Backstory: Helicopter crash, brain damage | Reliving Danbaba Suntai’s slow death

On Wednesday, former Taraba governor, Danbaba Suntai passed on. According to a former commissioner of information in the state, Emmanuel Bello, the “former governor died in the United States”.


In 2012, when Goodluck Jonathan was Nigerian president and terrorist sect, Boko Haram was frantically ravaging Nigeria’s North East, the then governor of Taraba state, Danbaba Suntai flew an aircraft, Cessna 208, 5N-BMJ, carrying five other people including his security detail. The journey from Taraba to Yola was aborted when Governor Suntai lost contact with the Yola Control Tower and eventually crashed the aircraft into some hills close to the Adamawa airport at about 7.45pm.

It was the most unlikely and unanticipated event in its time and search and rescue efforts took over 90 minutes before any of the victims were found in the hills. Pilot Suntai was found alive but in an unconscious state and was later moved to the Federal Medical Centre in Yola then to the National Hospital, Abuja and finally to Germany.

[Read also: Why it is now difficult to feel sympathy for Suntai]

That crash incident was the beginning of many troubles for Governor Dantata Suntai, his health and his place in power. There were conflicting reports on tabloids: the deputy governor was nursing an ambition to overtake government in the governor’s absence the deputy publicly debunked the claims describing them as “misleading and mischievous”. He maintained that the governor was not dead but unwell and remained in charge of the running of the state.

As ludicrous as it was at the time, the state’s House of Assembly confirmed the rumours. “Medical doctors of the governor have to confirm that he’s not fit to continue in that office before an acting governor would be sworn-in…Here, the governor is still alive and from reports, he is still physically and mentally fit to act and function as governor. Therefore, there’s no basis at this stage to swear-in an acting governor“.

True to all the reports, the governor was calling the shots in the state from his sickbed in faraway Germany. He sent directives to approve and release funds for a state project.


Less than three months after the crash, Governor Suntai was discharged from the German hospital and was checked in for physiotherapy. At the time, reports were flying around that the governor was experiencing a complete loss to his brain function but the state’s commissioner for information, Emmanuel Bello shut them down. “It is not true that the governor is brain dead. He spoke to some of his aides, including me on Christmas Day. He is in his right senses and during his discussion with us, it did not suggest in any way of someone whose brain has been damaged.

In August 2013, Suntai returned to the country ready to return to his governorship duties but there was a major issue. He still was not fit to rule. He refused to address the press, a move that indicated his health had not been restored.

The governor’s physician, Prof Aliyu, validated the suspicions when he revealed, “The basic problem that I saw with Governor Danbaba when I was with him included things like expressive aphasia (characterized by the loss of the ability to produce language—spoken or written), some degree of receptive aphasia (a patient’s inability to comprehend language or speak with appropriately meaningful words), and spinal cord persistent.”

The Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL) threatened to drag the state to court if a medical panel was not set up to investigate the governor’s medical state in seven days, in accordance to Section 189 (4) of the 1999 Constitution.

It didn’t take too long before a video surfaced online where the governor was supposedly addressing the people of his state. The video was proof that the governor was poorly but was been aided by detractors in the state to insist on staying in office. It was a desperate attempt to hold the state to ransom and was likened to the Yar’Adua health situation that lingered between 2007 and 2010.

This drama of plain selfishness and disdain for the rule of law on the part of Taraba politicians lasted through till the new year. The state had been thrown into a state of confusion and the people remained clueless as to what the future of the state held. Their governor was incapable of performing the simplest task of speaking to them, let alone carry out his functions as Chief Security Officer and Executive Administrator.


Governor Suntai was flown back abroad for treatment but not much was heard of him or the state of his health until his death was announced on 28 June.


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