NIGERIA: The Taraba Intrigues

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Power mongers are plotting to stoke a political crisis in Taraba State by flying in the ailing governor, Danbaba Suntai, who is believed to be incapacitated following the injuries he sustained in a plane crash last year, writes Wole Ayodele. Additional reports by Shola Oyeyipo and Nkiruka Okoh

It is not by sheer accident that the continued absence of Taraba State Governor, Mr. Danbaba Suntai, from Jalingo, the state capital, has continued to attract attention in recent weeks. This is so because of subterranean moves to foist on the state the political drama Nigeria was treated to during the period of the prolonged sickness of former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua that eventually claimed his life.

While the late president was battling to live, those around him kept lying to the nation that he was recovering and would soon be back at his duty post all in a bid to deny his deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, from taking over his job as stipulated by the constitution.
Less than two weeks after the Taraba State acting Governor, Alhaji Garba Umar, declared to the people  that Suntai would soon be discharged from his hospital in the United States to return to the country, facts started emerging of a plot to smuggle in the ailing governor.

Umar’s statement, made during his broadcast on Democracy Day, has since stirred a controversy over Suntai’s continued absence from his duty post.

“We are pleased to note that the medical condition of our leader, His Excellency, Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai (CON) has remained progressively stable and is expected to be discharged soon from John Hopkins Hospital in the USA, where he has been receiving further treatment after his initial round at a German Hospital,” he said in the broadcast.

But reports that followed Umar’s visit suggested otherwise and had further thrown the state into needless political turmoil. Reports had it that the ailing governor might be far from recovering from the injuries sustained in the crash. Not only was he said to have been unable to recognise his deputy during the visit despite the fact that a picture of him and his wife receiving the acting governor was posted on the internet to give fillip to the fact that he actually received him, he was also said to be partially blind.  

Unfortunately, since the ill-fated plane crash on October 25, 2012, controversy, misinformation and uncertainty surrounding Suntai’s state of health have continued to put the state in negative light.

First, on the night of the crash, reports had it that Suntai had died along with four of his aides which eventually turned out to be false. He was immediately evacuated to the German unit of the Specialist Hospital in Yola, before he was moved to the National Hospital in Abuja and then, flown to Germany.

While in Germany, it was reported that he was brain damaged as a result of the injuries and that he might be unable to function effectively again as governor, adding that it could take some time before he fully recovers and returns to the country.

The report generated controversy and government was compelled to refute it, insisting that Suntai was not brain damaged and was actually responding positively and fast too, to treatment. Government also reiterated the fact that he would soon return to the country to continue his good work in the state.

Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr. Emmanuel Bello, a loyalist of Suntai, implored the people of the state to shun the negative reports but urged them to continue to pray for his quick recovery.

But based on the development, there was pressure on the state House of Assembly, especially by opposition elements, to direct the State Executive Council to constitute a medical panel that would determine the true state of health of the governor or better still, declare him incapacitated and swear in his deputy, Umar, who had earlier been proclaimed acting governor by the assembly. The opposition suspected conspiracy to cover up the true state of Suntai.

A few days after refuting the report, pictures of Suntai appeared in the media to buttress claims that he was responding positively to treatment and would soon be discharged to return to Taraba. In one of the pictures, he was seen carrying one of the twins his wife gave birth to a few weeks after the plane crash. In another, he sat with the Taraba State Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Victor Bala Kona, flanked by another family friend while his younger brother, Babangida Suntai, stood behind them.
Even at that, the authenticity of the pictures was called to question by Suntai’s opponents, who were quick to discredit them as not genuine. Dismissing the pictures, the opposition, mainly from Suntai’s party, the PDP, insisted they were computer creation and not a reflection of the reality. They challenged the state government to televise Suntai or better still, arrange for him to address the people of the state in a live broadcast.

But before the dust generated by the pictures evaporated, another was raised following views expressed by erstwhile Medical Director of the State’s Specialists Hospital, Prof. Aliyu Zakari, in an interview with a national daily. Zakari, in the interview, had stressed that Suntai’s case was getting worse in the German Hospital where he was admitted and that there was need to urgently transfer him to John Hopkins Hospital in the United States for better treatment.

The interview was considered to be in bad taste by the state House of Assembly which quickly set up a panel headed by Hon. Edward Baraya representing Karim II to probe the views expressed by the 42-year-old Professor of Medicine and ascertain the motives behind his comments as well as determine his competence to make such comments.

When he appeared before the panel, Zakari told the lawmakers that what he disclosed in the interview was just a tip of the iceberg. But a few days after his controversial comments, he ceased to be Medical Director of Jalingo Specialist Hospital as he was removed in hazy circumstances.

But in a twist, few weeks after Zakari’s appearance before the committee, there was a rumble in the assembly and like a Tsunami, the leadership led by Istifanus Haruna Gbana, was swept away over allegations of financial impropriety, even though former deputy speaker, Hon. Abel Peter Diah, said the leadership was removed because of its loyalty to Suntai.

