By Imikan Attah
In the northeastern state of Taraba, the people there are about to hold their first state burial. It’s to bid farewell to their well-loved former first citizen and second elected governor. The man sometimes referred to as the architect of modern Taraba State.
Friday June 30th could have been the 56th birthday of the pharmacist cum state chief executive, Danbaba Danfulani Suntai.
But two days before that day, in faraway Florida, USA, Suntai answered his Maker’s call in the early hours of the morning, leaving without so much as an indication of ill health or a farewell. The unenviable task of breaking this news fell on the shoulders of Suntai’s former information commissioner, Emmanuel Bello who is currently the Senior Special Assistant to Governor Darius Ishaku. It was a hard task indeed, but it had to be done.
The news brought shock and sadness to the entire nation, not just to that state. For Taraba State, it was the crowning of bad news. Only five days earlier, the man popularly called Taraba’s Golden Voice; Sylvanus Yakubu Giwa slumped in his office and was rushed into intensive care.
An hour later, he was pronounced dead. Sylvanus Giwa was the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Media and Publicity. He was also the first and only one to serve three governors in that capacity and even the incumbent. Governor Ishaku was himself overcome with shock and grief at the sudden death of the man he had seen less than 24 hours earlier, hale and hearty.
Sylvanus Giwa, a seasoned broadcaster was also the longest serving GM of Taraba Television Corporation. He was a Senior Correspondent with Channels TV and AIT. He was also one of my bosses and I learnt a lot from him. A few weeks back, Giwa was laid to rest at his hometown, Takum, leaving behind a wife and three children. During his funeral, the Taraba State governor confirmed what Sylvanus taught me. Governor Ishaku said Giwa was hardworking and was committed to discharging responsibilities assigned to him with utmost diligence.
I join others in expressing my heartfelt condolences over the passing on of the wonderful Mr. Sylvanus Giwa.
The grief in Taraba State is thus great now over the demise of the man who, five years before, had been involved in a nail-biting plane crash and survived; even though with serious injuries.
Roll back five years before now; what really happened in that aircraft with Suntai and others that October evening?
On Thursday October 25th, 2012, a private plane, which left Jalingo for Yola, lost contact with Yola Control Tower. Suntai as is well known was the pilot. The plane was just due to come in for landing. Suntai battled to raise the plane without success.
Shortly, the plane crashed into a farm near an NNPC depot in Namtari village on the outskirts of Yola. Miraculously no one died in the crash!
The Federal Ministry of Aviation released a statement on the crash that night an excerpt of which reads “Incident involving Aircraft Cessna 208, 5N – BMJ in Yola, Adamawa State “An aircraft, Cessna 208 with 6 souls on board including crew…”
I can say with all assurance that this is incorrect. For one thing, the type of plane involved, the Cessna 208 is a single-pilot aircraft. Eyewitnesses who were the first on the scene insist there were only four people on board. My own rigorous investigation also confirmed that there were four people only on board that plane that night – identified as Governor Suntai and his security personnel. A search and rescue team located all crash victims alive although with varying degrees of injury. Mr Joe Obi, Media Assistant to the Aviation Minister in the above statement he issued at nine-thirty that night said nobody died in the plane crash but it did not stop the rumour mill, which was awash with “ Governor Suntai is dead”, “Suntai has died in a plane crash”. That rumour rang louder in the ears of Nigerians than the sketchy statement from the Aviation Ministry. Even the Presidency spokesperson tweeted the “governor’s death”! But Suntai did not die. Yes, he sustained terrible injuries. What happened was that Suntai was the last person that was rescued that night. He had been trapped in the wreckage, stuck in the cockpit and strapped to his seat.
Suntai was flown to the National Hospital, Abuja in the early hours of October 26. That same day, he was taken in an air ambulance to Germany for urgent medical attention. Apart from Suntai, his Aide-de-camp, Ilyasu Dasat, sustained serious injuries in the crash and was flown to a German hospital for treatment. He returned to the country nine months later. Thus started Suntai’s second medical leave abroad, the first being in 2009. Then, he had cheated death in a near fatal case of food poisoning immediately upon his return from annual vacation. He had to go to Germany for detoxification.
This second time though, it involved long and intensive medical care and physiotherapy, as he was the one most badly injured in the crash.
The Taraba State House of Assembly duly invoked Section 190 (2) of the Constitution and empowered then Deputy Governor Garba Umar to become Acting Governor on November 14, 2012. Suntai dramatically returned to the country exactly 10 months after the crash on August 25, 2013. He was just two years into his second term. He still managed to complete his tenure after treatment for injuries he sustained but he was in and out of foreign hospitals for over a year.
In the ensuing period, there was more nationwide alarm; this time ending in tragedy when a naval helicopter crashed in Bayelsa State killing Sir Patrick Yakowa, the Kaduna State Governor and other dignitaries on Saturday December 15th, less than two months after Suntai’s crash.
Danbaba Suntai returned to Taraba State late 2014 in the run up to the elections but was restricted to Jalingo. He participated in the politicking leading up to the last general elections. Another professional, Architect Darius Ishaku won the election to emerge governor of Taraba State in 2015.
Suntai remained in Jalingo until later that year when his condition deteriorated, forcing him to relocate to Orlando Florida where he took up private residence. Physiotherapists and doctors came in periodically to attend to him. That Danbaba Suntai became governor was the most unexpected event to happen to him when it did.
Suntai studied Pharmacy at ABU and did his youth service at the State Hospital, Abeokuta, and Ogun State. But Suntai’s real desire was to become a pilot; nonetheless, he stepped into politics, going first to the APP (later ANPP), then joining the PDP.
He rose through various positions until he was appointed Secretary to the State Government in 2005. When 2007 rolled in, the PDP conducted all its party primaries including gubernatorial.
Suntai did not contest any.
Then Danladi Baido won the governorship primary, but was later disqualified in the run up. Just two months to elections, the party national secretariat replaced Danladi Baido with Dambaba Suntai who had not even contested the primary and Baido threw his support behind Suntai and in April that year, Suntai won the election to become the second elected governor of Taraba State. In April 2011, Suntai contested and won a second term in office.
A grateful Suntai appointed Baido’s nominee, Sanni Danladi, as deputy governor and also made Baido Chief of Staff but sadly the two later fell out.
Then in January 2014, Baido and Suntai reunited and reconciled at the Government House, Jalingo. A year later, Baido won election into the House of Representatives in 2015 and is now a member of the House of Representatives in Abuja.
On May 29, 2007 Dambaba Suntai was sworn in as Taraba governor, the first and only Pharmacist in Nigeria to become a governor. Still, Suntai pursued his burning ambition to be in the cockpit. He enrolled at the Nigerian College of Aviation, Zaria (incidentally, where I grew up).
In 2010, he became a licensed pilot and flew his aircraft scores of times successfully even while serving as governor. One of his daughters is currently a pilot in the U.S. Sadly, one and a half years into his second term, he had that awful crash. Just one and a half years ago too, he left Nigeria for America where he was living successfully in rehabilitation.
And so it was, that five years after the crash, the man Suntai quietly passed on in Florida and will be laid to rest in the state he worked very hard to develop and modernize.
Imikan Attah is reachable on 07055547031 (SMS & WHATSAPP)