Governor Suntai’s Unusual Style At Campaigns By Emmanuel Bello

There are many things that make late Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai such a mysterious man. His dead pan silence was one of such things. With an inscrutinable visage, Suntai hardly betrays what was on his mind. This silence was an effctive tool he used in probing people, blocking gossips and making sound judgements. He could be sorrounded by politicians, who like to hide their real selves behind empty guffaws, speaking loud to be heard with some even be mouthing off coloured jokes. Trust Suntai. He would just lean back, observant and taking everything in either with a smirk or a smile. He could comment a little from time to time but deafening silence was the norm. As he coldly stares at you, you are forced to either tell the truth or keep quiet. An instant rebuke is always ready too as he could suddenly turn the tables round a misconception. Such rebukes are often delivered with candour and a sense of justice. He never laughed much but when he does, you could tell his was from the bottom of the heart: not the empty hyena-like crackle you get from insincere, insecured politicians. He was a maverick – a man apart amongst men.

But it is his unique style on the campaign trail that fascinated me alot. He was simply iconoclastic. Suntai practically wanted to rewrite the way politcs in our clime is practiced. Power brokers who believed in viciously knocking down opponents didnt understand Suntai’s commitment to fairness and accommodation. He did not believe in hurting the opponent with an unneccesary witch hunt or even physical harms. He once told me, at the heat of the campaigns, to ensure his opponents got equal time on our radio and television stations. Conventional wisdom would have been to block them, or just alow them limited space and let them sweat it out. Not Suntai. He said, “allow them to use the stations anyhow they wanted but please no zagi (insults).” He also said his opponents were free to paste their posters even in front of the Government House if they so chose. The standard practice was to chase your opponents out of town, deny them the use of facilities and generally frustrate their efforts. He once rebuked the driver of a campaign vehicle for over blaring pro-Suntai songs, noting that he ( the driver) was disturbing the peace of the Jalingo neighbourhoods! Others gladly played such songs all day long with much fanfare. The late Suntai eschewed the use of thugs in all his campaigns. He couldn’t stand the sight of the ubiquitous praise singers. He even doesnt seem to like the loud music and praise songs popular at campaign grounds. I never saw my late boss sway to them or acknowledge them. He danced but that’s only to traditional songs. He particularly liked his native Icheen dance and that of the fulanis. And he keeps a straight face as he waltz to them!

But beyond that, Suntai’s campaign method was really odd too. Unorthodox to say the least. On the podium, Suntai would give the impression he was contrite, looking pensively morose somewhat. While Alhaji Abdulmumunin Vaki- the then rambunctious PDP chairman would be swaying and dancing to the songs that hailed him as the “Turakin Gashaka”, the flag bearer himself would maintain a dignified pose suffused with decent composure. You would be forgiven if you thought Vaki was the candidate. He did most of the talking. At one of the stops, I was on the podium with Suntai and Vaki was characteristically screaming the usual PDP chants and making victory gestures while Suntai silently waved at the throng. I couldn’t help but ask him why he wasnt shouting out the PDP chant like Vaki, others were doing. The governor turned to me with a wry smile and curtly replied, “I don’t know how to do that”! (Emma. Ban iya ba). No two personalities could ever be different at the campaigns. Vaki obviously relishes the noise, the songs, the soundbites and the dusty convoys of the campaign trail. Suntai, at best, was somehow detatched. While Vaki could talk endlessly about how he’s marketing a product and why he thinks the “Ark of Noah” was passing by and that people should hop in before it leaves, Suntai would speak little with a strong but squeaky voice.

His message at every stop was equally revolutionary. Suntai would start by thanking the stakeholders and the people for finding time to come to the campaign grounds. He would say something nice about the city we were in. He would apologise for making the crowd leave their farms and other commitments to come hear him. He would then shock everyone by saying he really doesn’t feel he deserves their votes! Now that’s always shocking to hear. It was 2011 and he was in the middle of one the harshest re-election campaigns in Taraba’s history. His opponent was the street-smart, popular and out spoken Senator Joel Ikenya who was heavily pounding us by saying Suntai had failed. I was the SSA Media and Publicity at the time and had to find ways of promptly responding to Ikenya’s many attacks. Ikenya anchored his campaigns on what he saw as the failures of Suntai. His campaigs were always packed with fiesty youth holding the “abominable” brooms as the symbol of the ACN at the time. Given the strong opposition, you would think Suntai would get aggresively defensive and pour invectives on Ikenya and all of that. No! Rather, Suntai would start by practically agreeing with his opponent. He would tell the audience that he feels he hasn’t done enough but that he is pleading with the electorate to kindly vote for him. He would say something like, “im not forcing you but if you find it in your heart to give me another chance, I would be grateful but honestly I should have done more. You know I couldn’t keep my promise to execute this road project. I’m sorry.” Yet, in truth, Suntai was actually one of the most performing governors of his era. But at the campaigns, he wouldn’t reel out anything. He won’t boastfully beat his chest. Suddenly, I saw why he adopted the style. Everyone loves a contrite and humble politician. He was also contrasting his campaign style with that of his opponent who was always loud and full of insults. Suntai never insulted his opponents or even mentioned them by name. It was effective.

And the reaction too was always amazing. First, the audience would be astounded by such frank admissions not common with power seekers. They would also be swayed by his smooth voice and the cadence of the unconventional governor’s tone. He wasn’t barking into the microphone. He spoke as if winning or losing were the same to him. They were refreshed that he didn’t sound insulting or boastful. He was different and his body language said it all. A thunderous applause would tear into the air. A silent Suntai would then climb down and make for his seat. He becomes only animated when the traditional dancers show up. They always get to him it seemed because he would often beckon on his entourage and join in the dance. Later at the lodge, he would concentrate on the cuisine and silently eat as everyone else around him go on and on. He was something else!
Bello was commissioner of Information in late Governor Suntai’s cabinet.

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