After a deceptive lull, Nigeria is once again witnessing the kind of regrettable leadership crisis of 2009/2010 when an incumbent president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was smuggled out of the country for medical treatment. This time, the crisis is in Taraba State, North-East Nigeria. Governor Danbaba Suntai, who returned home last month from overseas, where he underwent medical treatment for 10 months following a plane crash he was involved in, is pitted in a battle of wits against his deputy, Garba Umar, who has been the acting Governor, for the control of the reins. There is serious tension and confusion in the state as to who is in control of political power.
Although Suntai returned home in broad daylight, which is different from the undercover return of the late Yar’Adua in 2010, there are some striking similarities in the conditions of the two men especially the influence of the cabals wielding power for them by proxy. The pro-Suntai group seems to be conducting the affairs of the state the same way the Turai Yar’Adua cabal held the Nigerian nation to ransom. During those dark days, the cabal wrongly prevented Goodluck Jonathan, the then vice-president, from assuming control of office, in spite of Yar’Adua’s incapacitation.
But the 1999 Nigerian Constitution is against the exercise of the powers of office by proxy. This much is argued by Itse Sagay, a constitution lawyer. “The suspicion is that a group of people, who are close to the governor, want to exercise the powers of the governor, though they are not constitutionally eligible to do so.” Considering what we know so far, the state has been living on the edge since Suntai dissolved the state executive council on his return. This masterstroke effectively checkmated the moves of the Taraba State House of Assembly and the deputy governor’s camp to move against the governor. Officials of government, political appointees and the lawmakers are sharply divided between the governor and his deputy, thus making the political atmosphere very convoluted.
Neither side has been able to take over the reins. While a faction of the legislature wants Umar to continue as acting governor by urging Suntai to “return to the United States to complete his medical treatment,” those backing him insist he is fit to resume duties. The legislature had rejected a letter from Suntai in which he declared his intention to resume duty, insisting that the governor had to appear before it physically so that his health condition could be ascertained. This has precipitated uncertainty.
As the power game continues, ordinary citizens in the state are suffering, while the crisis is also tarnishing the country’s image, making Nigeria an object of derision in the international community. At the centre of the saga is Nigeria’s lucrative politics. “Taraba (State) is in the grip of power-hungry and desperate cult hell-bent on plunging the state into a deeper political crisis,” says Shehu Sani, a civil rights activist. He is right. A resolution is therefore expedient. No state can develop in an atmosphere of uncertainty, distrust and an undisguised lust for political power to service selfish interests.
By their unrestrained attempts to grab power, both sides in the crisis are demonstrating their greed for the juicy perks of office, which officials enjoy at the expense of the rest of the society. They are not seeking power for the benefit of the majority. Their actions show that the political class has not learnt any lessons from the leadership crisis of the Yar’Adua era. This is in spite of the amendments to Sections 145 and 189 of the 1999 Constitution that deal with the incapacitation of an incumbent president and governors respectively.
Nigerian politicians must begin to practise good leadership values by stepping down honourably. In 1999, President Janet Jagan of Guyana stepped down for health reasons, while one of Myanmar’s vice-presidents, U Tin Aung Myint Oo, resigned from his post on health grounds in July, 2012. Narayan Datt Tiwari also took an honourable exit in December 2009 as governor of Andhra Pradesh in India. But if Suntai’s health is really bad and he refuses to leave with his honour intact, we make a strong case for the application of the rule of law.
Although some political observers believe that Suntai is not healthy enough for now to resume at his desk, and so should allow his deputy to continue as acting governor while he (Suntai) fully recuperates, the constitution, being the supreme authority of the land, should be allowed to prevail. With time, it will be clear to all whether Suntai is fit as the demands of office require high physical and mental energy. If he fails these constitutional obligations, it is then the assembly can take action by removing him from office.