A Matter for the Constitution

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Suntai

Since Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba State returned home August 25, after receiving treatment for his injuries in a plane crash in Yola, Adamawa State, on October 25, 2012, the political equilibrium in the state has been fractured by the controversy over his fitness to govern the state. Suntai approaches a high court for solution

By Olu Ojewale  |  Sep. 23, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

THESE are tenuous times in Taraba State. Since the return of Governor Suntai to the state, the tense atmosphere created by his health issue has been hanging over the state like a plague. His deputy has been acting as governor even though he had written a letter to the state Assembly that he had returned home from his medical trip abroad. To break the jigsaw, Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and human rights activist, on Monday, September 9, obtained leave of an Abuja court to apply for an order of mandamus to compel Mohammed Adoke, federal attorney general and minister of justice, to obtain information on the state of health of Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba State. In granting the order, Justice Elvis Chukwu of the Abuja High Court held that there was merit in the application. Thereafter, the judge adjourned the matter to September 16, for hearing. However, the suit will be heard by another judge since Chukwu only sat as a vacation judge.

Adoke
Adoke

Falana, in the motion, asked the court to declare that the refusal of the attorney general of the federation to accede to his earlier request for information on the state of the governor’s health was illegal and unconstitutional. The lawyer said he had forwarded the said request to the AGF through a letter dated August 27, but the request was turned down. In his letter, Falana recounted the incident that led to Suntai’s plane crash, hospitalisation and eventual return to the country after treatment.

The lawyer’s letter read in part: “Barely a day after his return, a letter was delivered to the Taraba State House of Assembly purportedly written by the governor, declaring his fitness and intention to resume office immediately. In the letter written by the governor to the State House of Assembly, he claimed to have fully recovered from the injuries he sustained in the plane crash of October 25, 2012, without affording the public a copy of his medical report of mental and physical fitness,” adding: “Having confirmed that there is a medical report, we hereby request for information on the mental and physical fitness of the governor as claimed in his letter to the Taraba State House of Assembly.” Falana said that the AGF’s refusal to accede to his request without any legal justification violated provisions of Section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.

It is not only Falana who is seeking a legal solution to unblock the political impasse in the state. Governor Suntai had on Wednesday, September 4, approached the state high court in Jalingo, Taraba State, to file a suit seeking the restoration of his constitutional powers as governor of the state to resume office after his medical trip abroad. The court accepted to hear the case and asked all the parties to appear before it within five days. While the Suntai camp is rooting for the status quo ante pending the determination of the suit, loyalists of the acting governor are insisting that the dissolution of the cabinet by Suntai be reversed and the erstwhile secretary to the state government, SSG and chief of staff to the governor, CoS, be reinstated.

Falana
Falana

The political crisis in the state deepened when Suntai announced the dissolution of the state executive council on Wednesday, August 28. Apart from sacking the cabinet, he also removed Gavey Yawe as SSG and appointed Timothy Gibon Kataps, former attorney general, to replace him. Similarly, Suntai fired Ahmed Yusuf Gamaliya from his post as the CoS and named Aminu Jika to the position.

Indeed, the governor’s return has exposed the political undercurrent in the state and the divided loyalty between those in support of Suntai and Garba Umar, his deputy, who has been acting in his absence in the past 10 months before his return. While Haruna Tsokwa, speaker of the House of Assembly, is leading the group of 16 members of the state House of Assembly, who said the governor should go back for treatment, Joseph Albasu Kunini, majority leader of the House, is leading the eight others who want the governor to start work with immediate effect.

The position of the 16 legislators has received the backing of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, fact finding committee which visited the state in the wake of the crisis. The committee, led by Hope Uzodinma, a senator, declared the governor as unfit and advised him to seek for further medical treatment in the United States, US, from where he had returned home on Sunday, August 25. This prompted the eight legislators on the side of Suntai to accuse the Uzodinma-led fact-finding committee of bias. The Uzodinma committee had recommended a political arrangement whereby Suntai remained the governor, but Umar would be in charge of the state in consultation with loyalists of the ailing governor. Apparently displeased with that arrangement, the Kunini group accused the seven-man committee of coming to the state to carry out the “Bamanga Tukur’s hidden agenda which many Tarabans have indicated and called attention to all along.”

The Kunini group recently told journalists that the solution to the leadership tussle going on in the state “lies in the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as amended.” But the real issues dividing the state are basically on appointments, religion and the 2015 election. According to sources, the two camps are especially aggrieved because of their interest in the political appointments into the new cabinet and about who will eventually take over from the governor after his tenure in 2015. The Christians in the state would like to have another of their own in the state house in 2015, but fear that it may not be so if Umar remains in control of the government machinery.

Tukur
Tukur

Sources said a series of meetings have been holding with a view to proffer an amicable solution to the crisis, but a number of stakeholders are said to be hardened by the recommendation of the Uzodinma committee, which was said to have been rejected by the Senate. Sylvanus Yakubu, senior special assistant to the governor on media, said in a recent interview that since the case was before the court, it would be prejudicial for anybody to tamper with the status quo. He said that the acting governor had agreed to abide by the resolution of the committee, that he must not take a major decision without consulting the governor.

“The decision was that the acting governor cannot take any decision without consulting his principal and this position, which, I know, as at now has not changed. We also have to wait for the final discharge of the court process before we know the next step,” Yakubu said. Be that as it may, the court’s decision on the suit filed by Governor Suntai would go a long way in resolving the Taraba imbroglio. Suntai was involved in a plane crash in Yola, Adamawa State, on October 25, 2012, and was flown abroad shortly after for treatment. He returned to the country on Sunday, August 25, this year, having undergone 10 months of treatment in Germany and the US. His opponents believe that he is brain-damaged, but they are yet to produce any proof. It is hoped that the case before the court will also throw more light on that and allow the state to move forward.

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