Danbaba Suntai and the Verdict of History By Zainab Suleiman Okino



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How do you begin to write the story of a man who saw death, literally, and escaped from its jaws? For want of a better description, this might just fit the survival of Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba state, after his Cessna 208 aircraft crashed near Yola, Adamawa state capital on Thursday last week.

Some have attributed his miraculous survival to mother luck. Others say it was due to the alertness of Air Traffic Control officials at the Yola Aiport. The officials were said to have lost contact with the Cessna, five minutes to landing time. Yet others said the timely intervention of the men of the Nigerian Airforce Base in Yola, who rescued him with their helicopter, saved the day.

As very religious people, most believe that it is a miracle that Suntai is alive despite the fact that he has been moved around—from the crash site to a Yola hospital, and back to the airport. From Yola Airport, he was flown to Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport; from the airport to the National Hospital and from the hospital back to the airport to be flown to Germany. Honestly, the hands of God must be at work to survive the traumas of being ferried from one spot to another.

Aircraft accident is not like a kite dropping from the sky and our experiences in this country do not in any way inspire hope of survival after such an accident, yet his being alive at all calls for celebration. On this note, let me join millions of other well wishers to wish the governor a quick recovery. However, many have also attributed the quick intervention and all else that followed to the Suntai’s status as a serving governor. Yes, that is true, but you still cannot discountenance divine mercy in this miraculous come-back.

Now, that the situation appears stable as the governor is currently in safe medical hands in Germany, it’s trite to raise some questions. According to reports, the governor graduated from the Aviation College in Zaria in 2010. After the graduation, he sanctified himself with a baptism, picture of which was displayed on the pages of newspapers then.

Suntai came to power in 2007, and if he graduated and was licenced to fly only in 2010, it means he must have spent his precious time in office to pursue his passion of training to fly. And we do not have to ask: whose resources were used for the training programme. As a trained pharmacist, he must have nursed his childhood dreams and ideas for a long time before the opportunity of being governor made it possible for him to fulfil those dreams.

Ever since he was certified to fly (this is already contentious, because some people said he only went through a crash programme and not a normal training course), the governor has been trying to prove (or is it show off?) his flying prowess. The other day when the president visited Taraba state to access the flood situation there, the governor himself piloted the aircraft that took them round.

Of course, after acquiring the training, the temptation to have an airport or airstrip, where he could put his knowledge into practice became strong. When his hasty attempts to construct an airport in the state capital was turned down by the aviation authorities, for lack of enough equipment, the governor established an air strip in his village. From that airstrip, he shuttled until the ill-fated flight that almost claimed his life.

While the governor was air-borne, the business of running the state, his primary duty suffered. I know his aides would say otherwise, but I think he went too far in many ways. How is it that the governor of such a backwater state would first think of his personal comfort, of acquiring an aircraft, before infrastructure for his people, the people who voted him to power?

There are speculations that the jet is his personal property, while some disputed it, claiming that it belongs to the state government. Either way, it is wrong and unnecessary. Let us assume the jet is owned by the state government or that the governor bought it on behalf of the state government, does it have to be in his personal possession, to jump in and out of the cockpit at will?

Does he have to pilot it by himself, and without a co-pilot? By the way, how many indigenes of Taraba state has he sent to school to train as pilots and other such high-profile professions? Is this (aviation training) what the people really need? Besides, why should a governor who should spend much of his time to think of how to better the lot of his people, utilise that time for jolly flights?

All the governors can drive, but how many have turned themselves into drivers just because they love to drive? If Suntai has the interest of his state at heart and wish to develop its potential, is it just about having an airport/airstrip given the proximity of Yola Airport to Jalingo?

I was in Taraba state capital, Jalingo, the Mambila Plateau and Gembu in Sardauna LG in 2010, I did not see anything close to development in its most elementary form. The Mambila is truly marvellous and ‘nature’s gift to man’ but that is where it stops. The natural endowments of the state are not explored, and going to the top of the Plateau was onerous, time consuming and almost suicidal because there are no good roads. If only the governor had used his talent for this purpose and other things that matter to the people!

There are also security concerns about the governor’s near fatal escapade, such as owning and maintaining an airstrip and flying at his own convenience rather than go by aviation rules. The Yola airport runs on sunrise to sunset basis and has no infrastructure for night flights, according to aviation sources, yet the governor set out when it was almost dark. The airport closes at 6 pm. The Vice President, according to reports, once advised him to concentrate on governance and also cautioned him against piloting himself.

The lesson in Suntai’s mistake is very clear. Public officials should stop personalising governance, more so in a state that has good governance deficit. The former Governor Jolly Nyame spent eight years ‘jollificating’ and amassing wealth. He left the state worse than he met it and ended up in the EFCC net. Whether Suntai survives or not, the question is: will history be kind to him?

 


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