A Candle For Senator Gyan Dantong



By Wale Okediran

He was buried late afternoon as the setting sun cast shadows around the scenic mountains and valleys of beautiful Bichit in Ryom Local Government Area of Plateau State. And in order to prevent the same incident that claimed the life of my friend and brother who had met his death when he went to bury scores of his kinsmen killed in a sectarian uprising, security was very tight all through the funeral and burial ceremonies.

All through the journey from Abuja to Jos, it had been one lovely town after the other. Dazek, Vom, Ryom, the quaint villages were all sited amidst rolling hills and valleys interspersed with lush green vegetation that blossomed  luxuriously in the light drizzle that fell all day long.

In the course of my peregrinations in the last few years, I have had the good fortune of visiting many lovely sights the world over. From the Mediterranean beauty of Alexandria, Egypt to the scenic African sunlit mountains of Cape Town in South Africa, Natasha in Kenya, Obudu Cattle Ranch in Nigeria to the bucolic plains of the English and American countryside and the snowcapped mountains of Norway among others, I have had a fair share of exquisite beauty. Wonderful as these locations may be, they can compare favorably well with the magical and enchanting Nigerian Plateau. Unfortunately, it is this same natural gift of nature that has now become the killing fields of our dear country. And rather than utilize this wonderful gift of nature in a positive way, we had allowed selfish and inordinate aspirations to desecrate our fatherland.

I had gone to Jos in Plateau State that auspicious July afternoon for the final burial rites of my brother, friend and compatriot, Senator Gyan Dalyop Dantong (GD, for short).

I had met GD when we were both elected into the House of Representatives at the National Assembly, Abuja between the years 2003 and 2007. Although we were from different political parties and parts of the country, GD and I quickly struck a close friendship obviously because we shared many similar interests. Like GD, I had also abandoned the comfort of a lucrative medical practice to enter the murky world of politics.  Also like GD, I have an unquenchable belief in the existence and the eventual success of the Nigerian project in all its ramifications. So passionate were both of us in this later belief that most of our discussions and actions were tailored towards making a success of our political calling amidst all the negative predictions and permutations from the purveyors of a divided country.

As members of the then House Committee on Health under the leadership of the late Dr Aminu Safana, GD and I with another doctor turned politician, Dr Oluwole Olakunde formed a formidable trio who worked tirelessly with other Committee Members to ensure the passage of some very important Bills such as the National Health Bill, The Bill for the establishment of the National Agency for the Control of HIV/AIDS (NACA), the Tobacco Bill among others.

Together, we traversed the length and breadth of the country and in some instances, foreign countries as we carried out our legislative functions which included among others, Oversight Functions, Constituency Projects as well as attendance at Medical Seminars and Conferences. In the course of duty, we bonded so closely that family issues, personal and political aspirations were freely discussed and shared as much as our legislative duties. To the trio, who were elected on the platform of three different political parties (AD, ANPP and PDP), political party affiliations took a back seat to a deep and enduring friendship.

When during the 2007 elections, my party decided to zone my seat to another Local Government Area in my state, I decided to return to my medical practice in Ibadan. However, GD who had then been elected a Senator would have none of it and asked me to hand over my hospital to another doctor and return to Abuja immediately. As he put it, ‘we need you in the National Assembly to continue the good work we started’. He therefore introduced me to the then Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello who brought me on as the Consultant to the Committee.

Under the able leadership of Senator Obasanjo-Bello with GD as her deputy, the committee performed excellently well in enacting many important Bills apart from other robust Legislative functions.

And so when GD eventually became the Committee Chairman in the current political dispensation, he recalled me as the Committee’s Consultant to continue in his words ‘the good works we started way back in 2003’.

So committed was GD to his work as the Chairman Senate Committee on Health as well as the Senatorrepresenting Plateau North in the National Assembly that he successfully juxtaposed both duties often, at great cost to his comfort. In fact, at a point I became worried about his incessant travels to Jos that I advised him to hand over some of the constituency duties to his Legislative Assistant but he will have none of that. As he put it; ‘my people need to see me regularly so as to reassure them that I share in their agonies and worries’.

On the Friday preceding his unfortunate demise, GD was to flag off a Stakeholders’ Meeting on the Tobacco Bill in the National Assembly but suddenly asked me to chair the meeting as he had been urgently called to Jos for some important political functions. In the course of the meeting, he called me to find out how the meeting was doing and used the opportunity to address the participants by speakerphone. He once again apologised for his absence and urged them to put in their best in order to have a Tobacco Bill Nigeria would be proud of. He was to return to Abuja the following Sunday for us to discuss a lecture he was to deliver at the University of Uyo the following Monday when my phone rang on the unfortunate Sunday afternoon to announce his passing.

