Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba is one person I have never met – in or out of office, officially or unofficially. However, it feels rather inhuman that it had to take the crash of the governor’s plane for us to revisit the issue of private jets in Nigeria.
Yes, in a country that can’t boast of one healthy local airline (private or public), we are said to rank fourth behind the United States, the United Kingdom and China in the number of privately owned jets. Of course, we’d be clinking glasses if ‘our private jets’ were owned by genuine businessmen. We’d be celebrating the dividends of astute business decisions.
But no, it’s our present and retired public officers (who have never been known with any business before and after public office) that own majority of the jets. The others are those the western media describe as evangelical entrepreneurs – prosperity preachers. Even as I write, it has not been confirmed that Gov Suntai owned the aircraft that he crashed in last Thursday.
What has been confirmed is that his Taraba state does not have an airport. And that the state is not one of the most developed in the country. But the media is awash with reports of how the governor flies himself all over the place in his private jet, how a preacherman owns a fleet of four planes, how governors are buying private jets left right and centre and changing them at the drop of a hat. All these, however, do not mean Suntai has stolen any money from Taraba.
His legitimate salary allowances can actually buy that aircraft several times over, if he so desired. In fact it is actually a function of the poverty that has eaten deep into our brains that we think that planes are so expensive that it is only the super rich or the super corrupt that can afford them. In reality, those who own aircraft say it is cheaper to own an aircraft than a fleet of three or four SUVs.
In fact, a lawmaker once told a story of how a small air craft was actually cheaper than the cost of two new Hummer jeeps and how you would beat all the traffic jams and travel faster and more conveniently. He did not however say anything about the fact that, unlike the Hummer jeep, he could not park the plane on a side street while he rushed to say hello to an old relation.
He did not also reveal that every time he lands at the airport, he’d still need one or two SUVs to continue the journey, nor that the annual cost of parking, maintenance and all can actually buy a couple of mint-fresh cars. But that is just by the way. I suspect those raising hell over our private jet owners are doing so simply because of the impression of affluence that ownership of an aircraft creates. Not everyone has patience to understand the economics of it all and the need to get around with minimal delay. It is the same reasoning that informs why someone who does not own a car finds it had to believe that another person who owns, say, three cars has need for three of them, and is not just indulging himself.
It is for the same reason that not too many people out there would understand why Suntai would be flown to Germany for treatment, while the aides whom he piloted into that crash are left at the National Hospital Abuja. The simplistic question would be: does Suntai have two heads?
Or, is he more man than the others? Nobody remembers that even if we look at things on their face value, Suntai, as the governor, would probably have a more generous insurance cover than the other aides. But then, when we are in public office, or are repositories of public trust, should we not just give a little thought to how our citizenry feel about certain things and conduct ourselves accordingly.
I guess, that is what has informed the decision to also fly the aides abroad for treatment. But left to me, I would have wanted every one of them to get treated at the National Hospital – that way, government would be compelled to bring that hospital up to world standard.
However, let’s all join hands in praying for the full recovery of the governor and his aides, after that we can then return to what ought to be and what ought not to be.
Does the North East really want to secede?
I grew up knowing a family friend who fought in the Biafran war. It was from him that I got all the stories about the war, long before I read any book on the war. I learnt of the heroics of untrained and ill-equipped Biafran soldiers who, most times, on empty stomachs, had to confront the relatively sophisticated federal troops on the Nsukka front, at Abagana etc. I heard near-fairy tales of how he had to lie among dead soldiers to deceive Nigerian soldiers that he was dead and later sprang a surprise on them.
This same family friend veteran of the Biafran war always had a one-track thought pattern on the issue of Nigerian unity, and that is: Since the Igbos were not allowed to go in peace and have their own country, no other ethnic group, tribe, region or geo-political zone would ever be allowed to leave the Nigeria union. After all, to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.
After several years of turning that line of thought over and over in my mind, I have since come to accept it, though with some modifications. We all will either swim or sink with Nigeria (even when the latter appears the more likely case). It is a one-chance bus that we have all boarded, and nobody would be allowed to disembark until we reach our destination (it does not matter if that destination is Golgotha). Nobody would be allowed to drop on the way to change direction. We would only throw out those who die in the course of the journey.
Nobody will leave alive. It is ‘till death do us part’. It is a Catholic marriage. So, you can imagine the big laugh I had penultimate week when that same family friend, now in his late 60s, called to draw my attention to a report that some leaders of the North East (minus the governors, who boycotted the meeting) were so enraged at the seeming marginalization (don’t think it is only the Igbos have the right to use that word about themselves and their fate in the Nigerian arrangement) of the zone by successive federal governments that they felt it might serve their interest better if they broke away from the Nigerian federation.
Of course that call was silenced right in the bud by the likes of Gen. T.Y. Danjuma, and other elder statesmen, who told the proponents of that line of thinking that he, as a young army officer, fought a civil war to keep Nigeria one and would not now, in his old age, sit at a meeting seeking to break up the country. Danjuma and other well meaning leaders of the zone insisted, and got the convener of the parley to withdraw that secession aspect of his speech before they could agree to continue to do business with him.
So, for them, the secession bit was dead on arrival. Much as I tried to convince my kinsman that the alleged North-East bid to secede was not a popular one and that most leaders of the zone were against it, he felt that the seed has been sown. ‘Gradually’, he said, ‘every group is seeing what the Igbos saw as far back as 1967. The only difference is that while the Igbos decided to bite the bullet then, nobody now is bold enough to put their money where their mouth is. But they will get there.
And when they do, the rest of Nigeria would be waiting to hack them down. And beat them back into line’. Yes, he is still that pained, 42 years after the war. According to him, the North East zone only beat a retreat on the secession idea when it dawned on them that this season of Boko Haram might not be the best time to seek to break away. They realized that even if they wanted to use the secession threat as a bargaining chip to get an increased chunk of the federal budget, Boko Haram is hardly the thing to put on the table for such negotiations.
Unserious as it might sound, my Biafran friend believes the rest of Nigeria, at this moment, would be willing to let the North East go. “In fact we are not only ready to forfeit all the mineral resources we have there (including oil at the Lake Chad basin), but we would also be willing to pay them off – as long as they take their Boko Haram with them”.
What he forgot, however, is that Boko Haram is no longer a North -east phenomenon. In fact, its two biggest hits have been in Abuja, the North central and North West. But, for the umpteenth time, let me make it clear that our union –in Nigeria is a catholic marriage – no provision for divorce.
It is only death that can ‘do us part’. I suspect even the Boko Haram people know this much. That is why they are killing everyone in sight, so that we can part at death – since we have refused to part alive.