On all counts, there are two extreme and opposite ways of remembering Danbaba Suntai. And whichever one you choose is a reflection of of your psychological attitude. It’s about whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist; it’s about your perception of not just life but death.
It is possible — and quite justifiably so — to remember Suntai as that former Governor of Taraba State who killed himself; he, after all, self-piloted the aircraft that crashed in Adamawa, Yola State, in October 2015, and he never recovered from that crash till his death. It is also possible to remember him as one of the luckiest humans to grace the country’s political scene: he did not win his party’s governorship primary yet he ended up becoming Governor. Not only that, the winner of that primary surrendered the ticket to him and went on to back him with his political machinery. It’s all your choice whichever of the two stories you want to remember.
You could see Suntai as the victim, the ex-governor who was abandoned by his political associates after a severe brain damage he never looked like recovering from. Or you could see him as a victor, a 55-year-old who, after his world came crashing, could still count on the love of his wife — a woman so proud to show him off to the world despite his quick, sour transformation to the opposite of his former handsome self. On February 14, 2017, his wife, Hauwa, was in hospital with him, showering him with gifts, laughter and kisses in the confinement of his wheelchair. Those photos triggered conflicting emotions from the public — pity, on the one hand, a see-what-Suntai-has-become glance at the pictures; or gratitude, a despite-everything-Suntai-still-has-the-gift-of-love gaze.
Again, it’s all a matter of how you choose to reason; and whatever you choose to see, this is one of the very few situations in life where you can neither be wrong nor right. Such was the life Suntai lived for 56 years less two days.
PHARMACY TO POLITICS
Born Danbaba Danfulani Suntai June 30, 1961, at Suntai Town in Bali Local Government Area of Taraba State, he attended Federal Government College, Kano between 1975 and 1980, and the School of Basic Studies at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria from 1980 to 1981.
In 1984, he graduated from Ahmadu Bello University, where he studied Pharmacy. He did his internship at the Yola Specialist Hospital and had his national youth service at the State Hospital, Ijaiye, Abeokuta, Ogun State, between 1985 and 1986.
Suntai worked at the General Hospital, Ganye, in old Gongola State until 1991, by which time his political career was well and truly under way. Two years earlier, he had been elected chairman of Bali Local Government; and by 1999, he was State Chairman of the All People’s Party (APP). He became Secretary to the Taraba State Government in 2005 and held the position for two years.
FREE GOVERNORSHIP TICKET
In 2006, when Suntai was eyeing the Taraba State governorship, he couldn’t even contest the primary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The odds were stacked against him; if he did, he would have lost. It was matter-of-fact a David against Goliath affair. Suntai knew he could not displace Danladi Baido, the political godson of Jolly Nyame — one of the few Nigerians to have been governor for more than eight years. Nyame was the first civilian governor of Taraba State, and he was in office between January 1992 and November 1993. Upon return to democratic rule in 1999, he re-contested, won easily, and repeated the process in 2003.
Baido had been with Nyame all through the years. In 1992/93, he was Nyame’s personal aide. Between 2002 and 2007, Nyame gave Baido different positions in his cabinet, including a spell as Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, and another as Commissioner of Finance. When Nyame was leaving in 2007, he handpicked Baido to succeed him. With the state’s party structure firmly under his control, Nyame effortlessly helped Baido clinch the ticket.
Baido looked set to trash all comers in the election proper until “powers from above” stepped in. Two months to the election, the party secretariat snatched the ticket from him and handed it over to Suntai, citing a ‘corruption advisory list’ from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, which had Baido’s name. Till date, the list is believed to have been used by Olusegun Obasanjo, former President, to haunt those standing in the way of his favourites for elective positions..
BREAKUP WITH BAIDO
Baido was unhappy but it appeared (at least to the public) he willingly surrendered his mandate, especially as he transferred his political capital to Suntai, who won as expected. As compensation, Suntai appointed him his Chief of Staff.
But as with every marriage of convenience rather than necessity, the duo soon split and Baido, to everyone’s surprise save Nyame’s, headed to court to challenge Suntai’s victory. Too little too late, he lost out. At that time, it looked like Baido could never overtake Suntai no matter how hard he tried. Not forever. Tables were swapped a few years later, but how did it happen?
THE OCTOBER 2012 PLANE CRASH
Less than a year after winning re-election — apparently much to Baido’s disappointment — Suntai and five of his aides were involved in an air crash when their private plane, a Cessna 208 aircraft marked 5N-BMJ, crashed in Yola. Suntai personally flew the aircraft. He suffered severe injuries, including brain damage, and never truly returned to office.
The accident would alter the power balance in the state; and two years later, Baido emerged from the shadows to win the race to represent Ardo-Kola, Lau and Karim-Lamido constituency at the House of Representatives.
THE YAR’ADUA CARD
Two days after the air mishap, Suntai was flown to Germany for further treatment. The chief beneficiary of the tragedy was Garba Umar, a man who, two weeks before the crash, was nowhere near the government house. Umar was sworn in as Deputy Governor on October 5, 2012, following the impeachment of Sani Danladi Abubakar, the erstwhile Deputy Governor.
It was 20 days after the swearing-in that Suntai’s plane crashed. Although Suntai failed to hand power over to his deputy, the State House of Assembly invoked Section 190(1) of the Constitution to swear Umar in as Acting Governor.
Suntai’s loyalists were unhappy; power was slipping away and they needed to fight back. For strategy, they didn’t need to look so far — just three years earlier. In November 2009, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, then President, was terribly sick and flown to Saudi Arabia. When he didn’t return for months, the Senate swore Goodluck Jonathan in as Acting President on February 10, 2010. Fourteen days later, Yar’Adua was flown to the country in the cover of the darkness. He never quite regained power, even on his return. In May 2010, he died.
Suntai’s people weren’t as impatient as Yar’Adua’s; they waited 10 months abroad before flying him in. He was so physically and mentally weak that he couldn’t address an eagerly waiting media at the airport. John Dara, his associate and one of the people behind the plot, lied that he was mentally alert.
“We were excited to see him and it is understandable that after the long trip, he was weak and tired,” Dara said at the airport. “But we were thrilled by the fact that he recognised everyone by name which shows that he is mentally alert and lucid.”
No, he wasn’t lucid! Suntai never addressed the media or his executive council or the state assembly but the power mongers around him continued to speak and issue statements, claiming that they were authorised by the ailing governor. He was desperate to return as substantive Governor but he couldn’t fulfill the one condition demanded by the lawmakers: “come and address us so that we’re sure you’re mentally fit for work”.
The desperate tussle to regain power from Umar was eventually settled by fate when the Supreme Court invalidated Abubakar’s impeachment as Deputy Governor, consequently enthroning him as Acting Governor. Suntai clung to power until May 2015 when his tenure expired.
A HAPPY ENDING… ‘I LOVE YOU’
Suntai fizzled out of the limelight after leaving office — candidly put, after the office left him — and he started to struggle with funding for his expensive overseas treatment. But one thing he never lacked was his wife’s attention. On February 14, 2017, photos of his wife with him in hospital surfaced online.
Two things the photos succeeded in proving: the wheelchair-ridden Suntai was so frail and apparently neurologically unwell that he could never have been fit to rule his state in 2013 as claimed; and he had lost so much colour and fervour that if his wife could still present him an ‘I Love You’ memento, then she truly must be in love with him. Madly so.
While the first is bad news, the second is a privilege many alive cannot claim to have. For that, Suntai must count himself extraordinarily lucky — even in death.