When news emerged that an aircraft with Taraba State Governor Danbaba Suntai on board had crashed, many assumed he was a passenger on a commercial airline and prepared for the worst: that hundreds of Nigerians would inevitably perish along with him.
It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge – that it was a private plane – which the governor himself was flying. The story is that the Cessna 208 with five people on board came down about 15 kilometres short of its Yola airport destination.
Eye witnesses spoke of the strong smell of aviation fuel at the crash scene and surmised that only the rainy season and the damp terrain had prevented the downed plane from bursting into flames and roasting the governor and his passengers to death.
Stories have since emerged that Suntai even piloted President Jonathan to and from project sites in Taraba State a week earlier during the latter’s visit to the state. If the claims are true (even Doyin Okupe has not denied it), the question is, what if Suntai had crashed the plane with Jonathan on board, and what if the result had been fatal?
The pictures of the crashed plane showed how narrowly the governor and his aides had escaped being burned alive even if they had survived the impact of the crash. Not long afterwards, pictures of Governor Suntai in a pilot’s uniform emerged – drooping over his shoulders – but with the governor feeling very cool with himself. One was reminded of Boy Scouts or army cadets posing in their uniforms for the first time.
Still, the comical aspect should not detract from the posers: if Suntai had truly flown Jonathan, what if the president had been killed in a crash in a plane that he should never had flown in, and with a pilot that should never had flown a president?
The first observation is that President Jonathan’s security operatives displayed unbelievable lack of professionalism and put the president’s life in great risk by allowing him to be piloted by a 51 old man trying to play Boy Scout. The Presidential Fleet has some of Nigeria’s best trained pilots and it is their duty to fly the president and other key functionaries. If the president needed to flown around in a helicopter, why didn’t a plane from the fleet dash to Taraba to convey him?
The second reflection is on the propensity of governors to embark on prestige projects that add little value to the lives of citizens. While it is true that the contract for the Jalingo airport was awarded by the previous administration, the questions still remain: how many people fly, or can afford to fly in Taraba, and what would be the destination? Incidentally, Delta, Bauchi, Kebbi, Gombe, Jigawa, Bayelsa, Zamfara and Ekiti also have airports that serve little purpose or are planning to build one.
Still, lapses in presidential security and poor judgment of governors aside, the most critical fallout of a Suntai/ Jonathan crash would have been on the political scene. With Nigeria as divided as it is, thanks to the divisive politics of presidential elections, who would have believed that the president was not deliberately killed to ensure that a northerner becomes president?
Forget the fact that Suntai, along with Jerry Gana, Solomon Lar, David Mark and other key leaders from the Middle Belt played major roles in Balkanizing the North to ensure that Jonathan stayed on as president. Forget the fact that the presumptive heir apparent – Vice President Namadi Sambo has little clout within the northern political establishment, and even less among the masses. Forget the fact that Suntai, like Jonathan is a Christian and would certainly not embark on a suicide mission to kill a kindred spirit.
None of those considerations would have mattered if Jonathan had been killed in a plane being flown by a northerner – any northerner. Conceivably, Nigeria would have been engulfed in serious political crises.
It would have a weak president that had little support from the north and even less from the south. Jonathan’s supporters – and Niger Delta militants would have returned to the creeks to wreak havoc. With security operatives already stretched by the Boko Haram insurgency, it would have been tough to move more soldiers to the creeks once again – the proverbial fighting a war on two fronts.
The most dangerous scenario would have come into play when religion cropped up – with Christians claiming that a bomb had been planted on the aircraft – meaning that both the president and the governor had been victims of a Muslim conspiracy, since both men would have been replaced by Muslims.
All said, it was a very fortunate thing that Pilot Suntai crashed his plane when he did (and survived) and not a week earlier when he had Captain Jonathan on board. No one would have believed it was accident. That is the nature of politics in Nigeria today.