It was about 7:40pm in late October, 2012 when pilot Danbaba Danfulani Suntai manoeuvred the landing gear of his aircraft, a Cessna 208, for the final descent. It was already dark, and the most visible illumination around Namtari village, located on the outskirt of Yola, was the NNPC depot. Pilot Suntai mistook the depot’s floodlights with Yola airport tarmac light and crashed into a farmland.
My incurable acrophobia always betrays me whenever I attempt to make myself airplane buff. Sometimes I wished aircraft was never invented in view of its attendant precariousness and vulnerability. In May this year, I classified it as ‘necessary evil’ when my flight from Istanbul to Kano suddenly developed a fault and made a loud bang mid air. It was a harrowing experience that caused commotion in the aircraft and forced the pilot to make a U-turn back to Istanbul airport.
Conversely, Danbaba Suntai, the governor of Taraba State, is air freak. The governor loves flying just as he loves power — and now fishing. Suntai is a victim of Nigeria’s chronic state of impunity. Nigerian system gives all manner of waivers, tax holidays, etc to the elite. Even in the realm of violation of law and order, the elite get crime waivers, stealing holidays and ‘duty-free’ (or is it looty-free?) privileges to spend their loot.
Fact of the matter is Suntai does not acquire what in aviation circle called Instrument Rating. This certificate, according to Rockcliffe Flying Club, “allows a private or commercial pilot license holder to fly into Instrument Meteorological conditions, i.e. cloud and visibility less than Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Instrument rating is required for a commercial pilot to be Pilot in Command (PIC) of a commercial flight carrying passengers at night”.
In plain language, Suntai does not obtain the certificate needed to fly at night. He was a novice. If air traffic is solely controlled by the pilots as in road traffic, the VIOs would have charged him for driving without license. FRSC too would insist Suntai’s plane have “L” sign dangle on its tail and cockpit.
But don’t solely blame Governor Suntai; blame the Nigerian system that gives exception to every situation, however crucial or critical. The system that lowers the bar for the governor because he is a governor. I was shocked to learn that Suntai once piloted President Jonathan on the ill-fated plane. Writing on the matter, columnist Salisu Suleiman said: “The first observation is that President Jonathan’s security operatives displayed unbelievable lack of professionalism and put the president’s life in great risk by allowing him to be piloted by a 51 old man trying to play Boy Scout. The Presidential Fleet has some of Nigeria’s best trained pilots and it is their duty to fly the president and other key functionaries. If the president needed to (be) flown around in a helicopter, why didn’t a plane from the fleet dash to Taraba to convey him?”
The Nigerian system allows a president to breach not only protocol but constitutional provisions. Nigerian leaders hardly abide by the restrictions put by their security details in order to safeguard their lives or image. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once snatched a cane from security personnel and beat him severely as punishment for beating a bystander. The same Obasanjo allegedly stopped his motorcade to defecate openly in the bush.
Once a president, a governor, nay any public office holder, one has to stop some whimsical hobbies and other attitudes that will lower the estimation of the office. President Obama declared openly that he quitted smoking after becoming president. Did you hear someone quitting kain-kain at least to shore up respect to the office and also avoid some diplomatic solecism? Here the seat of power even makes one start smoking cigars when he was hitherto a Three Rings smoker, adopt exotic drinks or date foreign escorts. Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi is another stuntman governor Third Republic produced. Amaechi often travels alone in order to tell Nigerians driving is his hobbyhorse. Despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love for acting, he suspended acting until after leaving office in 2011. You can roll out your Schumacher talent or join Richard Branson travel to space when you are out of office but not when your attention is needed to attend to state matters affecting millions.
Suntai is now back — ‘in Abuja from Abuja’ as he claimed in a new video that indicated he was not aware he had just returned from London. To him, Eagles Square and Trafalgar Square are identical. He couldn’t tell apart Abuja airport and Heathrow, nor could he differentiate Millennium Towers with the Shards. If Suntai could not differentiate between London and Abuja, he will definitely not differentiate between the accent of our ebullient Mama Peace and that of Queen Elizabeth.
When Suntai returned to Nigeria from America 10 months after the crash, he was aided by his wife and a group of political associates to alight from the aircraft. Looking visibly abnormal, grimacing instead of smiling, limping instead of sauntering, the ailing governor looked more of a puppet. This time round, he was sneaked out of the plane without the normal airport protocol in order to conceal his condition and stage a comeback at the government. Against the picture painted by the cabal that he can walk unaided, talk not parrot-like, Suntai showed no sign of mental fitness. One blogger quipped: “the cabal saying Suntai was fit to rule, should ask him to pilot them in an aircraft”. Harsh.
Immediately after his first return from medical trip, Taraba State had a sudden tumble into political quagmire. The political vultures flocked around Suntai’s decomposing political career, feasting with relish. Suntai was once video-recorded by the cabal around him addressing the people of Taraba State, stuttering he has dissolved his cabinet.
The Suntai I watched lately is not physically and mentally balanced. What is now required of the lawmakers is to stand their grounds and ensure that Suntai is clinically fit to resume office before giving him the nod.
The political stalemate in Taraba State is a saddening situation that further put our democracy to test. Similar scenario occurred when late President Umaru Yar’Adua was terminally ill, and showed no sign of recovery. The cabal around the late president enmeshed in a political subterfuge and sabotaged every constitutional process that could make his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, acting president. Jonathan was denied access to Yar’Adua at home and abroad. Against cabal’s wish, the Senate took the right decision. The deputy governor of Taraba State Alhaji Garba Umar was even lucky to be made “acting governor” without civil society organisations and rights activists marching the streets of Jalingo or lobbying the state lawmakers to invoke the Doctrine of Necessity as the case of President Jonathan. In hindsight, without the death of Umaru Yar’Adua, the powerful cabal around late president would hardly allow Jonathan become president no matter how long the president remained bedridden.
The Taraba political crisis is a xeroxed copy Yar’Adua/Jonathan presidency. Jonathan perhaps refused to wade into the crisis because he suffered a similar fate. Therefore acting governor of Taraba State, Garba Umar, will hardly become governor unless after 2015 election or when Suntai fully recovers, and saunters into Jalingo unaided.