We are Danbaba Suntai…

If anybody had told me that we would be playing a broken record of the antecedents of the unfortunate demise of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua so soon, I would not have believed it. But here we are – President Yar’Adua had taken ill and was flown abroad for treatment. While there, speculations as to the real status of his condition were rife. Some who had not been to the hospital where the late president was receiving treatment concocted all sorts of conspiracy theories concerning his condition. Some said he was already dead, while others who seemed to love the length of the word, ‘incapacitated’ bandied it about to pursue their case that the late president be declared so. Eventually, the poor man was flown home where he eventually died. But before he died, I was worried at the number of supposedly enlightened people who led crusades and started demonstrations who said they wanted to see their president – seeing him to ascertain whether or not he still alive or not, and not because their seeing him was going to get him cured of his ailment. I also thought that those who were clamouring to get somebody else to replace him, even while the ailing president was still alive were being unreasonable. One of that group of unreasonable persons told me in very categorical terms that the interregnum of President Yar’Adua was an embarrassment to the office of the President. But in reply to that postulation, I wanted them to tell me if they could: the office of president, and the life of the man occupying the office of president, which is more important? I didn’t get a response from them. And so the clamour for the replacement of the late president continued until he finally died. And you know what? As soon as the poor man died, even those who had raised their voices to the heavens calling for him to be replaced or declared incapacitated were the ones who again raised their voices as loud as they possible could to eulogising the late president. In an article published as Hypocrites eulogising Yar’Adua, in Daily Independent, I marvelled at our display of inconsistency and fickle-mindedness.

But here we go again with the story of a certain Nigerian governor, Danbaba Suntai, who miraculously survived a plane crash. He too was flown abroad for treatment and while there, all sorts of stories made the rounds, especially from people who are good at peddling rumours and who had not been to the hospital to ascertain the ailing governor’s true state of health. While some said he was brain dead, others said that he was incapable of recognising even his own wife. The curious thing about all of this was that people were not even concerned about the life of the man. They were only concerned with when he was going to return, as if their real wish was for him was that he should have died in that crash, and since he didn’t die, he should come explain why he didn’t die. Every time I heard the debates in the papers on air, radio and on television, I was always sick in my stomach, and still wondering: the office of governor and the life of the man who occupied that position, which was most important?

And so perhaps to convince his detractors that he was still alive, Danbaba Suntai came back. I was stunned again this time when Nigerians took to the papers, radio and television arguing that the man was ‘incapacitated’ and was unable to recognise his law makers and all such arrant nonsense, and therefore was unfit to govern. Nobody is thinking about a man who survived a crash, who under the circumstances can no longer be expected to function physically as he was before that unfortunate air crash. And all this while, I wonder if these people who were gloating that Danbaba Suntai was barely able to climb down from the aircraft know that one of the greatest American presidents, Franklin Roosevelt was a cripple who led his people through two of the most traumatic periods to date in US history.

‘In 1921, while the Roosevelts were vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, Roosevelt contracted polio, which resulted in permanent paralysis from the waist down. He was just 39 then. But for the remainder of his life, Roosevelt refused to accept that he was permanently paralyzed’, so says Wikipedia. He went on, from being governor to become president, even with his paralysis. But what this article is about is not that a paralysed man who eventually surmounted his paralysis and successfully ran the government, no. This article is about how a people who the paralysed man led saw the man: they were not thinking of his paralysis, that is, his physical condition. They were more concerned with his ability to pull them out of the quagmire of the Depression and of the economic crisis of that period. And he did. Wikipedia says that ‘when Roosevelt was inaugurated March 4, 1933, the U.S. was at the nadir of the worst depression in its history. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Farmers were in deep trouble as prices fell by 60%. Industrial production had fallen by more than half since 1929. Two million were homeless.

But it was that paralysed man that bailed his country out of its nadirness. He succeeded primarily because he had a rugged team known as brain trust – a coterie of advisers who did the brain work and left him to take the executive decisions based on the recommendation of his brain trust. In fact, it was this ‘brain trust’ that carried out a study to find out that the reason why the American economy was depressed then was because people were afraid of investing and spending their money on investments. To encourage them to invest, Roosevelt made a speech from his wheelchair and told his people that the ‘only thing to fear is fear itself’.

In the light of this, we are not saying that like Roosevelt, Danbaba Suntai has a magic wand with which he is going to turn the wheel of misfortune in his state around. But what we must try to say as eloquently as possible is that the days are long gone when you need only a man’s physical presence to run things. Government and in fact democratic governance is not about institutions but about the people who inhabit these institutions and use these institutions to improve on the lot of people. Government is your ability to tap into other people’s brains and use their expertise to good benefit. If they fail you take responsibility and if they succeed, you take credit. Our focus now must not be whether the governor of Taraba state is physically fit, but should be on his mental capability in the aftermath of his plane crash. If he has been found to be fit mentally to govern, why are we then unnecessarily focussing on his inability to get off a plane?

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