After about four and a half years of battling injuries he sustained in an air crash, former governor of Taraba State, Danbaba Suntai, finally died on Wednesday, two days to his 56th birthday.
Mr. Suntai died in Houston, Texas in the United States where he was recuperating.
He had sustained brain injuries on October 25, 2012 when a small plane he was flying from his state capital, Jalingo, with five of his aides to Yola, capital of neigbouring Adamawa State, went down.
The Cessna 208 aircraft marked 5N-BMJ, crashed behind the NNPC depot along Yola-Numan Road at about 7 p.m. after losing contact with the Yola Control Tower, 38 miles to landing.
The former governor, who trained as a private pilot at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT, in Zaria for 30 months, was rushed to the German Specialist Hospital, Yola before being taken to the National Hospital, Abuja.
He was later flown to Germany and in March, the following year, he was transferred to a hospital in the U.S.
The other occupants of the ill-fated aircraft, which included his aide-de-camp, Dasat Iliya, chief detail, Joel Danladi and the chief security officer, Timo Dangana, who were also critically injured were also flown to Germany after a stint at the National Hospital.
Mr. Suntai, a pharmacist, was elected governor of Taraba State, northeastern Nigeria, on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in 2007.
He was re-elected in 2011.
He was the second civilian governor of the state after Jolly Nyame, a clergyman, who ran the state for three terms. Mr. Nyame was governor between 1992 and 1993 and then 1999 and 2007.
The air accident did not only cause Mr. Suntai’s unceremonious exit from Government House, it also slipped his state into a political crisis that was to last almost three years.
Shortly before the crash, Mr. Suntai had allegedly instigated the impeachment of his deputy, Abubakar Danladi, who interestingly was sacked by the Supreme Court last Friday as the senator representing Taraba North.
Mr. Danladi, who was running mate to Mr. Suntai in both the 2007 and 2011 elections, was impeached on October 4, 2012 by the State House of Assembly for allegedly diverting projects, including those of Federal Government/World Bank Millennium Development Goals in the state for his personal interest.
He was replaced with Garba Umar. But just three weeks later, Mr. Suntai was involved in the air crash, paving the way for his new deputy to assume power as acting governor in accordance with Section 190 (2) of the Nigerian Constitution.
The section states, “In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the House of Assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of the House, mandate the Deputy Governor to perform the functions of the office of the Governor as Acting Governor, until the Governor transmits a letter to the Speaker that he is now available to resume his functions as Governor.”
But after sometime, speculations began to mount that Mr. Umar, a Muslim, was scheming to permanently displace his ailing Christian principal and become the substantive governor of a state where religion plays a large role in politics.
Opponents accused the deputy governor and his supporters of mounting a media campaign that Mr. Suntai could never function again as governor because of his damaged brain.
As if to lend credence to the accusation, Mr. Umar also fired his principal’s aides.
However, the late governor’s supporters mounted a strong defence in the media, claiming their man’s state of health was not as bad as being painted.
Amid the political drama and tension, Mr. Suntai was ferried back home 10 months later, in August 2013. His return was to further fuel the drama.
He arrived the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, accompanied by his wife, Hauwa, in a manner that suggested he was forced back to contain the political tension in the state and also keep him in power until his second term expired.
At the airport to receive him were the current governor of the state, Darius Ishaku, a former Water Resources Minister, Obadiah Ando, a former minister and a former Information Minister, Jerry Gana.
Mr. Suntai, wearing a grey suit, emerged from the aircraft aided by some persons holding him.
Although it was apparent that he required great effort to wave to the people gathered to welcome him, his associates insisted he was “mentally alert.”
It was clear that he was not in the state of health to resume work.
In Jalingo, Mr. Umar, who had been kept in the dark while Mr. Suntai’s return was being planned, was blocked from receiving his principal.
The former acting governor managed to steer the affairs of the state amid opposition from Mr. Suntai’s camp until November 2014, when the Supreme Court declared Mr. Danladi’s impeachment wrong and reinstated him as deputy governor.
Mr. Danladi’s reinstatement restored some stability in the state as he worked with Mr. Suntai’s supporters through the last six months of the ailing governor’s tenure.
In order to sustain his position, the returnee deputy governor, had to work with Mr. Suntai’s backers. Mr. Danladi not only backed power shift to the southern part of the state, he also benefitted from the political arrangement by being elected to the Senate the following year.
Born on June 30, 1961, in Suntai, Bali Local Government Area, Mr. Suntai attended the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where he studied pharmacy.
His foray into politics began in 1989 when he was elected chairman of the local government area.
He served until 1993. He then served as Director-General of the Taraba State Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resource between 1994 and 1996.
When civil rule was restored in Nigeria in 1999, Mr. Suntai became the chairman of the defunct All Peoples Party (later All Nigeria Peoples Party.)
He was named the Chairman of the Taraba State Investment and Properties Limited in 2000 and thereafter served as Commissioner of Education between 2000 and 2003, Health between 2005 and 2005, and Secretary to the State Government between 2005 and 2007 when he was elected governor.
His emergence as governorship candidate of the PDP in the state had also been controversial. Danladi Baido had won the ticket during the party primary.
However, two months to the main election, the national secretariat of the then ruling party replaced Mr. Baido with Mr. Suntai.
The former reportedly backed the latter in the election but soon after their relationship turned sour.
Indeed, Mr. Suntai allegedly threatened to harm Mr. Baido, who in June 2009, claimed that an attempt was made on his life.
Not long after, Mr. Suntai fell out with Mr. Nyame, his predecessor.
The three time governor, like many other governors, had orchestrated Mr. Suntai’s choice to replace Mr. Baido allegedly to safeguard his legacy.
The battle of the duo was so intense that Mr. Nyame defected from the PDP to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN.
It was alleged that Mr. Nyame’s trial for corruption was instigated by his late successor.
Mr. Suntai did not spare Mr. Ando, whom he nominated as minister.
He accused Mr. Ando of working against the PDP at some point.
The late governor is credited with some developmental projects in the state.
For instance, in 2009, he commissioned a N540 million computerized stone-crushing and asphalt plant to provide road building materials.
Besides, he initiated reforms to ensure transparency at the local government level.
His administration was also credited with the reduction of the state’s monthly pension bill from N33 million to N22 million.
Mr. Suntai was to face a major challenge when a group that styled itself “Concerned Indigenes of Taraba State” petitioned the EFCC and ICPC accusing his administration of fraudulent practices.
His former Commissioner for Information, Emmanuel Bello, a journalist, in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday, expressed the sorrow of his supporters over Mr. Suntai’s passing.
“The death of Suntai is shocking, painful and ultimately it is one of the saddest moments of our history.
We feel terribly bad because of his legacy and what he stood for as a person and as governor,” Mr. Bello said.