While Umar continued to steer the ship of state amidst the political convolution, the state chapter of PDP remained deeply factionalised as a section of the party led by Senators Abubakar Tutare and Jummai Aisha Alhassan, representing Taraba Central and North respectively, including immediate past state Chairman of the party, Alhaji Abdulmumuni Vaki, continued their opposition to the composition of the state executive of the party put in place by Suntai and led Kona.

The group had been calling for the conduct of a fresh PDP congress in the state before Suntai’s accident; they however stepped up their agitation for the dissolution of the Kona-led executive with the absence of Suntai, who had been sustaining the leadership.

In a move to resolve the festering crisis in the state chapter of the party, the National Working Committee (NWC) set up a seven-man committee, headed by Senator Hope Uzodima, to look into the crisis and recommend ways of resolving the crisis. But the inauguration of the committee by the PDP NWC was viewed in certain quarters as an attempt by the party leadership to pave the way for the eventual recognition of Umar as the substantive governor of the state.

After the inauguration of the committee which had two weeks to submit its report, a Jalingo High Court, presided over by Justice Nuhu S. Adi, ruling on an ex parte motion brought before him by Mr.  E.A. Ibrahim Effiong, counsel to Alhaji Garba Julde and Hon. Sale Audu Abu, restrained the members of the committee from acting on the terms of reference given to them by PDP pending the determination of the motion on notice filed by the plaintiffs which has been fixed for hearing today, June 17, 2013.

The judge equally restrained PDP or its agents, servants or any of its organs from receiving and/or implementing any report submitted to it by the second to eighth defendants/respondents or any other committee instituted by the first defendant insofar as any such report touches on or relates to the absence from office of the governor  and performance of the functions of that office in acting capacity by the deputy governor, who is now the acting governor pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice before the court.
Other members of the PDP committee, apart from Uzodima, are Mr. Ahmed Gulak, Alhaji Shittu Muhammed, Alhaji Bala Buhari, Prof. Richard King, Mrs. Bolajoko Doherty and Senator Abubakar U. Gada.

In yet another move considered an attempt to checkmate plans by the PDP and the committee to wade into the matter, reports had it that there was a plan to fly the ailing governor into the country. The move was said to have been predicated on an alleged plan by Jonathan to convene a meeting of PDP leaders with a view of finding a solution to the political imbroglio in the state.
There are fears that the State House of Assembly is now under intense pressure to raise a medical panel to examine whether Suntai is incapacitated or would still be able to continue in office.

But the senator representing Taraba South and a close associate of Suntai, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, said he was not aware of any plan to bring the governor back into the country but wondered still if there was anything wrong in the governor returning to the country if he’s fully recovered.

“I don’t think there is any controversy. I’m not aware of any plan to bring the governor back into the country as being insinuated. But in any case, is there anything wrong if the governor has recovered and he wants to return home? Again, the acting governor has just returned to the country from his visit to the governor and he would be in a better position to tell whether there is a move to bring him home on the governor’s condition.”

Also debunking reports that Suntai could not recognise anyone much less his deputy, including plans to smuggle him back into the country in the cover of the night, Bello, Commissioner for Information, said the reports lacked merit on all fronts.

“First was the source on the acting governor’s entourage to make that observation. If so, why is the source anonymous? Second, why didn’t the writers of the story make an attempt to confirm their sources assertion directly from the acting governor?

“The truth is that Suntai recognised the acting governor and even called him by name. There are reputable eyewitnesses at the hospital to testify to this. The reporters should have found out from the source if he or she was present during the said encounter. What is more, Suntai can recognise everyone and everything around him as attested to by even his doctors in a recent report.”

Just as it seemed Bello’s reaction would douse tension and calm nerves, a source from the State Government House, was quoted as alleging that Suntai’s younger brother who was staying with him in US has been impersonating him, making calls to people as if he were the governor because their voices sound alike. This was being done with a view to deceiving people that the governor is fast recovering.

“The younger brother to the governor has the same voice with the governor. He is the one making the calls, pretending to be the governor. We met him with the governor when we accompanied the acting governor to see the governor recently in United States,” the source was quoted as saying.

Apparently in a move to compel the State Executive Council and the State House of Assembly to commence moves to declare Suntai incapacitated and swear in the acting governor as substantive governor, 16 persons, led by Senator Saleh Usman Danboyi,  last Wednesday approached a Federal High Court in Abuja to determine whether having regard to the provision of section 189 and the present health condition of the governor, the state assembly was constitutionally under obligation to comply with the provisions of section 189(1) of the 1999 Constitution.

The section provides that “The Governor or Deputy Governor of a State shall cease to hold office if by a resolution passed by two-thirds majority of all members of the executive council of the State, it is declared that the Governor or Deputy Governor is incapable of discharging the functions of his office.”

