The Macabre Dance in Jalingo

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Mike Akpan

Mike Akpan  |

HISTORY has a way of repeating itself in Nigeria. In 2010, associates of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, led by Hajiya Turai, his wife, felt that with the emergence of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as acting president, political power was fast slipping off their hands. On February 24, 2010, they hurriedly arranged to fly the ailing president, who had been on medical vacation in Saudi Arabia, for the past 93 days, into Nigeria at the dead of night so that they could take back power from Jonathan. Their action was propelled by the February 9, 2010 resolutions of the National Assembly which empowered the then vice-president Jonathan to act as president. The plot started at an unholy hour when about 300 soldiers took over the presidential wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, strategic locations and major streets in and around Abuja, on the order of Brigadier- general Abdul Mustapha, commander, Brigade of Guards. Neither the acting president nor the chief of army staff, had any inkling of the troop movement in the federal capital city.

At about 1.45 a.m., an air ambulance, which took off from Saudi Arabia, landed at the airport and taxied on the runway very far away from the tarmac of the presidential wing of the airport. Two other aircraft followed at short intervals. For more than one hour, some men were busy offloading what looked like a contraband product from the air ambulance into a waiting intensive care unit ambulance which sped off to Aso Rock Villa under heavy military escort. Later that morning, the real motive of the macabre dance was exposed when Olusegun Adeniyi, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, issued a press statement which downgraded the position of Jonathan to that of vice-president. What that meant was that with the return of the substantive president to Nigeria, Jonathan had automatically reverted to his position of vice- president although he would still continue to oversee the affairs of the country in that capacity until the president fully recovered and returned to office. That statement apparently feigned ignorance of the February 9, National Assembly resolution and what Yar’Adua had to do to get back power from the acting president. Nonetheless, the press statement had achieved the objective of the power- hungry cabal which was to create confusion and a semblance of a constitutional crisis from which they hoped to benefit. Even though Adeniyi’s second press statement later clarified the position of Jonathan as the acting president, the intended damage had been done by the cabal.

That was exactly what the associates of Danbaba Danfulani Suntai, governor of Taraba State, led by Hauwa, his wife, tried to achieve in order to take back political power which had slipped off their hands with the emergence of deputy governor Garba Umar as acting governor, following the prolonged absence of the governor from the state. According to reports, for the 10 months Suntai spent on medical vacation in Germany and the United States of America, USA, Umar was said to have made conscious attempts to position himself for the 2015 governorship race in a way that is likely to alter the  ethno-religious and political equation in the state. Political associates of Governor Suntai are aggrieved that Umar, who was single-handedly hand-picked by Suntai to replace Sani Abubakar, his erstwhile deputy, who was impeached by the State House of Assembly for gross misconduct, and who never went through the rigors of campaign with Suntai in the 2011 governorship election, was working hard to supplant his benefactor in his absence. Part of Umar’s strategy to undermine Suntai, according sources, was the sacking of the secretary to the state government and the chief of staff appointed by his boss as well as the reconstitution of the state’s executive council, EXCO. Suntai’s political associates feel what the acting governor had done was the height of ungratefulness. This feeling, more than the state of his health, was uppermost in their mind when they decided that the governor must return home on Sunday, August 25, to take control of governance and cut Umar to his  size.

Unlike in the case of Yar’Adua, who was smuggled into Nigeria at an unholy hour to avoid public view, Suntai was flown into the domestic wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport aboard  a chartered aircraft with registration number N3889A at about 12.48 p.m. Dressed in a dark grey suit, he wore a pitiable look on arrival. The governor had difficulty to climb down the ramp and was helped by his aides and medics to get out of the aircraft. They also helped him to get into a waiting Toyota Land Cruiser that took him to the VIP lounge at the airport, where his friends and political associates were waiting to receive him. Journalists were not allowed to interview him because his aides said the governor needed time to rest after the long flight from the USA to Abuja. He could not talk to his friends on arrival but merely waved his hands as his aides laboured  to usher him into the airport waiting room. The same scenario played out on Monday, August 26, when he arrived at the Jalingo Airport in Taraba State, aboard a Dornier aircraft with registration number 5N IJY. He could not get out of the aircraft into a waiting Range Rover unaided and could not say anything to the jubilant crowd of supporters who were there to welcome him. From the airport, he was driven straight to the government lodge and kept incommunicado. As in the Yar’Adua case, the acting governor was not notified of Suntai’s return and was said to have been prevented from visiting him. Suntai’s wife and aides also shielded him from members of the State House of Assembly, who also wanted to visit him. All these manipulations conspired to raise serious doubts about the state of health of the returning governor.

Despite these serious doubts, Suntai’s spin doctors have made desperate efforts to convince critics that the governor was in excellent health despite what was noticeable at the airport. Jerry Gana, former minister of information, who led the team of friends to receive Suntai, said the discomfort the governor experienced on arrival was due to the long hours of flight from the USA to Nigeria. He also explained that journalists were prevented from interviewing the governor because he needed to take a good rest after the long flight to Nigeria. But his explanation failed to convince Suntai’s critics and members of the state’s legislature, who, in response to the governor’s letter to Haruna Tsokwa, the Speaker, that he wanted to take back governance, insisted that Suntai must personally appear before members to address them on his state of health.

Constitutional experts have faulted the position of the House in response to the governor’s letter transmitted to it. Section 190 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 states succinctly: “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.” That section does not impose any additional burden on the governor as demanded by the resolution adopted by 16 out of the 24 members in the House that Suntai was not fit to resume work. The Constitution is silent on what the House should do with the written declaration transmitted to the Speaker because there is no provision for any debate on it. Constitutionally, Suntai was right when he took over governance from Umar immediately he transmitted the written declaration to the Speaker by dissolving his cabinet and re-instating his SSG and chief of staff, sacked by Umar. So, the resolution of the House on the letter was not in sync with the provision of the Constitution. Again, the Constitution does not specify whether the written declaration the governor must transmit to the Speaker must be personally written and signed by him. And because of this lacuna in the above mentioned section of the Constitution, it is therefore not correct for anybody to presume that the written declaration the governor had transmitted to the Speaker was forged. There was nothing wrong even if Suntai delegated that responsibility to any of his political aides. Political associates of Suntai must have identified these loopholes in the Constitution before they arranged for the ailing governor to be flown home with the hope that his presence in the state would facilitate their plan to govern Taraba by proxy.

But those who don’t want that to happen are pushing for the commencement of a process to determine whether the governor is permanently incapacitated or not as specified in Section 189 of the Constitution. Their argument is that going by the present health condition of the governor when he arrived in the state, it is very doubtful whether he will fully recover from the injuries that resulted from the October 25, 2012 crash of the aircraft he piloted, before the end of his second term in office. This is a moot issue. Associates of Umar, who are rooting for this process, argue that doing so will free the acting governor from unnecessary political encumbrances as well as promote effective governance in the state. This line of thought is the real fear of Suntai’s political associates who arranged for his hurried return to the state. They feel that Umar is out to upset the existing ethno-religious and political arrangement in the state. The political crisis is just smouldering and unless the Presidency and the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, decisively step in to resolve the matter, it might get out of hand. They have an obligation to broker a peace deal that is acceptable to both sides of the political divide. A stitch in time saves nine.

Email: [email protected]

— Sep. 16, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

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