In the five years of Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency so far, a name that kept ringing as a top confidant of the president was Ismaila Isa Funtua. The government, it was alleged, was being controlled by a cabal in which Funtua reportedly played an active role — alongside Mamman Daura, Babagana Kingibe and Abba Kyari, the late chief of staff to the president.
Rather than shy away from the now popular cabal label, Funtua declared that he was, in fact, not a member of the president’s clique but was the cabal himself.
At the time, Aisha, Buhari’s wife had complained that some of her husband’s associates had hijacked the government. But Funtua said the president had not committed any crime by having his trusted friends around him.
“I’m not a member of any cabal, I’m cabal myself,” he responded wittily to a question on Arise TV in January.
“What is cabal? In short I think it means kitchen cabinet, people that you trust. People you believe will not deceive you, that they can do things in the interest of the country.”
He said Nigerians were imputing derogatory meaning to the word ”cabal” which he said has an innocuous connotation.
The ”cabal himself” breathed his last on Monday evening, and the news of his death came as a shock. Just three hours before he reportedly died of cardiac arrest, he had spoken on the phone with Ben Murray-Bruce, former senator, who said the late media colossus promised to call again the next day.
SECOND REPUBLIC MINISTER WHO FOUGHT MILITARY RULE
In the second republic, Funtua served as the minister of water resources under President Shehu Shagari.
The government was later toppled by the military — and with Buhari, his kinsman, becoming the head of state.
Funtua founded the Democrat Newspaper during military rule and 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 said to have been marked as a target on Abacha’s purported hit-list for his consistent fight against military rule.
He also was a member of the 1994-1995 constitutional conference.
HE DID NOT BELIEVE IN RESTRUCTURING
In an interview with Arise TV in 2017, Funtua said he was always amazed when Nigerians talked about restructuring of the country.
There have been divided opinions on restructuring governance in Nigeria, and for Funtua, attention should be paid more on leaders at all tiers of government rather than on restructuring the entity.
“We are not holding our leaders accountable all along and why are we not holding our leaders accountable? Who pays tax in this country? We aren’t doing our social responsibility so if we aren’t really honouring our social responsibility our strength to fight our leaders is very limited and today if everybody would pay his dues to a large extent we won’t be crying so much; even at the state level, the local government level they couldn’t pay salaries and when people are talking in this country of restructuring I am always amazed,” he said.
“What do they mean by restructuring? I am a Nigerian they shouldn’t turn us to educated illiterates. They should come out and tell us to restructure what from what level to what level? Now we have three tiers of government, local government was the third tear but now it is only on paper because governors have turned local government to their own personal estates, the monies of local and federal account go into their pockets, they spend it the way and manner they want.”
‘GOVERNMENT CANNOT DO EVERYTHING’
When asked, in the same interview, if the country was moving in the right direction, Funtua gave a nod, but said things should not be left alone to the government because all citizens have roles to play.
“When people talk of the government, the government alone can’t do everything without us,” he said.
“If I know you are a thief and you have stolen billions and you are sitting on it, we are all Nigerians we know ourselves, we know what everybody has to a large extent and we are not saying this person is dishonest and he has taken our properties. How do we want the government to know everything?
“But you know the people that have stolen, you do know people who steal money, buy private planes, buy all types of properties and nothing is done to them.
“When you asked a question at the beginning about $15 billion [power sector expenditure under President Obasanjo] and the report is there, all what Nigerians need to do, instead of demonstrating over nothing, they should demonstrate and ask or they should call on the government to prosecute those people and collect their money because the money belongs to them and not the government. What is the government about? The people.”
‘THE ELITE ARE TO BLAME FOR NIGERIA’S PROBLEMS’
A member of the elite himself, Funtua believed that his class are to blame for Nigeria’s problems.
Describing Nigerians as resilient people who weather the storm under any situation, in the interview, he said: “When you talk about Nigeria sometimes, we the elites should be blamed for what is happening in our country for not rising up to make sure it is being addressed and for our needs we are living above our means. Our needs are higher than our income.
“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.”
‘IF IGBO WANT TO BE PRESIDENT, THEY MUST BELONG’
While there was a clamour for a president of Igbo extraction, Funtua said the Igbo would have to step up their game in politics to get this dream achieved.
In another interview in January, Funtua explained how he worked for Alex Ekwueme in 1999 for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential ticket. He said Ekwueme lost the presidential bid to Olusegun Obasanjo because he was not going to rub minds with northerners.
“When Ekwueme contested again, he was defeated in the contest for the nomination of the party by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Why? His attitude had changed. I went to that constitutional conference with my boss and we wanted him to be leading us and be holding some caucus meetings in his house but he stepped back and did not want to have anything to do with the northern or national caucus because he believed the 1983 coup was staged to prevent him from becoming president,” he said.
He continued by asking: “Since when has politics in Nigeria become turn by turn Nigeria Limited?”
He said he was the coordinator of the campaign of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in 1983 and understood Nigerian politics.
“If the Igbo want to be president, then they must belong. If you don’t belong, then you can’t be the president. That is the issue and we have seen it with MKO Abiola of blessed memory. He went out of his way, he cultivated people,” he said.
HE ALWAYS DEFENDED THE MEDIA
Funtua was largely regarded as a bastion of the media. He was always on the front-line on any issue affecting the industry.
In a tribute, the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, described the late entrepreneur who 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. In pursuant of this commitment, he established the Democrat Newspaper during the era of military dictatorship in Nigeria,” it said.
”Mallam Ismaila Isa was always quick to rally the media community against any legislation or policy targeted at stifling the media. In recognition of his astute leadership qualities and investment in the media industry, he was first elected as Vice President of the Newspaper Proprietors of Nigeria (NPAN) under the Presidency of the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola. He was later elected the President of NPAN, a position he held with dignity and honour, promoting and defending media interest in Nigeria, Africa and the world. He was instrumental to Nigeria’s hosting of the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress and General Assembly in Abuja, in 2018.”
Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, former chairperson of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), also foregrounded Funtua’s passion for the defence of his media constituency in her tribute to him. She said the late NPAN patron came to her office when she was at FIRS to protest against a letter, which though not from her, rankled media proprietors.
”He introduced himself as a life patron of the International Press Institute and Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) (I had no clue of what that meant) and said he had a matter to discuss with me. He brought out an official letter purportedly written on my behalf regarding unilaterally imposing VAT on the newspaper industry,” she wrote in her tribute.
”First, this was the first time I was seeing the letter. Second, it was not my style. I didn’t and still don’t take unilateral actions such as was suggested in the letter without consultation even if that was what I wanted to do. I was shocked. He mentioned the reason he came. That he didn’t know me but decided to meet with me.That after reading the letter from the FIRS, the newspaper proprietors had met and decided to fight the FIRS and its reforms on an action that was to cripple the entire industry without even any engagement.”
Born in January, 1942, Funtua trained as an administrative officer at the Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria.
He later proceeded to Manchester University in the UK. He was the monitor-general of the course 9 at National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPS), Kuru.
For seven years, he served as an administrative officer with the Katsina Native Authority. He served in different ministries as an administrator in the defunct northern region.
He rose through the ranks to become personnel manager of the United Nigerian Textile Company, Kaduna.
Funtua was the founder of Bulet International Nigeria Limited, founding managing director of the New Africa Holdings (publishers of the defunct The Democrat).
He later became the president of NPAN, and until his death, he was life patron of the association.
In his condolence message, Buhari said the death of his ally has created a huge gap.
Indeed, it is a seismic loss.
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