By Owei Lakemfa
IN April 2012 when I was Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress NLC, then Congress President, Abdulwaheed Omar walked into my office to inform that he had just received a call from the Executive Governor of Taraba State, Danbaba Danfulani Suntai that he just landed at the Abuja airport and was heading to the NLC Office.
It was a shock to us as there was no previous contact. We also did not know what his mission was. The only hint we had was that he had stopped the Taraba State NLC Council elections and I had issued a statement that his action was illegal and will be challenged. We deliberated and concluded that it may not be strategic for us that the governor be seen driving in the normal Governor’s convoy with siren blaring into the NLC Office. More importantly, it may be better to avoid a direct meeting between him and the NLC President so we can tell him, we have to report back. So Omar agreed to call him, first to say he was unavailable, and secondly, that the Congress will send a delegation to meet him at a neutral venue not at the Congress or the Governor’s Lodge in Abuja. Suntai replied that since he was already on his way, it may be inappropriate for him to simply drive into a hotel or public place to hold a meeting. He persuaded Omar to let the meeting take place in the Lodge.
So NLC Deputy President, Kiri Mohammed and I met Suntai at the Lodge. After the initial courtesies, a curious Kiri noted that His Excellency seemed to be wearing a uniform. I interjected to say the governor was a pilot. He glowed. He seemed quite happy to be a pilot. I told him that I even knew when he graduated from the Aviation School in Zaria; that a bucket of water was poured on his head. He seemed quite impressed that I had followed his activities and said, he thought Taraba State was an isolated place that people will not pay much attention.
We then turned to the matter at hand. He said he had come to make a complaint against the NLC State Council, particularly its then Chairman. He claimed that the latter had constituted himself into the leader of opposition in the State, had become a security risk and was turning the NLC into an alternative government to the extent that it counters some of his directives. We asked him why he aborted the NLC Council elections. He said it was for security reasons.
We repeated that his action is illegal and unconstitutional as the constitution gives Nigerians the freedom of association including that to establish trade unions of their choice without interference. We also pointed out that he is not a member of the trade unions, so he had no business with the Council elections. After some arguments, I told him that following his abortion of the conference, I had spoken with the NLC Chair who claimed that State Government officials had campaigned against him and even decided to transfer him out of the State capital, but when it was clear he was still going to win the elections, armed policemen were sent to abort the conference. The Governor insisted that what he did was in the interest of the State. I told him that the NLC was calling a fresh conference in the State, advised him to let it hold, but that if he stopped it, Congress will not only challenge him, but will move the conference to a neigbouring state or Abuja.
The Governor said he was pro-workers, did not want an altercation with the NLC and promised to allow the new elections hold. But he asked for a concession; that the outgoing Chairman be barred from contesting the elections as a victory would undermine his standing or authority in the State. We told him it was impossible; that all workers who meet the Congress constitutional requirements have the right to contest and that we had screened all candidates before the State Council elections held nationwide and that the outgoing Chairman was eligible.
We told him that if workers voted for the Chairman then that meant he was representing them well and that it would be in the interest of his government to work with whoever emerges as the Chairman.
I then said that the Chairman had revealed to me that he and His Excellency were very close friends before he became governor. Suntai confirmed that but said the Chairman was an ingrate. He said he had offered the Chairman a seat in his cabinet, but that he had turned it down saying he preferred to remain the NLC Chairman, and that the latter had proposed his brother to take his place. He said in appreciation of his campaigns for him to be governor, he had appointed the Chairman’s brother as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and also agreed to give the NLC a choice land and build a secretariat for the State NLC but that the Chairman later turned against him.
I told Suntai I was impressed by the conduct of the Congress Chairman who rejected an appointment many lobby for and who despite his closeness to the governor remained upright leading the State’s workers. Suntai kept to his words; the State NLC elections held, the outgoing Chairman was re-elected and both men worked together as best as they could. He also retained the Chairman’s brother in his cabinet.
Suntai and I hit it off; he called me regularly when he came to Abuja. One day he proposed that I be his guest in the State. I politely declined and explaining that as NLC Scribe, I will be unable to explain convincingly, my presence in his aircraft piloted by him, and in any case, what explanation will I give Taraba Sate workers; that the Governor is my friend and that I was on a private visit? Sometimes when we met, he raised non-labour matters.
You can imagine my shock and sadness when news filtered on October 25, 2012 that Suntai’s aircraft, with him behind the controls, had crashed at the Yola international Airport. He survived with brain injuries, hearing and speech impairment. For five years he battled courageously against his injuries, at a time he even returned to office. I never met him again. On June 28, 2017, news came that he finally succumbed to his injuries; it was two days short of his 56th birthday. He was a gentleman who made governance seem easy. May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace and may God console his family and loyalists who stood by him at all times. Ameen.