Governor Danbaba Suntai
By Wole Ayodele
He loves flying and could have made a career of it. But lack of fund robbed him of achieving his dream, albeit temporarily. Not even his accomplishments as a pharmacist and the onerous task of looking after the affairs of Taraba State could kill the dream for Mr. Danbaba Suntai, the state governor since 2007.
Suntai, who is presently receiving treatment in a German hospital for injuries sustained last Thursday when a plane he was flying crashed in Yola, has invested billions of naira in aviation since becoming governor of the state in 2007, THISDAY investigation has shown.
Suntai was piloting a Cessna 208 with registration number 5N-BMJ which he acquired last year shortly after he graduated from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, where he trained as a pilot; when the plane crashed a few kilometres from its destination with the governor and three of his aides critically injured.
The three aides that were in the plane with him when it crashed were his Chief Security Officer (CSO), Dangana Tino; the Chief Detail, Joel Danladi; and the Aide-de-camp (ADC), Mr. Iliya Dasat, a Deputy Superintendent of Police.
THISDAY learnt that the governor, who built an airstrip in his home town, Suntai, about 300 kilometres from Jalingo, the state capital, committed huge funds to the development of critical aviation infrastructure, acquisition of aircraft and capacity building of himself and several others.
The governor’s passion for flying dates back to his early days as a young school leaver as he had wanted to be a pilot before he ended up studying pharmacy due to his inability to source funds to pursue a career in the field at Mbrevidaila Aeronautical University, Florida where he was offered admission.
But when he become a governor in 2007, he rekindled his passion for flying by enrolling at NCAT where he graduated in 2010. He flew his first solo flight in August of the same year.
Expressing his joy and delight for a dream come true after the solo flight, Suntai had said: “Personally, right from the outset of my life, I chose aviation as a career and was pursuing it. I was able to obtain admission to Mbrevidaila Aeronautical University in Florida, but coming from a very poor background, I could not sponsor myself in the school. So, I started seeking for scholarship, but I couldn’t obtain a scholarship. So that was how I ended up in the pharmacy profession.
“Notwithstanding my career in pharmacy, aviation has continued to bite me in the blood. And when I learnt I could even fly at my age, I decided to come over here and meet the rector to inform him about my ambition and he enrolled me. And after some few training, today, I was able to undergo this solo flight.”
To hone his flying skills, he acquired the Cessna 208 which crashed penultimate Thursday and a helicopter for the state which he flies to different parts of the country to attend official and personal functions in addition to the two earlier procured for the state by his predecessor, Rev Jolly Nyame.
Before procuring the jet and the helicopter, the two planes bought by the Nyame administration, both of which are 16-seater planes and were being used for commercial purposes, had been grounded. Suntai rehabilitated one while the other is still grounded in Kaduna.
The cost of the Cessna 208 and the helicopter which were procured in 2011 is shrouded in secrecy.
Also, the Jalingo airport, a project initiated by the Nyame administration but was uncompleted before the end of the administration’s tenure, also received serious attention from Suntai as he committed billions of naira to the upgrade and completion of the project.
In his efforts to ensure the completion of the airport project, which is scheduled to be inaugurated by the end of this year, the Suntai administration has expended over N9 billion and the project is expected to still gulp some billions of naira more before it is ready to be put to use.
While the work on the airport is ongoing, Suntai had already concluded plans to establish a state-owned airline to be named Taraba Air. THISDAY, however, gathered that the establishment of the airline is to meet aviation authorities’ conditions for the certification of Jalingo airport.
In furtherance of his passion, Danbaba commissioned the state-owned Taraba Road Construction and Maintenance Agency (TARCMA), to construct an airstrip at Suntai, his home town. Although work has not been completed on the project, the governor has been landing at the airstrip any time he went home.
As at the time of filing this report, THISDAY cannot confirm whether the construction of the airstrip is being funded privately or from state resources as there was no budgetary allocation for the project.
Equally, as part of his efforts to boost tourism in the state, Suntai, at the celebration of the World Tourism Day, held at Mambilla Plateau last year, said his administration had concluded plans to construct an airport on the plateau to facilitate easy access of tourists and investors.
But beyond investing in aviation infrastructure and acquisition of aircraft, the governor also embarked on the sponsorship and training of would-be pilots in and outside Nigeria as confirmed by him during the occasion of his first solo flight.
According to him, “In my blood, I have it as a passion, and this passion translates to my belief in encouraging students who want to be pilots to be sponsored to train. Currently, I have about two students that we sponsored to this college. And I also recall that I sent somebody to South Africa to train as a pilot. So, it is a passion and personally, I have the interest to encourage students to come into the aviation college.”
As Nigerians pray for his speedy recovery and return to the country, the people of the state are fervently praying that he would equally replicate the passion he has for aviation in other sectors of the state’s economy, particularly in infrastructural development so as to engender a rapid socio-economic development of the state.