Investigations by SaharaReporters reveal that poverty-plagued Taraba State has so far spent more than $1.2 million (close to N200 million) in ten months on the medical treatment of brain-injured Governor Danbaba Suntai. The state has also spent millions of naira more in security votes to the injured governor, estacode payments to him as well as members of Mr. Suntai’s inner circle, and transportation. The total cost to the state is close to half a billion naira, our investigative team discovered.
Mr. Suntai was injured in October, 2012 when a small plane he was piloting crashed near Yola Airport in Adamawa State. Mr. Suntai was attempting to land at the time of the accident.
After a brief stay at the National Hospital, Abuja, the injured governor was flown to a hospital in Germany. He was later transferred to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the State of Maryland, the United States. After spending a few months there, he was admitted at a rehabilitation center for trauma patients in State Island, New York. He was flown back to Nigeria on August 25, 2013.
Several sources in Taraba State told our investigator that the funds spent on Mr. Suntai’s treatment were not documented as formal expenditure by the state government. Instead, the funds were either directly channeled into the personal account of one Aliyu Umar, a US-based friend of Mr. Suntai, or handed to the governor’s wife, Hauwa Suntai.
In addition to the medical payments, the governor and three of his aides who accompanied him abroad were paid nightly estacode payments, meaning allowances paid to government officials traveling on official assignments outside the country. The brain-injured governor received about $1,500 per night as estacode allowance while his wife and other aides received $500 each every night for the 10 months that Mr. Suntai was abroad.
SaharaReporters also learnt that Mr. Suntai’s associates demanded that the injured governor receive half of the security votes in the state with his former deputy, Garba Umar, who is now the acting Governor of Taraba State. A source at the state treasury said, “During the time the governor was abroad for treatment, the sum of $75, 000 (about N12 million) was sent each month into a personal account.” The payment was in addition to the sum of N100 million monthly security vote that was also sent to the same personal account apart from the governor’s monthly salary.
In addition to paying the medical bills, Taraba State also “shouldered the estacode of all those involved in the accident and those that were with [Governor Suntai] both in Germany and the U.S.,” one state source disclosed.
An inside source in the state government said, “So far, the state government has expended hundreds of millions of naira on Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai since his involvement in an air crash.” The source stated that the state government has paid all the medical expenses for the governor in addition to expenses incurred by his wife and other family members.
Mr. Suntai was flown from Germany to the U.S. in a special medical jet designed for flying patients with serious trauma. The hiring of the jet cost the state 200,000 Euros, a source stated. Also, Taraba State paid $150,000 for the private jet that flew Mr. Suntai from the U.S. to Nigeria. The state also picked up the bill for a local flight that took the ailing governor from Abuja to Taraba. The state contracted Izzy Air, a private charter airline owned by Alex Izinyon, to convey the governor to Taraba. Damian Dodo, a lawyer who is close to the governor, was reportedly to have a substantial interest in Izzy Air.
Since arriving from treatment abroad, Mr. Suntai has continued to receive N100 million in security votes every month. The governor also receives another $100,000 for medical care in addition to a monthly entertainment allowance that runs into millions of naira on a monthly basis.
A member of the Taraba State Assembly said he was disturbed to hear that no proper records and documentation were being kept about the governor’s medical expenditure. Asking for anonymity, he promised to raise the issue with his legislative colleagues.
“It is not right to send public funds directly to the personal account of Alhaji Aliyu Umar, a very good friend of Governor Danbaba Suntai. Alhaji Umar is not even an official of the state government in any capacity. Therefore he should not be taking charge of the medical concern of the governor when the money is coming from here,” said the assembly member. He added: “It is unfortunate that, despite the colossal amount being expended by the government of Taraba, no documentation of the transactions is recorded at the level of the state government.”
Several sources in the state disclosed that the transfer of funds for the governor’s treatment was always done over the phone. “It was always done between the state government and Alhaji Aliyu Umar or the governor’s wife, Hawwa,” said one source. Another added that, despite the colossal amount involved, nobody ever deemed it right to demand periodic updates about the governor’s health status.
A day after Mr. Suntai was flown back to Nigeria and helped out of the plane, he ostensibly signed a letter that was forwarded to the state assembly indicating his desire to reclaim the office of governor. The letter and subsequent acts by Mr. Suntai’s close associates threatened to push the state into a political crisis.
According to a senior staff of the Taraba Health Ministry, “The fact of the matter is that nobody here actually knows the true health status of Governor Suntai. His health status has been treated as an exclusive property of a few people.”
At the time, a top politician in the state told SaharaReporters thata cabal around the ailing governor was determined to hold the state hostage because of the funds they tap from public funds. He named the governor’s wife, the governor’s Chief Security Officer (CSO), the US-based Aliyu Umar, and Senator Emmanuel Bwacha as members of the cabal.
Since returning from his medical trip abroad, Mr. Suntai has not been found fit enough to resume duty.
SaharaReporters could not get any official response to this investigation. Both the chief press secretary to the governor, Hassan Mijinyawa, as well as the media assistant to the governor, Sylvanus Giwa, failed to respond to several telephone calls.