Doubts Over Governor Suntai’s Health

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Suntai

After 10-month of medical treatment in Germany and the United States, Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba State, who survived a plane crash in October, returns home to create more confusion over his ability to continue to govern the state

By Olu Ojewale  |  Sep. 9, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

HIS fragile figure cut a pitiful sight as he was helped down the gangway of the aircraft that brought him to the country through the Nanmdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, on Sunday, August 25. The aides had to shepherd and usher him into the airport waiting room. Despite the show of affection by supporters who cheered and heckled, ailing Governor Danbaba Danfulani Sutai could not even manage a wave of hand. He remained stonily mute with plastic smile playing on his mouth.

The same scene was repeated at the Jalingo Airport, Taraba State. Even with the band of welcoming team looking expectantly to hear what he had to say, Suntai did not utter a word to anyone. He only managed to wave and smile at them, thereby raising doubts of his ability to continue as the state governor.

But the ailing governor and his associates are determined to carry on. On Monday, August 26, the governor sent a letter to the Taraba State House of Assembly informing it about his intention to resume work after a 10-month medical sojourn abroad.

Haruna Tsokwa, speaker of the House, who received the letter, read it on the floor of the Assembly on Tuesday, August 27. In the letter, Suntai claimed to have fully recovered from the injuries he sustained when a small aircraft he piloted crashed on October 25, last year and was ready to carry on as chief executive of the state. But the House was apparently unconvinced. It resolved that Suntai must appear before it to ascertain his state of health and mental capability to believe him. Besides, members of the House complained that since the governor’s return, none of them had been given access to get near him or converse with him. Not even his deputy was allowed to get near him. Eventually, some of the lawmakers were allowed to meet with the governor. Shortly after the meeting, the governor addressed the state in a video broadcast on Wednesday, August 28. In his address, Suntai commended the people of the state for their prayers and for standing by him in his moment of trial. “I thank the people of Taraba State for standing by me and my family. I also thank the commissioners for holding the fort while I was away. Also, I enjoin all of you to continue to live in peace,” he said. If the address had been able to assure people of state that governor was well enough to carry on, members of the state Assembly felt differently. On Thursday, Tsokwa and 15 other members of Assembly, advised the governor to go back to the US for further treatment. They said his deputy would act as governor in his absence.

Indeed, Suntai’s health has brought about arguments in various parts of the country and a reminiscence of what happened in 2010, when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua suffered ill health. Then, some elements who feared that their interest would be eroded or cut tried as much as possible to scheme out the then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan. It took public intervention and human rights activists’ outcry to get Jonathan to act as president and upon the death of the president to be sworn-in as the substantive president. The same scenario is again at play in Jalingo.

Suntai has remained incommunicado as his wife and associates continue to shield him from the public, thereby prompting a debate on the actual state of his health. Besides, despite all assurances that he would address the state on his arrival at Jalingo, the state capital, nothing of the sort had happened.

This has prompted the Public Interest Lawyers League, PILL, to threaten to go to court, if within seven days, the Taraba State Executive Council and the state House of Assembly fail to declare Suntai unfit to continue to govern the state.

The PILL, in a statement by Abdul Mahmud, its president, on Monday, August 26, said that the failure of the governor to address the press since his arrival was “indicative of a more serious medical case.” The League also demanded that, within the seven days, a medical panel should be appointed in accordance with Section 189 (4) of the 1999 Constitution to investigate the true medical state of the governor. Section 198(4) of the Constitution states, “The medical panel to which this section relates shall be appointed by the speaker of the House of Assembly of the State, and shall comprise five medical practitioners in Nigeria.”

Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and a human rights activist, gave a three-day  ultimatum to Mohammed Abubakar, inspector-general of Police, to investigate the governor’s letter of intention to resume duty. In his letter to the police boss, Falana threatened to go to court if his demand was not met before the expiration of the ultimatum. The letter reads in part: “We therefore urge you, in the interest of the people of Taraba State and Nigeria as a whole, to use your good offices to cause a detailed investigation to confirm the authenticity of the letter of intention sent by  the Governor of Taraba State. We believe that the letter of intention may have been forged by the governor’s handlers.”

Bamidele Aturu, another civil rights lawyer, said Suntai’s medical fitness must be ascertained to avert “governance by proxy.” He called on the stakeholders in the state to ascertain that “he is capable of performing the functions of his office. His state of health must be ascertained by a medical team otherwise Taraba State may be governed by somebody else we don’t know. That will amount to governance by proxy, which is not recognised by the constitution.”

Tochukwu Ezunkama, public commentator, said it is sad that those who are in power would like to hold on to power irrespective of their incapacitation. He said when people placed their interest above the collective interest of the public, the human tendencies to hold on to power comes into play, especially when the institution is weak. “It is the problem of both the institution and the individual who wants to hold on to power by all means. Definition is the problem about how long a governor can stay away from his desk because of ill-health. There is group interest and the dynamics of zoning are at play here. That’s why we have this type of situation on our hands,” Ezunkama said.

In agreement with that assertion, Achike Chude, a writer and also a public commentator, said there is a lacuna because the constitutional provisions are not explicit in defining how long a leader can leave his seat because of ill-health. “You will agree with me that even our legal pundits have not agreed on the provision of section 189 as to what should happen to  the state executive or president who has been absent for so long from duty,” Chude said.

Analysts who have been watching events in Taraba State said that some individuals who would want their candidate to take over from the governor at the end of his term in 2015 were behind the whole saga, with perhaps, the first lady of the state, in connivance with them. Besides, Suntai being a Christian, has a Muslim deputy and that is because Taraba has a larger community of Christians than Muslim. They would not want the deputy to be made substantive governor for the fear of using the position to get himself elected into office in 2015 as it happened in the case of President Jonathan. Indeed, Jaye Gaskia, director of the United Action for Democracy, likened what was happening in Taraba State to a repeat of what happened during the illness of the late President Yar’Adua who was brought home by his associates to keep running the country even though it was apparent that he was incapable of doing so.

While a good number of people have been urging the state assembly to invoke the relevant sections of the constitution to make Umar the substantive governor, the Conscience Nigeria and Northern Youth Assembly has disagreed. The association argued that the deputy governor could not be made a substantive governor because he was handpicked by Suntai following the impeachment of Sani Abubakar, former deputy governor. However, in view of the impasse the issue has created, many Nigerians have called on the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, on which platform Suntai came to power, to intervene and resolve the imbroglio.

Whatever happens, Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa State, is one person who may not want to see his colleague leave office without fulfilling his term, and would also not like to see him suffer the indignity of holding on to power when it is apparent that he is incapacitated. Nyako met with Suntai in Jalingo on Monday, August 26, and shed tears after praying for him to fully recover. Even though he said his tears were that of joy to see him back, it was apparent that he was not happy about his state of health which he could not discuss enthusiastically as the public would have expected.

Suntai survived an air accident October last year after a small plane he piloted crashed a short distance from the Yola Airport in Adamawa State. He was flown to Germany and later to the US where he received treatment for severe injuries which medical experts said included serious brain injury. Incidentally, it was Hauwa, the governor’s wife, who announced that the governor had sufficiently recovered to travel home. But it appears that cynics have been proved right that the governor’s return was more of a political decision and not that he was fully fit. Whatever be the case, the debate is expected to continue until the matter is resolved one way or the other. But one hopes that it would be in favour of the people.

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