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Ismaila Isa Funtua: Exit of the ‘One-man Cabal’


“When paupers die, there are no comets seen but even the heavens blaze forth the death of Princes”

– Williams Shakespeare

He was towering figure who had the education, profile, political status, deep pocket and national and international reckoning to go along with his intimidating physical frame.

In the course of his admirably long and illustrious life, Isa Funtua bestrode the political, social and business landscape of the country like a colossus. He can be described as one of those brilliant northern kids who at the closing  stages of the country’s independence had the benefit of the best Islamic and western education.

Sound, charismatic and sometimes brutally frank, Isa Funtua worked at all levels of government, from local to federal level. He criss-crossed the length and breadth of the country, made friends and long-lasting connections that helped in achieving success in all his endeavour. Contrary to popular belief, some of his closest confidants are senior journalists, business leaders and politicians from southern Nigeria. For example, until his death,  he always called the publisher of Vanguard Newspapers, Sam Amuka-Pemu, an Itsekiri man from Delta state, his brother from another mother.

He was a man of many parts who  meant different things to different people. To President Muhammadu Buhari and other members of his political circle, Isa Funtua, was a long-term friend, loyal associate and master strategist. To fellow media owners, publishers, senior and young journalists and activists, he was a dogged fighter for press freedom and democracy who nurtured and mentored some of the best media professionals in the country when he was publishing the now rested Democrat Newspaper and also led the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). To business leaders, Isa Funtua was a smart and astute industrialist who established and co-owner a lot of successful businesses including Bullet Construction which is credited to have built many of the iconic national institutions and monuments in Abuja when the capital city was being moved from Lagos to Abuja.

However, to many young Nigerians especially millennials who didn’t really know much about him before President Buhari came to power, he was one of those northern irredentists in the inner circle  of the President, a key member of the so-called corrupt and vicious cabal around the Villa who are often accused of being behind many of the exploitative, divisive and anti-people policies and statements of the administration.

He himself reinforced the cabal narrative when he called himself the cabal in an interview with Arise TV. He was asked to confirm if he was indeed a formidable member of the much talked about cabal.

Mallam Isma’ila Isa Funtua was born in Funtua, Katsina State on January 17, 1942 to late Mallam Isan Ammani and Hajia Hafsat.

He attended Islamic and Primary School in his homestead before moving to Commercial College Zaria, Federal Training Centre Kaduna and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria.

He later attended Manchester University in the United Kingdom. On his return to Nigeria, he started his working career with the Katsina Native Authority (NA) and rose to the position of Administrative Officer. Funtua served the Katsina Native Authority for seven years as Administrative Officer.

He  transferred his service to North Central State Government still as an Administrative Officer. He served in various ministries in the defunct Northern Region before his secondment by the Northern Region government as the Personnel Manager of the 10,500 strong United Nigerian Textile Company, Kaduna. From there, he went on to NICON and became a director, after which he retired into private business.

He was subsequently appointed minister of state for water resources by former President Shehu Shagari in 1983, during the defunct Second Republic. He was the youngest minister in that administration.

The arrival of the Democrat Newspapers which he founded in the early 90s  was a great boost to the stature and prestige of the ordinary Northerner.

As founding managing director of the New Africa Holdings (publishers of the defunct Democrat Newspapers), Funtua was elected Vice President to the late MKO Abiola as President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, (NPAN). He declined to succeed MKO as President when the latter was being incarcerated by Gen Abacha during the June 12 struggle. Funtua later became the President of the NPAN and until his death, it’s life patron. He was also a life patron of the International Press Instutute (IPI)

He was until death a leading advocate of press freedom. He practically demonstrated this during the faceoff mid last year between National Broadcasting Commission, NBC and DAAR Communications Plc., owners of Africa Independent Television (AIT) and Ray Power FM.

The faceoff over debt payment led to the suspension of operating license of Daar Communications. Worried about this development, Mallam Isa Funtua was among the frontline personalities that held late night meeting to resolve the crisis.

He also demonstrated his commitment to the wellbeing of the Newspaper industry by storming the  office of  the then chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Mrs Ifueko Omoghui Okauru, over a purported plan to impose VAT on newspaper houses. It turned out that the letter addressed to the NPAN on the development didn’t have the imprimatur of the FIRS boss. Isa Funtua  gave her all the reasons in the world why she shouldn’t ever contemplate such a policy…. and that was the end of the planned imposition of VAT on newspaper houses.

It was therefore, not surprising that the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) named the newly rebuilt Nigerian Institute of Journalism House after Isa Funtua who was its former president and life patron.

He was a close associate of Late MKO Abiola. As one of the pro-democracy activists and critics of the military establishment, Funtua became a target of the Abacha junta, as his name was reportedly number 13 on the famous hit-list.

Isa Funtua served as a member of the 1994-1995 Constitutional Conference. He was a key member of the special committee of 37 which resolved that rotation of power between the North and South be entrenched in the constitution.

As an astute entrepreneur, he was founder/Chairman of Bulet International Nigeria Limited (the largest wholly owned indigenous construction company) which built most of the iconic public buildings in Abuja and provided job opportunities for Nigerians.

Funtua, was also an alumni of the National Institute for Poliy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS). He was the Monitor General of the Course 9 at NIPSS, Kuru.

He was conferred with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR) by President Olusegun Obasanjo in December 2003.

Despite living for many positive things for decades, since 2015 his name has more often than not come up in the media for negative reasons. It is either Nigerians have been transferring the aggression of the seeming failure of the present administration (to fulfill pre-election promises and solve basic problems like insecurity, corruption and poverty) on him and other allies of the President or there could be some figment of reality in some of the allegations levelled against him.

Alongside the late Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, the President’s older nephew, Mamman Daura, former minister. Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and others, Isa Funtua was said to be a prominent member of an almighty cabal which takes decisions and pass instructions down the ladder of government on behalf of President Buhari whose critics claim lack the physical strength and presence of mind to properly take charge of the country’s affairs.

Isa Funtua was specifically said to be behind the appointment and reappointment of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, Godwin Emefiele, who has allegedly committed round tripping, forex manipulations and other illicit practices and raised billions of naira for him to resuscitate his ailing businesses. This allegation has been supported by its believers with the viral picture of Emefiele kneeling before Isa Funtua while former minister of interior, Abdulrahman Danbazzau, looks on.

The fact that he didn’t  bother to address or deny the above-mentioned allegations against him led many to believe they could contain some elements of truth.

But there were two recent issues he didn’t shy away from and which he addressed in his trademark frankness. First, when Abba Kyari died, his name made the shortlist of likely replacements flying round the media. He however told BBC Hausa Service that whoever put his name on the list was out to insult or reduce his personality, adding that even the President cannot look into his face and ask him to be his Chief of Staff.

Earlier in January, during the famous Arise TV interview, he had addressed the touchy issue of Igbo Presidency in a manner that angered many Nigerians. He said there is nothing like Igbo Presidency in 2023 because it is not “Turn by Turn Nigeria Limited”. He also wondered why the Igbo were insisting on the Presidency in 2023 when they have refused to ‘belong.’

While many southerners found the above assertions arrogant and tantamount to playing God, most northerners believed he was merely saying the truth about how politics is played in this country. Neither his critics, nor his supporters, not even Isa Funtua knew he won’t see the end of 2020 much less live to witness who becomes President in 2023.

He was a strong man who retained his resilience till his dying days. He had spoken to Senator Ben Murray Bruce and was supposed to call him back the following day. Few hours later, his chest started paining him seriously. He drove himself to the hospital. He didn’t make it back alive.

He came, he saw and he made his own impact in his own way.