By a stroke of fate, Alhaji Garba Umar was saddled with the responsibility of being acting governor of Taraba State just two weeks after his appointment as deputy to Governor Danbaba Suntai following the impeachment of the former deputy governor – Alhaji Sani Abubakar Danladi.
Gov. Suntai’s involvement in a plane crash and his subsequent treatment and rehabilitation abroad meant Alhaji Umar had to be elevated to acting capacity in November, a position he has been holding since then.
In this exclusive interview culled from Weekly Trust in Jalingo, the state capital, Ag. Gov. Umar speaks on his boss’ absence, the challenges he is facing, among others.
Weekly Trust: Before your emergence as deputy governor of Taraba State not much was known about your involvement in politics; what were you doing before your appointment?
Alhaji Garba Umar: I was working with the United Textile Company (UTC) as the executive director in charge of projects before where I retired in 2004. Of course I joined politics since then; I was once a deputy governorship aspirant with Barrister Baba Adi, but it didn’t work out so I had to step aside and carry on with my business in construction, water and electricity which was what I was doing before my appointment as deputy governor of Taraba state.
What is your relationship with your boss Danbaba Suntai?
I have a very cordial working relationship with him. He first appointed me as a member of the Taraba State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board where I spent about two years before my appointment as deputy governor. So my relationship with him was very cordial and is still cordial.
It has been a while since your elevation to the status of acting governor; what are your greatest challenges so far?
There have been a lot of challenges; first of all I came from the private sector and hadn’t any experience in the public sector so that has really posed a great challenge. But I took the bull by the horns; judging from my experience from the private sector I was able to execute projects awarded by my boss. Since I came in I have not embarked on new projects; what I did was to complete projects started by my boss because it is the same government and he had called me so that we can work together. By and large I have done a lot and I am still going to do more to ensure that all ongoing projects are completed before the end of 2015.
One thing that has been worrisome to people is the continued absence of your boss following the ill-fated air accident in October last year; how have you been coping in his absence?
We thank God that He is on our side; I can tell you that things are moving on fine. All his projects are being implemented. For instance, we have paid the N18, 000 minimum wage in May. Of course the 20 percent teachers’ salary increase we have implemented as well. By and large things are moving fine in the state; I believe you have not heard of any complaint from anywhere; we will continue to ensure that everyone enjoys the dividends of democracy in the state.
How have you been able to achieve the peace after the last crisis in Wukari?
You know issues like this normally require God’s intervention; we embarked on prayers and meetings upon meetings calling on all stakeholders to embrace peace. We sat down and told ourselves the truth that we really need to embrace peace because we are all brothers and sisters. In Taraba I can tell you that 80 percent of the people are Christians and Muslims and I can assure you that the issue in Taraba is caused by intruders coming in to pitch certain sections of the society against the other. But I am happy people have realized that they made mistakes and have embraced each other; so we now have peace in the state and by the Grace of God this will continue.
Still on the governor’s health you visited him some time ago and upon return you were reported as expressing worries over his condition. From what you saw what is the true health status of your boss?
My boss is fine, when I visited him, I met him and we shook hands and he thanked me for my visit and I came back. So for somebody to say that I was worried over what I saw is not correct because I even attested that his condition was far better than when he was in Germany.
So when are we expecting him back home?
I wouldn’t confirm that because I haven’t contacted his doctors; so I wouldn’t give a date for his return.
There are certain actions you have taken in the absence of your boss that have been given interpretations.
After the recent sack of some commissioners, people are beginning to doubt your loyalty to your boss..?
Like I told you earlier I am implementing my boss’s programmes. In fact I was chairman of the flood relief committee before I handed over to the former SSG when I became acting governor. The day he inaugurated us, he warned against misuse of the relief funds. People have lost houses and other property and the Federal Government released the sum of N400m to alleviate their plight. For you to take something out of that is really something that is worrisome to the government. My boss said if someone takes one kobo out of that money God would not let him go scot free and by extension the government would not let him go free and this was exactly what I did. When we discovered that the money was tampered with we asked for a probe committee and the result showed that some of them had really tampered with the money so I asked them to go. If my boss were here he wouldn’t have allowed them to spend five more minutes on their seats. For somebody to use this as an example that I am disloyal to my boss is not correct. In fact I am doing exactly what he is supposed to do if he were on seat.
Some of the commissioners have gone to court to challenge their sack even as the decision has been given religious interpretation that those targeted belonged to the same faith..?
The issue is not about religion but the membership of that committee; if the whole of them were Muslims they would go; it was just mere coincidence that we had more Christians on the committee than Muslims that’s all. It is about moving the state forward because we really have to move forward. So to me I don’t see anything about religion in the sack.
Some are saying that the relevant constitutional provision should be invoked to empower you to assume the status of substantive governor; what is your take?
Well that is their interpretation of the Constitution; I wouldn’t say anything about that. It is left for anyone to see whether that is the right thing to do; I wouldn’t want to comment more on that.
2015 is fast approaching; some people are beginning to read your body language as suggesting that you are nursing an ambition..?
Well that is what they are saying but for me now my focus is to complete this tenure. If my boss comes back, we will complete it together. Anything outside that, we leave it to God.
You recently formed the youth vanguard wing of the PDP in the state which is also perceived as part of your strategy for 2015..?
That is not true; the PDP youth vanguard if you go to Bauchi, Gombe they are also there. So this is not for me; I have already asked the state PDP chairman to take over that office and I believe he will do so.
There was a change in the leadership of the State Assembly and you were accused of having a hand in it in order to dislodge the former leadership that was perceived to be too loyal to your boss. What is your reaction to this?
I had no hand in that change; not at all! The House decided to do what they did on their own and I don’t have any hand in it.
Religion appears to be creeping into Taraba politics. Are you not worried?
This issue of joining religion with politics to me is distasteful. I have been saying it that politics is one thing and religion is another; so we must avoid bringing religion into politics. My boss was elected by both Christians and Muslims; so I don’t see any reason why religion will become the issue. I think we should allow people to choose anybody they want irrespective of religion. So my appeal to Tarabians is that they should not bring religion into politics; we should leave religion aside and play politics the way it is supposed to be.
You are a member of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) which appears to be polarized; are you not disturbed?
Well, we are trying our best; we really have a problem there but I can assure you that within the next couple of months it would be resolved. Mr President is doing something about it and very soon it would be over. The NGF is one family and we will continue to remain one family.