By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North
The return, last Sunday, of Governor Danbaba Suntai, a pharmacist and politician, to Jalingo, the capital of Taraba State, which he has been governing since year 2007, has thrown the state into turmoil, and broken the cord that once bound politicians in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, into camps – those for and against the governor and his Deputy, Garba Umar, who has been acting since his boss was involved in an air crash on October 25, 2012. While Suntai’s supporters insist he is hale and hearty and capable of resuming work, his opponents have resisted the governor’s resumption of office, arguing that he is not fit enough to rule over them. This report presents the details.
The stage appears set for a prolonged personality clash in Taraba State going by the political drama that is unfolding in the state. Not many are surprised though. As Governor Danbaba Suntai was being supported out of the aircraft that conveyed him from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja to Jalingo that bright Sunday afternoon, it was all too clear to those who had assembled to receive him back to a state he had missed for over ten months, that he was a man of sorrow, writhing in deep pains and gnashing his teeth.
All the same, hordes of the governor’s supporters, friends, family and political associates erupted in unbound excitement, pouring over themselves and spilling over every available space at the tarmac of the medium-sized landing field and routes leading to and from the airport. In their bliss, the supporters failed to take cognisance of the simple fact that a man said to have fully recovered from the severity of the injury sustained in the air crash barely managed to ease out of the plane.
The jubilation also robbed the Suntai men from noticing the pain and tears in his eyes, as the band that went to bring him out of the jet tried to lift him from the back. As the aides carried him, the sharp pains apparently intensified and he screamed, twisting his face momentarily and his carriers halted the lifting for a while apparently to mitigate the twinge.
Although the message on the true state of health of the governor was lost as a result of the elaborate celebration that attended his return, it was not long that the reality began to unfold. The traditional greeting that dignitaries normally extended to those waiting to receive them on arrival, was denied Suntai’s supporters at the airport.
Since then, he did not address the people of Taraba either in person or by proxy. And, while the natives were beginning to understand what was going on around the governor, his political advisers began to play dirty, churning out irksome claims that he had resumed work in accordance with the provisions of the law.
It was clear on Monday morning that the script of the theatre of the absurd that was about to be staged for the people of Taraba and Nigeria had been carefully written and the plots and their actors outlined before the arrival of the governor. That Monday morning, Adamawa State Governor Murtala Nyako made history as the first person to visit Suntai since his return to the state. But the history that the Adamawa governor came to make was nearly ruined when he broke down and cried on seeing his host. On arrival at the Government House, it was the wife of the Taraba governor, Hauwa, who received Nyako and led him to a conference room where he met with her husband. Neither the acting governor, nor any senior government official was in attendance at the courtesy call.
The Nyako visit
Confronted with the reality of Suntai’s health, Nyako simply offered a word of prayer and left Jalingo before midday. He came face to face with the veracity that his Taraba counterpart that he knew before the crash near Yola airport last October was not the same man that he saw ten months after. As Nyako found out, the accident had taken a toll on the man, who was before now not only very active but also at home with all who came his way. He managed to control the tears rolling down his cheeks as a man who had fought many battles, and left.
As the Adamawa governor departed Jalingo, those who have taken it upon themselves to manage Suntai and his future were confused over what to tell the people of Taraba and the nation about the visit. Anxious journalists, who had wanted to use the opportunity of Nyako’s visit to hear how Suntai would speak, were utterly disappointed when they were kept out of the meeting. Instead, the organisers allowed two television cameramen- one from Adamawa and one from Taraba Television, to record the event. The footage was later shown to journalists but none of them got what they wanted most: the voice of Suntai.
Rather than dispel the growing claim that the Taraba governor could neither speak nor recognise anyone around him, preventing him from meeting his commissioners, the acting governor, other top government officials and journalists since his return from the U.S, exacerbated the story and made those who had believed that he was well to doubt the claim.
Those minding the governor, who have now been labeled a ‘cabal’, must have shot themselves on the foot by taking the decision to shield him from even vital officials of the government, including the state police commissioner and the Director of State Security Service.
While the people were still wondering whether it was wise in the first place for Suntai to return home, his handlers pushed harder to get him to assert his powers on all fronts in the state power machinery. Barely 24 four hours after his return, the cabal bared its fangs. It claimed that Suntai had transmitted a letter to the Taraba House of Assembly to inform of his resumption as stipulated in Section 190 of the 1999 Constitution.