Joined as defendants in the suit filed by counsel to the plaintiffs, Yahaya Mahmood (SAN) are the PDP, Attorney General of the Federation as well as Attorney General of the state and the state House of Assembly.

In a 25-paragraph affidavit deposed to by Danboyi, he averred that as indigenes of the state and members of the PDP, the plaintiffs were worried and concerned about the rumoured and suspected incapacitation of the governor, and his health condition. He added that the governor's condition was affecting the progress and development of the state just as he averred that the defendants had a duty to take steps to verify the correct health condition of the ailing governor.

However, when the case came up Wednesday, the trial judge, Justice Elvis Chukwu, ruled that the suit should have been filed at the Taraba Division of the court, since there was no security threat in the state.

With eight months already gone since he was moved out of the country and with the attendant interest already generated by the political situation in the state, political observers in the state seem unanimous that the controversy would continue until the ailing governor returns to the country or alternatively, when the acting governor steps in as substantive governor.

Reacting to the growing tension in the state, lawyer and rights activist, Mr. Festus Keyamo, explained that “It is time to remove the governor because it is now clear that he is totally incapacitated. The Taraba State House of Assembly should ascertain his state of health from doctors.  Once his state of health is ascertained and it is clear that he is not capable of governing the state, they should proceed to remove him on medical ground.”

Another lawyer, Fred Agbaje, said the revelation coming from Taraba State has justified a need for a technical amendment to the tenure of governors' period of medical incapacity. “The present position on the period of incapacity as stated in the constitution is vague. The period of incapacity, if beyond three weeks, such a governor should tender his resignation. Where such governor refuses to resign, he should be impeached.”

He therefore advised the Taraba State House of Assembly to tell the governor to call it a day and swear in the deputy governor.
On his part, Mr. Nelson Ogbuanya, a senior lecturer at the Nigerian Law School and Country Representative for Nigeria, American Bar Association Section of International Law, stated that the absence of the Taraba state governor from office does not imply that there is a power vacuum in the state.

“Let the deputy governor play the role of the governor. If a governor is absent, the next person should be in charge. The role a deputy plays is that of a spare tyre. If a tyre gets flat during the course of a journey, the journey cannot be truncated when you have a spare tyre.

“There is no need overheating the polity. The governor is not dead; impeachment is a hostile political option. The deputy governor should be allowed to function. As long as the deputy is functioning, they (governor and deputy) are coordinating. The state is not moribund. Where the deputy is not functional, impeaching the governor does not salvage the situation, as the deputy governor takes over the helm of affairs of the state and he becomes a governor who is inactive.”

However, calling for a review of the constitution on the duties of a deputy governor, Ogbuanya added: “The constitution, unfortunately, has not delegated specific roles to the office of the deputy governor, I believe that with the ongoing constitutional amendment, the constitution should clear the role and give them assignment; don’t allow the deputy governors lie fallow, so that in unforeseen events, where the governor is absent, the deputy can easily take on the responsibility of overseeing the state.

“After all, if no basic role of the deputy is provided by the constitution, then why put the office? If the role of a deputy governor was not important, it would not have been provided for. It is important that deputy governors have clearly defined constitutional roles and be made visible.

“How many states can boast of a deputy governor that is as active as the governor? How many people know the names of the deputy governors of their states? Most of them are living in the shadow of their governors; they don’t exude confidence to handle serious responsibilities, thus the people don’t trust them and they (deputy governors) don’t trust themselves either,” he said.

Citing Vice-President Namadi Sambo and the activities that made him quite visible in the affairs of the country, Ogbuanya held that once a deputy can hold forth and perform the functions of his boss in his absence, it will strengthen the democracy of the nation.
Ogbuanya, therefore, concluded that the call for impeachment of the governor was a hostile move and if it eventually pulls through, both the governor and the deputy would have to go for peace to reign in the state and that would be a burdensome process for the democracy of Taraba State.

Speaking also, a Lagos-based lawyer, Stanley Imharuor, was of the opinion that the impeachment of the governor should be the last resort in Taraba State. “The governor ought to have placed his deputy in an acting capacity, but given the nature of his accident, it is not certain if that was done. The state house can empower the deputy to act accordingly.”

Using the late Yar’Adua experience as an example where the doctrine of necessity was invoked by the senate to place Jonathan in acting capacity, Imharuor was of the position that if the deputy governor had been empowered and given the mantle of the acting governor, taking the route of impeachment would be hasty.

However, if the deputy governor had not been empowered to run the state, then impeachment might not be a bad option, as it would be for the benefit of running the state, he said.

Another lawyer, but based in Abuja, Ifeanyi Okechukwu, stated that “the impeachment of the governor is not an option to be explored. If the governor is not around, the deputy should keep on deputising; it should not be a power chase. The constitutional amendment has now taken care of the absence of a sitting president or governor,” he said.

But he also noted that the constitution amendment still has some lacuna, regarding the period when the deputy should take over from his absent superior.

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