“The people of Taraba State, to whom the power actually belongs, deserve better than this.”
The return, last Sunday, of Taraba Governor Danbaba Suntai from hospital in America, brings to mind the events of February 24, 2009, when a still seriously ill President Yar’Adua was smuggled back to Nigeria to preempt attempts to permit common-sense and the rule of law dictate a transfer of power to the deputy whose constitutional duty it was to take power in the prolonged absence of the President.
Since his return, Governor Suntai has not spoken publicly. He did not make any speeches at the airport, even though there was a crowd waiting to welcome him. He did not make a public broadcast to the people of the state, informing them that he is back in power. His deputy, who has run the state in his absence, has also not been allowed to see him. The only communication originating from the new arrival was a letter to the state legislature, notifying them of his return to office.
It is a puzzling state of affairs. Why is the Governor silent? Why has he not made a public appearance since his return? Why has he not met with his deputy?
His supporters would like us to believe that he is resting, on the advice of his doctors, after a long flight from America. ‘72 hours’ has been bandied around, as the period of rest prescribed.
Cynics believe that the governor is in no state of health – mental or physical – to run the state. Prevailing evidence supports this view. The two aides who were flown abroad days returned a long time ago; they were in hospital for only two months. The Governor was away for ten months, suggesting that his injuries were far more critical.
In all the time away no one publicly heard him speak – in this age of YouTube and Skype and Google Hangouts.
Until his return the only evidence of his existence was a couple of carefully composed photos released by his handlers. The best known is of him, seated and carrying one of his newborn twin babies (born a few months after the plane crash that sent him to hospital), surrounded by three persons, one of whom is his wife. With the vacant expression on his face it is a photo that does little to inspire confidence.
Photos of him alighting from a plane last Sunday are not much different. He’s walking, of course, but news reports make it clear he had to be assisted off the plane. The vacant look persists. In one of the images there is a disturbing startled expression on his face.
It is against this backdrop that the events of Wednesday August 28 should be seen. On that day, when the Governor was supposed to still be resting, he somehow managed to take time off his rest to fire his cabinet, and appoint two new officials. The cabinet dissolution was announced by the Governor’s spokesperson at a news conference. Silvanus Giwa, the spokesperson, said he was speaking on behalf of the Governor.
It shouldn’t be a problem, really. A Governor doesn’t need to personally announce the dissolution of his cabinet; he can get a spokesperson to issue a statement. But when you consider the prevailing circumstances in Taraba State, the news of the dissolution acquires an ominous tinge. Why couldn’t Governor Suntai wait for the purported period of rest to end before making that attempt to assert his authority?
What’s the rush about? If he’s concerned enough about governance to think that the state has had enough of a cabinet that ran the state in his lengthy absence, why isn’t he concerned enough about convincing the citizens that he is well enough to discharge his responsibilities as Governor.
Underlying the Yar’Adua and Suntai incidents (as well as the equally embarrassing Sullivan Chime one in Enugu, which has now mercifully ended) is one thing: a desperate conspiracy by the family and associates of an incapacitated public official to hold on to power on behalf of the official, in utter disregard for decency and propriety.
All the cases have involved staged publicity campaigns – purported radio interviews and phone calls in the case of Mr. Yar’Adua; staged photos and airport appearances in the cases of Mr. Chime and Mr. Suntai – everything to convince the world that all is well.
The reluctance to come clean about Mr. Suntai’s condition is actually understandable – even if absolutely inexcusable – in a country in which power is designed to be absolute, and to be wielded absolutely. The circumstances are tragic, no doubt, no one prays to lose a position as powerful as Governor, or President, on the basis of ill-health. If Mr. Suntai’s handlers come clean and admit that he is incapable of running the state, he will be compelled to relinquish power.
But the lawful and sensible and right thing to do is to acknowledge and face the truth. And that is where the Constitution of Nigeria comes in. Having envisaged circumstances such as this, the Constitution rightly prescribes a course of action based on the verifiable certainties of medical science, not the flow and ebb of human sentiment. In the event of uncertainty regarding a Governor’s health, the Constitution says that the Speaker of the House of Assembly shall appoint a panel of medical doctors to make a decision.
Now is the time to for that course of action to proceed in Taraba. This uncertainty has lingered far too long. Governor Suntai’s family and his handlers should learn from the past, and take the moral high ground in this instance.
It is either the Governor is medically fit to run the state, or he is not. No one but the constitutionally empowered medical team has the right to decide that, or the justification to delay that decision.
Enough is enough. It is time to put the interests of the people and the Constitution above that of a band of individuals obsessed with exploiting a man’s state of health to cling to power. The people of Taraba State, to whom the power actually belongs, deserve better than this.
(This piece was written on Wednesday, August 28.)
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