Known for his refreshing candour and capacity to speak truth to power, media guru and businessman, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua, who passed on last Monday in Abuja at the 78 years, died a fulfilled man. Demola Ojo writes
Aman of many parts, said Senate President Ahmed Lawan in his tribute to the late elder statesman, journalist and former minister, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua, who passed on last Monday in Abuja at the age of 78.
Lawan’s tribute described Funtua as a man, who brought to bear his great intelligence, energy and integrity on everything he did and went ahead to use words like “pioneer and trail blazer, who established an authoritative national newspaper and a giant construction company through both of which he has left indelible footprints on the physical and socio-political landscapes of Nigeria.”
This was one of several revealing descriptions of a man, who many in the younger generation saw as having undue influence on President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, without holding any official position.
In fact, while tributes poured in, former presidential aspirant and publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore along with his lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), portrayed Funtua as “arrogant” during his attempt to help Sowore regain his freedom while illegally detained.
Further insight into what might have formed Sowore and Falana’s opinion of Funtua, was given by former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, in his tribute to Funtua.
According to Babangida, Funtua was a “pan-Nigeria statesman, who was largely misunderstood by some and eternally appreciated by many, who understood the dynamics of his engagements.”
According to Babangida, Funtua never pretended about issues and situations. “You would rightly know where he belongs. He was not given to frivolities and shenanigans. He was pointedly frank, when he needed to make his position known on any matter.
“As friends and brothers that we were, he never hesitated in speaking his mind in a brutally frank manner, no matter whose ox is gored.”
This, out of the many tributes to Funtua, stands out, because it says more about his personality than his many achievements.
Born January 1942, Funtua had his early education in Zaria and attended the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, before proceeding to the University of Manchester.
A highly capable administrator, he started his career in the Katsina Native Authority, where he eventually rose through the ranks working in the defunct North Central State. He later joined United Textiles Limited in Kaduna, where he was the personnel manager showcasing great managerial capabilities over thousands of workers.
In the Second Republic, Funtua served as the minister of water resources under President Shehu Shagari. He later founded the Democrat Newspaper during the military rule at a time decrees were issued to restrain freedom of speech.
His newspaper was at the forefront in the struggle against dictatorship, especially in the 90s during the regime of Sani Abacha. Funtua was allegedly marked as a target on Abacha’s purported hit list for his consistent fight against military rule.
As a member of the 1994-1995 Constitutional Conference, he was on the committee that proposed the models in some of the key areas of Nigeria’s democratic evolution.
One of such was a special committee of 37 people on zoning and rotational presidency, which resolved that rotation of power between the North and South be entrenched in the constitution
Funtua was also a director of several companies. He was the founder of Funtua Textiles Limited, founder and Chairman of Bulet Construction Company and was a Life Patron of the International Press Institute, and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria.
In the last five years, however, Funtua was famous for being a top confidant of President Buhari, whose government was allegedly controlled by a cabal in which Funtua played an active role, alongside Mamman Daura, Babagana Kingibe and the late Chief of staff to the president, Abba Kyari.
Rather than debunk the “cabal” label, Funtua – in a statement that could be interpreted to be either sarcastic or candid, declared that he was, in fact, the cabal.
“I’m not a member of any cabal, I’m cabal myself,” he told Arise TV in January.
According to Funtua, the president had not committed any crime by having his trusted friends around him.
Many of Funtua’s candid views have been expressed on Arise TV with a 2017 interview shedding light on varied thoughts, from restructuring to corruption.
According to Funtua, more scrutiny should be directed at leaders across all tiers of government rather than on restructuring the Nigerian entity.
“We have three tiers of government. Local government was the third tier but now it is only on paper, because governors have turned local government to their own personal estates.”
He also challenged the populace on corruption by alluding to the fact that the people knew those who stole their resources and should call them out.
Saying things as they are, without sugarcoating, was one of Funtua’s dominant traits.
“When you talk about Nigeria sometimes, we the elite should be blamed for what is happening in our country for not rising up to make sure it is being addressed…
“Why should we live as a nation where ordinary toothpick we are importing into the country and that toothpick is being imported with dollars?
“I was laughing and nearly hit my head on the bed when I was reading one guy’s tweet that I was being given dollars and I was making $1 billion every week and I said I wish they were giving me, I need it.”
Funtua was the one who made the now famous blunt statement, “…since when has politics in Nigeria become turn by turn Nigeria Limited?” during his January interview on ARISE.
According to him, any group with aspirations of producing the president should form broad-based alliances, lest they lose out.
Funtua was also known to defend the interest of the media. According to the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, Funtua was the chairman of the governing council of the institution, as a “strong pillar of support. The Chairman was a committed and passionate defender of freedom of speech, press freedom and democracy.
“Mallam Ismaila Isa was always quick to rally the media community against any legislation or policy targeted at stifling the media,” the NIJ’s tribute said.
The organisation went back memory lane, recounting how Funtua was first vice-president of NPAN, when the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola was president, before he was later elected president, “a position he held with dignity and honour promoting and defending media interest in Nigeria, Africa and the world.”
Unsurprisingly, President Buhari expressed sadness at the passing of his close confidante, saying Funtua stood by him during his tortuous political journey.