What newbie power holder doesn’t like the soundtrack of a siren blaring away as he or she makes the triumphant entry? Or looks the other way as praise singers troop to heap empty praises? Or shuns the antics of gossips and tale merchants? Or practically disliked the sound of his own voice and so remained silent all the time? Who? Former Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai of Taraba state, now resting in the bosom of the Lord. Suntai was simply an iconoclast. He loved the things others can’t withstand and practically has high distaste for ephemeral things others held so dear. Take the convoy and that ever present, nerve-jiggling siren, for example. In case you are reading this from abroad, not used to seeing the ostensible display of power and wondering what a convoy and a siren are, let me make some introductory remarks about that. In Third World countries, a convoy and sirens are the ultimate symbols of power and its most outward face. Don’t confuse the sounds: an ambulance ferrying a corpse across town, for instance, has got its own. Same for a bullion van conveying cash to the bank. Fire fighters or other security agents also love to blare it as a show of force. Beyond these, many other “ordinary” Nigerians love to get their five minutes of fame by blaring sirens as well from time to time: newly weds, some local village Chief in town, civil defence, road safety, security outfits and other small timers.
But governors and other powerful power holders are the real owners of convoys and sirens. Sometimes, the convoys even clash leaving people wondering whose convoy or siren was blaring. Those who have mastered the various sounds can tell the differences in decibels and the number of vehicles. But only the initiates can do this. In a typical Nigerian state, each day is a battle of the convoys and sirens: the main man, his deputy, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, his deputy, the party chairman, the local government chairman and the traditional rulers. You knew any of these categories are in your neighborhood when the sirens split open your ear drums. Once upon a time, there was this new deputy governor in Taraba state whose neighbors had to plead with to relocate to his official quarters. He had just got sworn in and was still living among “ordinary” people but his convoy and sirens became a menace to his erstwhile neighbors. They alleged that he kept blaring them long after he’s back from work, just out of love for the sound of his new found music- the sirens. In another state, the chief executive, bristling with the fervour of fresh powers, actually “added” more speakers to the sirens. He had complained they were not loud enough as the story goes. Another goon almost sacked half his workforce. What happened is that our friend had prepared to go for a function when something abhorrently horrible happened: the sirens had jammed and weren’t working. It was an insurrection, he screamed. His political enemies were after him, he muttered. He cancelled the event and stormed out of the office in palpable anger. In Third World countries, it is about the show of affluence, the primitive and awful display of empty power and the oppressive show of force. These are even more important than governance itself. The flash, costume, and “bling bling” are more desirable than any other thing. It is safe to say the loss of sirens is the first fear of many big men.
Not Suntai. A man given to simplicity, he once stopped him convoy, walked over to one of the drivers, give him a dressing down and almost sacked him: the guy was overspending and intimidating people out of the way. I didn’t add that in the last paragraph before this. A convoy is also designed to overtake other vehicles, intimidate road users and instill fear in citizens. Suntai won’t have any of that. He would stop the procession and give the wild eyed drivers a lecture on sobriety and humility. He would remind all that but for God, he would also be trekking on the streets and saw no reasons why a convoy should oppress people. I asked him about this one day and he just smiled and said, “Emma, I used to be like everyone of those people. I know how this show of power belittles them. It robs of them of their sense of self-worth. Power is already terribly oppressive enough as it is. Why rub it in again with some silly convoy and sirens?”
Suntai rejects praise singing and sees it as one of the many evils of power. One of his first acts when he became governor was to “ban” praise singing and thuggery in the state. Again, let me explain. As an abiding feature of the face of power, thugs and praise singers are a force to be reckoned with in Taraba state, as it is in others. While the praise singers are mostly harmless entertainers, the thugs are the muscled enforcers who practically became part of government in a previous administration, doing the dirty works like beating up naysayers. Their proclivity for violence was legendary and you are at their mercies if you were a recalcitrant office holder. Their philosophy was a very simple one: “you used us to win elections. Now you have to give us a slice of the pie by hook or crook but certainly by force.” It was an unwritten but grim social contract. And you breached it at your perils. Suntai won’t have them around and promptly got the Assembly to enact a leader that would limit them. While other politicians crave thugs and want them around for oppressive purposes, late Suntai wanted them far removed from him. “Emma. Those youth should get something doing. If I needed them to win elections or what not, I don’t want to win such elections. I don’t have any enemies to send them to beat up. That’s not in my character.”
Suntai was a silent man. All he does is listen. With him, you do all the talking while he either stares at you or unnerved you by staring at the floor. His dead pan expression leaves you listless and gets you wondering what he was thinking as you make your presentation. He was abnormally forthright without any pretentious finesse. Not for him the circumlocution of politicians or the double speak, two faced half lies of men in power. He breaks it down the way it is before the high and the mighty. Some top bank officials once paid him a courtesy call. Their first error was too have that supercilious air around them. Suntai “resisted the proud but gave grace to the humble.” As they spoke in that long, roundabout way of bank chief execs, Suntai was quietly staring at his fingers and listening. When they were done, he welcomed them and dropped it like icy chill water on them. Short of calling them thieves, he asked them how they think he would like to take a loan he can’t repay in the life span of his government. He said, “you are urging me to take a loan and then leave whoever is coming to take after me, some huge debts? Well that is evil and I’m not that kind of a governor. Try next door. ” The men in suit began to sweat as Suntai ended the visit and took off. A very quiet man, sometimes I feel I sense a certain melancholy in his general disposition. What makes him so darkly moody? I ask myself. I watched him closely for hints. He would look up at times and smile. His laughters were rare but deeply sincere. Not for him the meaningless guffaws of politicians or the endless talks. Our meetings were short because he kept them short with his taciturnity. He hated “surutu” (Hausa for talkativeness). A man of few words, he would certainly like heaven because I’m told it is not noisy up there.