It is no longer news that Danbaba Suntai, the second-term governor of Taraba State, north-east of Nigeria, was involved in an air crash last Thursday. The crash, which occurred in Yola, Adamawa State on the eve of the Muslim annual festival of Eid-el-Kabir, involved the governor who flew the private light aircraft alongside others, including three of his top aides.
A pharmacist by profession, Suntai crashed with his chopper near the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) depot, along Numan-Yola Road around 7.45 pm on the fateful day just 38 miles from the Yola Airport. The first set of people who arrived at the crash site were Fulani herdsmen. Officers and men of the Nigerian Air Force NAF’s 75 Strike Force Command in Yola later arrived at the scene of the crash and recovered the victims from the Fulani herdsmen.
Suntai is said to be a keen pilot who obtained his licence from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT, Zaria, Kaduna State in 2010. When he had a successful solo run on an aircraft at NCAT in August 2010, he was reportedly bathed with water as a symbol of his integration into the flying club. One of the national newspapers boldly displayed this initiation photograph on the front page in its last Friday’s edition. Captioned “For the love of flying”, the photograph showed Suntai dressed in a brown trousers and purple-stripped white long-sleeved shirt with a long tie to match being poured a whole pail of water by Bin Na’Allah, a member of the House of Representatives.
In another newspaper report, stunned journalists who sighted the governor at the Zaria event asked him to comment on his first solo flight. The governor said: “I feel excited and grateful to God for the opportunity to fly my first solo flight. Personally, right from the onset in my life, I chose aviation as a career and pursued it. I was able to obtain admission to Mbrevidaila Aeronautical University in Florida, but coming from a very poor background, I could not sponsor myself in the school, so I started seeking scholarship, but I couldn’t obtain one.
“So that was how I ended up in the pharmacy profession. However, aviation has continued to bite me in my blood. And when I learnt that I could even fly at my age, I decided to come over here (NCAT, Zaria) to see the rector and inform him about my ambition and he enrolled me. And after some training, today, I was able to undergo this solo flight. So, in my blood, I have it as a passion.”
‘Taraba is one of the poorest states in the country…. harnessing the resources of the state towards optimum economic growth would be more like it, rather than this “passionate drain pipe” created by a flying enthusiast of a governor.’
Sunta’s incurable love for aircraft and flying is so deep and passionate that he radiates it everywhere. When he became the governor of Taraba State in 2007, he met a partially completed airport in Jalingo, which was started by his predecessor in office. He immediately set about rehabilitating it at a cost estimated at about N9 billion. The construction of the airport was later abandoned following the order of the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, who observed some ‘runway defects’ at the airport. Suntai’s government later announced that it would construct a new airport which will be sited on the Mambila Plateau.
Though the Jalingo airport was not good enough, the governor was said to have acquired a small aircraft during his first term and added yet another one to the fleet only last year. Even though none of them could still land at the Jalingo airport, the Suntai administration acquired a helicopter for which the governor built a heliport in Government House.
Since becoming governor, he hardly travelled by road. Most of his trips to local government councils within his state and to his village, Suntai, in Bali Council, are always undertaken through the use of chopper, which many stakeholders in the state have continuously criticized. He is said to have also built an airstrip in Suntai to accommodate his penchant for moving around in choppers.
It is all about passion, passion and passion. Here was a man whose background was so poor he could not afford aviation training to become a pilot, a career of first choice. He went into pharmacy instead. But the fire of aviation that had ignited in his mind continued to burn. It was like an everlasting glow. When he could no longer resist this, he dashed to NCAT, Zaria and poured his mind out to the rector who wholeheartedly encouraged him by enlisting him to train as a pilot. He was told that age was not a barrier since he had a passion for the profession as if all that was needed to become a pilot was to express a mere passion for it. Besides, the money that was hard to come by in yesteryear was now at his beck and call as governor.
Think about the colossal sum of money involved in building and rebuilding airports, construction of airstrips in Suntai village, construction of heliport at the Government House in Jalingo, buying of light aircraft and helicopter and so on. What picture does this portray? How much is sunk into this? How will this boost the economy of the state and increase the state’s internally generated revenue, IGR? As far as I am concerned, Taraba is one of the poorest states in the country. Although the state is blessed with abundant natural resources, a good environment and all that, harnessing the resources of the state towards optimum economic growth would be more like it, rather than this “passionate drain pipe” created by a flying enthusiast of a governor.
Now we are being called upon to offer prayers. From the wreckage of the chopper featured in some of the national newspapers at the weekend, Suntai and the other victims of the crash will need tons and tons of prayers to see them through their present predicament. All of them emerged from the wreckage with varying degrees of life-threatening injuries even though attempts were made to paint the picture as less grievous.
Remember that those who first arrived at the scene of the crash last Thursday were Fulani herdsmen who had successfully retrieved the victims from the belly of the aircraft before the arrival of the NAF rescue team. And nobody is sure whether the rescue team had any specialist in their midst or even the right medical equipment for the evacuation from the crash site. Also, it is not quite clear if all the necessary precautions for such evacuation were observed.
And whilst we are at it, maybe we should ask a few salient questions about Governor Suntai and the ill-fated chopper ride. Was he adequately trained in night vision or instrument landing which he will need to rely on for flying at night? How many hours’ flight does he have to his credit as a pilot? Who was the co-pilot with him in that aircraft?
My take is that with the distance from Jalingo to Yola, he could have possibly strayed off course, relying on radio communication for the flight until he finally sighted the airport. And of course, night had set in; in which case, he needed to rely on instruments in the aircraft to land. Anything could have gone wrong during the flight – poor knowledge, poor visibility, heavy wind on the route, absence of a co-pilot and all that.
We have even been inundated with the fact that there was a security report against the governor flying that aircraft. That warning could have been ignored. And now the consequence of that is the seemingly bad case we have on our hands. We have been asked to pray, and pray we shall. But we must pause and ask: was this accident preventable? If this is the case, it smacks more like a suicide flight!