Ismaila Isa Funtua: Teller of Truth to Power

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GUEST COLUMNIST:  ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE

BY ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE (GUEST COLUMNIST)

Nothing sounded strange. There was no foreboding in Auchi’s night skyline last Saturday when his commanding voice came on the line.

“Adams, where are you?,” asked Mallam Isa Funtua.

“In Edo,” I replied, thankful to God for journey mercies to have safely arrived the land of my birth from Abuja enroute Benin City. “In fact, I’m just approaching my countryhome in Iyamho now. Good evening sir, my Oga.”

“Good. Now, Adams!, Adams!! Adams!! How many times did I call you?”
“Three times sir.”

“Good,” he continued “I called just to be sure you’re already on ground in Edo. Please, please, make sure you remain there and make sure APC wins back Edo before you return to Abuja. We believe in your ability.”

“By God’s grace sir and the continued support of the people of Edo, we shall recover the state for APC.”

Given that assurance of support and the expression of solidarity, nothing could, therefore, have prepared me for the breaking bombshell news 48 hours later (Monday night): Mallam Isa Funtua is dead!

What?!

But his voice sounded so clear and firm, his spirit so inspiring in our phone conversation last Saturday night. Little did I know that would be our parting words.

Fleeting as the foregoing exchange might sound, it is quite illustrative of the special relationship I had with Mallam Funtua for close to five decades – first through the labour movement and later the public service.

All through my sojourn as chairman of workers union in Kaduna, leader of the national textile union, two-term president of Nigerian Labour Congress, two-term governor of Edo State and later National Chairman of All Progressives Congress (APC), he was a pillar of support, sincere counsellor, cheer-leader in good times and consoler in bad times. An instinctive peace-maker. Compulsive bridge-builder. A study in loyalty and solidarity. Just as he never spared you when he felt you had fallen short of his own standards which were understandably high.

I always addressed him as “My Oga” and he treated me more as a younger brother, offering an affectionate shield of a true comrade.

Even though he was unarguably one of President Muhammadu Buhari’s confidants, Mallam Funtua kept and maintained deep relationships with friends in other political parties outside APC.

So, the durable bridges he thus built across ethno-religious and political boundaries over the years and his uncanny ability to network over party lines meant those of us who had access to him could sit at his feet to sip from a deep fountain of wisdom. Or perch on his broad shoulders to gain extraordinary insights into national issues.

Nothing perhaps vividly demonstrates his liberal spirit – this tolerance of opposing views – than the freedom he gave The Democrat (of which he was Chairman) to pen scathing editorials against institutions or businesses he had interest while the publication lasted. His passion for the media was outstanding. Little wonder he was decorated as Life Patron of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN).

Someone described him as fearless and assertive by instinct. No epithet could be truer. Of folks I have encountered, only few would compare to Mallam Funtua in clarity, consistency and brutality to tell the truth always as he saw it, regardless of whose ox was gored. He never suffered fools gladly. Part of his uniqueness was that his ability to throw hard truth punches was proportionate to his capacity to receive and absorb same.

Beginning from United Nigeria Textile Limited (UNTL) in Kaduna in 1974, he proved to be a committed advocate and defender of the interests of the workers’ union, even though he sat among the “oppressors”. As UNTL’s Personnel Manager, not less than 8,000 workers – mostly low level – were at his mercy. I was privileged to be the chairman of the local union of workers then.

In those golden days of UNTL as the flagship of the nation’s then bourgeoning textile industry, workers ran three shifts daily, contributing in no small measure to the national economy.

It was perhaps a measure of the creativity and vigor of the management in which Mallam Funtua was an influential voice, that UNTL grew to add Zamfara Textile, Funtua Textile and Ikorodu Textile to its holding as a group.

At critical moments, Mallam Funtua always sided with the union. In the management, he was among the few who could look the Chinese bosses straight in the eyes and tell them off on matters affecting junior workers’ welfare or rights. He constantly opposed high-handedness as regard discipline and atonement for misconduct. As Personnel Manager, he insisted no worker could be fired summarily without being availed of the dignity of fair-hearing. A stickler for due process. Termination of employment could only be initiated after failure to satisfactorily answer a query.

Whenever the year was drawing to an end, we could always count on Mallam Funtua to impress it on the management to give generous Christmas bonus. In fact, our expectations were often exceeded. Once, just when the union was still contemplating how to word a petition with a view to extracting a concession from the management ahead of the approaching Christmas, came the staggering news that the Personnel Manager had beaten us to it by convincing the management to pay, not 100 percent, but 300 percent as Christmas bonus! So, that uncommon bonanza meant that workers received 13th, 14th and 15th month in December. It was a tradition he persuaded UNTL to sustain throughout his stint as Personnel Manager.

To tell you the distance Mallam Funtua would go to make peace, here is an untold story.

Even when many had given up on the prospects of reconciling me with Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, he made one last-ditch effort. He must have thought Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti, being not just our mutual friend but also the Chairman of the Governors Forum, could break the tie.

So, early this year, he invited me to an exclusive meeting with Fayemi in Abuja. Without mincing words, he asked the Ekiti governor why the difficulty in settling us, to which the latter expressed frustration with Obaseki, claiming that he had resisted all entreaties from him and other peacemakers.

“If you say you want peace between Adams and Godwin in Edo, how come the stories flying around that you’re part of the people trying to remove Adams from his position as APC National Chairman?,” he pointedly asked.

Responding, Governor Fayemi denied being part of any gang-up against me. He stated that both of us had had close relationship as fellow governors in the past. He admitted that we might have had some differences lately pertaining to party matters, but that we remained close friends.

Well, the rest is now history.

At 78, there is no doubt that Mallam Funtua had lived a great life. We are unlike unbelievers who will question God’s will. Much as we would have wished he was still with us, we are however comforted that he raised worthy children and lived long to see his children’s children. More importantly, he left in multitude of others the legacy of service and truth.

I can only pray that God comfort the bereaved family, President Buhari, the Nigerian media and his numerous associates over this colossal loss.
Farewell, “My Oga”.