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And as the golden brown casket containing GD’s remains commenced its final journey to his ancestral home that auspicious afternoon, my mind kept drifting back to one of our favourite discussions which bordered on the appropriateness or otherwise of our abandoning our medical practices for politics. I could not avoid asking myself the rhetorical question of whether or not GD would have still been alive if he was still running his medical Practice at the Vom Medical Centre in Jos.

While both of us were equivocal on the need to contribute our own quota to the good governance of our country, we were divided on whether we would have contributed more to Nigeria as Medical Doctors or Politicians. Although Medicine and Politics appear to be strange bedfellows, both are geared towards service to the people. Rudolf Virchow, the German Pathologist had as far back as 1847 made that great observation that, medicine and politics are both social sciences in the sense that they are involved in the socio-economic good and advancement of man and society.

This was after the then young scientist had released the report of his investigation of an epidemic of typhus which had occurred in Upper Silesia currently located in Poland. In the said report, Virchow concluded that the  epidemic was caused by “mismanagement of the region by the Berlin government”. His recommendation that democracy be allowed to thrive in Silesia dramatically changed the lot of the kingdom for the better.

Unfortunately, to me, this is where the similarity ends.

With a good educational background, patience and the right talents one could become a good doctor in a number of years.  However, it seems to me that academic brilliance is not enough to give you success at the polls.  To win an election one also needs loads of native intelligence, money, prayer and a near-suicidal degree of brinkmanship. Coupled with this, is the need for a thick skin to survive the poor reputation politicians have the world over.

When asked for the qualifications of a prospective politician, Winston Churchill was quoted as having remarked:  “The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year and the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen”.

In his well written book, House of War, Dare Babarinsa formerly of Tell Magazine painted a gory picture of what Nigerian politics was in the Recond Republic especially among the followers of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.  According to the blurb of the book; ‘the book exposes the politicians’ grand auction of principles and political intrigues, maneuvers, double dealings, back stabbings, stealing of votes, burning and killing that characterized the Second Republic, especially during the 1983 elections’. Almost thirty years after, it is obvious that little has changed in the country as regards political elections.  The added dimension to the unfortunate scenario is that money has now taken a big centre stage.  The situation was so bad in the last elections that most of the electorate who before now never asked for money before casting their votes openly demanded for gratifications.  In order therefore to prosecute the elections, many politicians had to take huge amounts of loans which will need to be paid back.

More worrisome especially for legislators, is the ambiguity of their expected duties.  As legislators, their constitutional duty is to make laws which the executive will execute and the judiciary will interpret.  Unfortunately, as far as many of our highly impoverished constituencies are concerned, the legislators are expected to tar roads, provide water, employment and food.  In short, they are expected to run a parallel government with the state and local government councils.  This is apart from endless array of requests for school fees, wedding gifts, Xmas turkeys and Sallah rams that all and sundry expect from the lawmakers.

These endless pressure for money and performance could therefore be the reason for the eagerness of some of our lawmakers to look for extra sources of income apart from their salaries.  This conflict in expectations could also explain the incessant friction between the legislators and the executive, which characterized the last republic.  Behind all these abnormalities is the twin-evil of poverty and ignorance.  To stem this nefarious tide of events, there is therefore an urgent need to tackle poverty.  This can be done by an accelerated development of our rural areas where the larger percentage of our people resides.  Equally urgent is the need to put in place basic amenities of life such as good roads, electricity and water supplies.  And for democracy to survive, it is also important for the electorate to be educated on what they should expect from their lawmakers.

As if the foregoing challenges are not enough, GD also had to face the unenviable task of representing a constituency which has become a scene of conflicts and bloodletting brought about by a combination of ethnic, religious and political differences. For the past 18 years or so, Jos which used to be known as the haven of peace in Nigeria where citizens from different backgrounds and ethnic leanings lived in harmony has now been sucked into the vortex of hatred and mutual distrust. All hands must therefore be on deck to prevent the region and indeed Nigeria from sliding into a state of anarchy.

It is late in the day as I write these words in my flat a few blocks from GD’s flat in the Apo Legislators Quarters, Abuja, when a sudden power failure made me put on a candle to finish the piece. A sudden thought made me to light an extra candle to the memory of my late brother and friend with the hope that its radiation will give direction and support to the family, relatives and constituents he has left behind. It is also my prayer that the warmth from the flame will soothe the cold pain that still gnawed mercilessly at the deep recess of my soul. May the good Lord rest him well.

•Dr. Okediran, a former member of the House of Representatives, was also the National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA.

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