The section states: “Whenever the governor transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration to the contrary, such functions shall be discharged by the Deputy Governor as Acting Governor”.
Suntai’s supporters led by the Majority Leader of the state House of Assembly, Mr. Mr. Joseph Albasu Kunini, were quick to declare that he had already complied with the Constitution by transmitting a letter of intent to resume work to the House of Assembly. Kunini, who did not seek the consent of the leadership of the House, said that it was not required of the governor to address the members or for the members to debate the contents of the said letter.
“There is no room in the Nigerian Constitution for the House to deliberate on the letter once it has been transmitted to the House by the governor,” Kunini told journalists.
“To us the governor has complied with the provision of the law by sending the letter to us through his Special Adviser on Legal Matters. The letter from Suntai was received by the Clerk of the Taraba Assembly and promptly handed over to the Speaker and that completed the required action.
“The Taraba State House of Assembly does not need anything other than the hard copy with the governor’s authentic signature and there is no need to discuss it at the plenary,” the House Leader explained.
But to show the depth of division Suntai’s ill-health had caused, Kunini had hardly ended his statement when the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mr. HarunaTsokwa, a man said to be loyal to the acting governor, Umar, thundered.
Tsokwa, who addressed journalists in his office, insisted that the deputy governor, Umar, remained the acting governor until Suntai addresses them on his state of health.
Although Tsokwa acknowledged the letter from Suntai, he nonetheless made it clear that it must first be deliberated upon by members at plenary before the governor could resume.
Tsokwa said: “Governor Suntai should come and address the House of Assembly before we decide on his resumption. The letter is with us and it has to be debated at plenary”.
While pleading with the people to remain calm and law-abiding, the Speaker assured of the readiness of the House of Assembly to work for the interest of the state at all times.
While the different groups had thought that they had reached the climax of their plots, the main event that jolted the key contenders was unfolded in quick sequences on Wednesday thus adding to the confusion that has now become the order of the day in the agrarian state.
First, it was the Taraba Attorney General, Timothy Gibon Kataps, who briefed journalists in the morning, restating the position canvassed by Kunini that Suntai had indeed resumed work as far back as Monday, August 26, 2013 by sending the controversial letter to the lawmakers.
Kataps said he had to cut short his trip for the NBA meeting in Calabar to return to Jalingo to clear the air on the raging controversy surrounding the resumption of Suntai and warned the faction led by the Speaker not to confuse the people of the state with his insistence that the governor must speak to them as a condition for resuming.
Just as he rounded off his speech, Kataps position changed dramatically and the fortunes of many other contenders in the crisis, tumbled. A terse statement by Sylvanus Giwa media aide to Suntai, named Kataps as the new Secretary to the State Government, SSG, while one Alhaji Aminu Jika was appointed as the new Chief of Staff to the governor. Giwa also announced the dissolution of the Taraba Executive Council.
All commissioners were ordered to hand over government property in their possession to their permanent secretaries with immediate effect. Rather than raise the hope of even those appointed, more tensions reigned in the state, as no one heard directly from the governor. But later in the day, a video footage of what was said to be the first broadcast by Suntai to the people of the state surfaced and added to the calls for him to return to hospital for treatment than heed the call to return to work.
The footage, failed to convince doubting Thomases that the man had finally spoken. The man’s speech, as seen from the footage streamed by a private television station on Thursday afternoon, generated more concerns for even the governor’s media men and handlers than those his traducers. It was clear that many people doubted the authenticity of the speech while others wondered what the production meant to achieve.
The speech of controversy and the dissolution of the Taraba Exco, were to raise the bar for more confrontations between Suntai and his supporters on one side and the acting governor on the other.
On that Wednesday, members of the Assembly met behind closed doors for several hours to take a common position on the state of the governor. After that meeting, which stretched into the night, the members decided to meet with Suntai apparently to gauge his true state of health, even though most of them were already convinced that the man was not fit to resume work. After many hours of staying at the Government House, the Speaker sent one of his aides to inform waiting journalists that he would meet with them after meeting Suntai, a meeting that went late into the night.
It was therefore good news for most of the journalists on Thursday morning when the Speaker released a statement to the effect that Suntai should not resume because he was not fit to rule the state for now.
