
Kogi central from where Bello hails, only accounts for 20 percent of the total votes in an election.
To defeat the PDP backed Musa Wada in November, Bello, who will be engaged in his first real election battle, will need a chunk of the votes from Igala—the ethnic stock of Onoja and the power bloc of the state.
Throwing everything into Kogi East is critical strategy for Bello ahead of the election; given that PDP’s Wada is also of the Igala ethnic stock.
Picking Onoja, an Igala, as running mate is Bello’s way of appealing to and making further inroads into the majority Igala voter base, while ensuring that the PDP doesn’t harvest the majority of the votes from the 'swing region'.
Picking a running mate from any other region would have been political suicide for Bello at this point.
Which leaves Senator Dino Melaye’s Kogi West—with the remaining 31 percent of the votes—as the battleground region for the two major candidates.
Sources have also told Pulse that given his rising influence and power in Kogi, Bello is also preparing Onoja to succeed him when his constitutionally permissible second term in office elapses in another four years.
“They have this strong bond between them and they are really very good friends. Bello trusts Onoja with his life. Onoja as governor in 2023? Don’t rule it out”, Bello’s aide offered.
Onoja’s years of political brinkmanship and ruthlessness may just be finally paying off.