By Abdulkareem Haruna
“…I must say that I am morally outraged by the facts of this case; the people of Taraba State had elected the defendant, a clergyman, on three different occasions; their expectations must have been very high.
“How would he begin to explain to the people of Taraba State his actions? How would he explain such a colossal loss to the people?…”
The above quote was an extract from the concluding statements in the ruling of an Abuja Federal High court judge, Adebukola Banjoko, on the suit filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against the former governor of Taraba State, Jolly Nyame, a reverend.
The ex-governor was on Wednesday convicted of misappropriating N1.64 billion from the state’s treasury through shoddy stationery contracts which he awarded at the tail of his eight years administration that ended in 2007.
It was one of the longest trials that eventually (started in 2007). The conviction earned the former governor the ill-repute of being the second governor to be jailed in Nigeria by a court for stealing public funds while in office; after James Ngilari, former governor of Adamawa state who was in March 2017 jailed five years for corruption. Mr Ngilari’s conviction was later upturned by the appeal court.
The Rise and Fall of Reverend Jolly Tavoro Nyame
Once upon a time in a remote village of Zing in the Northeastern part of Nigeria, a child was born five years before the country got its freedom from British colonialists.
This child was considered a very special child because he came forth on the day the world was celebrating Christmas – the birthday of Jesus Christ.
His parents, of deep Christian background, were so overjoyed that they named him Jolly and wished that he grew to be a humble servant in the vineyard of thy Lord.
This child followed the path of his parents’ wish and grew up to take a vocation in the priesthood.
He continued to excel in all his ecclesiastic endeavours till he became an ordained Reverend gentleman of the United Methodists Church of Nigeria (UMCN).
Despite his stint in the Vineyard of God, this special child would later be attracted by the trappings of politics – a trajectory that would soon make him fall short of the glory of God.
He joined politics at a time the nation was attempting to return to democratic rule in 1991 and would later become the first clergyman to become a governor in Nigeria.
He was also the first governor of the then newly created Taraba state.
Though his tenure, that started in January 1992 was short-lived by a military insurrection in November 1993, the people of Taraba who were still thrilled by the idea of having a “man of God” as their governor voted for him again when Nigeria decided to finally return to democratic rule in 1999.
Mr Nyame ruled Taraba for eight uninterrupted years between 1999 and 2007 after winning re-election in 2003.
Unfortunately, during his time, the anointed man-of-God did not give a good account of himself; as his tenure was marred with all kinds of unwholesome practices that fell short of the character of a good leader.
Mr Nyame left his state and his dear people even poorer than they were, many say.
He did not leave, however, until he stuffed his pockets and his bank accounts with monies stolen from the treasury of Taraba State government via criminally manipulated contract awards that were never executed
On Wednesday, May 30, about 12 years after he left office, a Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, found him guilty of massive corruption. He was sentenced to 14 years behind bars.
Nyame’s Foray Into Politics
Those who know him very well in Taraba State said the convicted former governor was a pastor at the United Methodist Church of Nigeria in Kaltungo division of the defunct Gongola State (now in Gombe).
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that during the Third Republic of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) era, Mr Nyame, as pastor, was the coordinator for Atiku Abubakar who later became the Vice President of Nigeria.
He coordinated for Mr Abubakar in the zone that later fell into Taraba State when new states were created.
The zone under the coordination of Mr Nyame was one of the strongholds of the former vice president, who was then a presidential aspirant. And in that respect, Mr Nyame became the point man for Mr Abubakar in the new Taraba State.
Mr Abubakar, sources said, later supported Mr Nyame with resources to contest the governorship slot of the new state.
Before that, Mr Nyame contested for the chairmanship of Jalingo local government under then Gongola State but was defeated.
When he was supported by Mr Abubakar in 1991, Mr Nyame easily won the election.
Though a Christian clergyman, Mr Nyame enjoyed the overwhelming support of the majority of the people, including Muslims.
How Nyame Fell Out With Atiku Abubakar
Mr Abubakar also supported Mr Nyame in 1999, but the relation soured thereafter.
During his second tenure, the convicted Taraba governor turned his back on his political benefactor.
The bone of contention was chiefly, but not limited to, the disagreement on who to succeed him as the governor of Taraba in 2007.
The former governor could not eventually hand over power to his then anointed candidate, Danladi Baidu, whom former president Olusegun Obasanjo refused to hand over the symbolic PDP flag to during the 2007 zonal campaign rally of the party in Bauchi State.
At that time, it was expected that one of the three runner-ups in the Taraba governorship primary of the PDP be considered flag bearer of the party in 2007.
But Mr Nyame denied all of them that chance to fill the vacuum created by the rejected candidate.
He, instead, picked his then Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Danbaba Suntai, now late, even though there were cries that the SSG did not participate in the primary.
Mr Nyame reportedly forced Mr Suntai on the party as the flagbearer.
Mr Suntai succeeded Mr Nyame on May 29, 2007, as the second democratically elected governor of Taraba State. But they soon fell apart.
After Mr Suntai became governor, Mr Nyame was confronted with criminal charges arising from a petition written by two persons: Umar Baba and Kelas Obadia titled ‘Taraba State in a Mess; the Commissioner of Finance goofed’.
That single petition was the nucleus of other charges that were fashioned against Mr Nyame which finally brought him down.
In June 2007, the EFCC contacted Mr Nyame asking him to defend the allegations that he collected N180 million of the N250 million he approved via a memo for the purchase of stationery.
And in a letter he authored on June 6, 2007, and addressed to the EFCC, the former governor admitted taking the money as his share of the unexecuted stationery contract, and that he was ready to refund same.
Parting Ways With Suntai
Mr Nyame who could not find a comfort zone in the then Governor Suntai-controlled Taraba PDP had to defect to Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) to ‘fight’ his successor.
And as a way of checkmating his former boss, the late Mr Suntai allegedly decided to fight his predecessor by revisiting a probe of the controversial stationery contract through which Mr Nyame was believed to have diverted Taraba’s money to personal use.
In 2011, Mr Nyame defected to the then Action Congress of Nigeria to contest a senatorial seat in Taraba State. But Mr Abubakar decided to stage a proxy war by financially backing Jummai Alhassan (currently a minister in President Buhari’s cabinet) to deal Mr Nyame a great defeat.
In 2015, Mr Nyame staged a dramatic come back to the state’s ruling PDP with the hope of re-contesting the senatorial seat that Mrs Alhassan was leaving. Mrs Alhassan then contested for governor of the state on the APC platform. He lost out in the race.
No Tears for Fallen Nyame
A government official in Taraba who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES via telephone from Jalingo but wished not to be quoted due to the sensitivity of matter, said “the general feeling in the state is that of no one really sympathetic with the former governor because he did not do well to us”.
“We just hope that this should be a lesson to other serving and former governors of the state to learn that no matter how long they try to cover the track of their misconduct, the law will still catch up with them.”
On Wednesday, Jolly Tavoro Nyame, born December 25, 1955 in Zing Local Government Area of Taraba, an ordained priest of UMCN, three times elected governor of Taraba State, was convicted at age 63. The judge gave him no option of fine. He will spend the next 14 years behind bars for failing to distinguish himself as a servant of God while in office; unless his conviction is upturned by the appeal court.
Haruna writes for Premium Times