The Speaker pointed out that after their meeting with the governor on Wednesday night they came to the conclusion that he could not have signed the letter to resume work.
Tsokwa along with 15 other lawmakers said that the acting governor, Umar, must therefore continue to act until Suntai was fit to take over.
In the letter dated August 29, 2013, and jointly signed by the Speaker and 15 other lawmakers, they noted that Suntai could not have written the resumption of work letter, given his failing health.
Part of the letter read: “It is no longer news that the governor of Taraba State Pharmacist Danbaba Danfulani Suntai was involved in plane crash on the 25th of October, 2012, whereof, he was flown to Germany for treatment in a condition that made him incapable of transmitting a letter to the Taraba State House of Assembly
informing it of his absence in office.
“The House invoked the provisions of section 190(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and transmitted power to his deputy to act the office of the governor of Taraba State. We are all living witnesses to the way and manner the Governor was brought into the state on Sunday, 25th August, 2013.
“The leadership of the Taraba State House of Assembly made several efforts to see him since his arrival, until yesterday the 28th August, 2013 when they were allowed access to the ailing governor and their visit revealed that he spoke in the manner that brought more doubt to his authorship of the letter purportedly transmitted to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly.
“In view of the above, we are convinced that Suntai could not have authored the purported letter transmitted to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly.
“Be that as it may, we the undersigned members of the State House of Assembly have unanimously resolved in our meeting that the deputy governor upon
whom power was earlier transmitted to by the state House of Assembly still remains the acting governor of Taraba State and he will continue to act in that
regards until such a time the governor is capable of administering the state”.
The acting governor, Umar, later, on Wednesday, confronted Suntai by asking the people of Taraba to ignore the dissolution of the state Executive Council the previous day, describing it as being masterminded by a cabal bent on hijacking the state for their selfish interest.
Umar also warned banks not to honour any instrument not signed by him or Suntai with immediate effect.
The statement, signed by the acting govenor’s press secretary, Sule Kefas, said, “Members of the public are advised to disregard yesterday’s announcement of the purported dissolution of the State Executive Council and the appointment of a new SSG as well as the Chief of Staff.
“The announcement is a mere attempt by a cabal to hijack the machinery of governance in the State and not a directive that was given by the Executive Governor, his Excellency Danbaba Suntai.
“To this end, the bankers of the Taraba State Govt are reminded to note that all financial instruments relating to the State Government’s accounts should be honoured only if they are in tandem with the provisions of the law, in which case, must contain: Verifiable signature of the Executive Governor of Taraba State, his Excellency Governor Danbaba Suntai, or verifiable signature of the Acting Governor of Taraba State, his Excellency Alhaji Garba Umar, Acting for the Executive Governor.
“Acting governor of Taraba State Garba Umar is reassuring the good people of Taraba State that substantial progress has been made in the ongoing discussions to resolve the misunderstandings of the past few days, since the return of our leader, his Excellency, Gov Danbaba Suntai from the United States.
“His excellency the acting governor is happy to note the high sense of patriotism and the brotherly manner with which Tarabans have been viewing and handling the developments, urging us all to sustain this in the coming days and weeks.
“His excellency, the acting governor, however, wishes to remind all Tarabans that a moment like this calls for greater restraint and vigilance”.
Now, the Taraba case is one of the big masquerades inside the ‘bush’ dictating the tunes for the political gladiators to dance naked in the market square while the godfathers smile away in Abuja. The difference between what happened to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010 and what is happening to Umar, the acting governor of Taraba is that one is a Christian and the other a Muslim.
From the look of things the forces in Jalingo and Abuja, who are also close to Jonathan, do not want a Muslim to step into the shoes of Suntai in 2015, whereas Umar wants to use his current position to launch himself into political reckoning in the next elections and set a new record in the political annals of the 22-year-old state.
That is why the struggle may be turbulent if allowed to fester. The danger in it all is that the 16 pro-Umar lawmakers may consolidate their position and edge out ailing Susntai through impeachment or a medical board, as stipulated by law. But they need to know their onions and stick to it because if they are united by pecuniary reason, the offer of a filthy lucre from the other side could persuade them to jettison their course and throw the acting governor overboard.
The stage is not only dicey but perilous for both Suntai and Umar. Either way, one of them must give way in the game that has all the trappings of catch 22: you either win or lose, head or tail.