Isa Funtua (1942 – 2020)



Known as a significant power broker, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua corroborated public perception of his political influence in word and deed. Responding to a question about his said membership of a power coterie on Arise TV, he said: “I’m not a member of any cabal, I’m cabal myself. 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.”

His witty denial nevertheless confirmed his place in the corridors of power. However, it is not clear to what extent his input as a member of President Muhammadu Buhari’s kitchen cabinet influenced alleged lacklustre performance of the Buhari administration. He was also the President’s in-law, an added connection believed to have reinforced his political influence.

His effort to dissuade a former presidential aspirant and champion of revolution, Omoyele Sowore, from the path of confrontation, illustrated the scope of his unofficial power role. Following Funtua’s death on July 20, at the age of 78, Sowore recalled that the power agent and some others had visited him in detention in 2019, and tried to make him renounce his call for revolution.

Sowore quoted Funtua as saying to him, “You can’t defeat the government.” Although the Buhari administration stated that the said visit was not arranged by the presidency, it nonetheless demonstrated how Funtua had worked on behalf of the administration.

Funtua was familiar with power. He was Minister of Water Resources under President Shehu Shagari in Nigeria’s Second Republic. Indeed, he was said to have been a major member of the so-called Kaduna Mafia, a group of businessmen, civil servants, intellectuals and military officers from Northern Nigeria, which allegedly pursued the political dominance of their section of the country.

Ironically, he was reportedly listed for elimination by the repressive military government of General Sani Abacha, a northerner, for his pro-democracy stance after a previous regime had annulled the 1993 presidential election won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola, who was not a northerner. He participated in the 1994/95 Constitutional Conference under the Abacha regime, which reflected his endorsement of constitutionalism.

He established a newspaper called The Democrat, and headed it as managing director, in an era of military rule, demonstrating his opposition to military rule.

The decision of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), comprising Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), to name the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) House, Victoria Island, Lagos, after him posthumously, is a testimony to his services to journalism. He was NPAN president, chairman of the governing council of NIJ, and life patron of the International Press Institute (IPI).

Funtua also made a name for himself as an industrialist. He founded Funtua Textiles Limited, which promoted locally made fabrics; and Bulet International Nigeria Limited, described as “one of the largest indigenous construction companies in Nigeria,” which built some of the major public buildings in the federal capital, Abuja.

Born in Funtua in present-day Katsina State, he attended Commercial College, Zaria, Federal Training Centre, Kaduna, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and University of Manchester, England. Also, he was the Monitor-General of Course 9 of the Senior Executive Course at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies.

After a stint as an administrative officer at the Katsina Native Authority, he worked as an administrator in various ministries in the old North Central State. He later became personnel manager of the United Nigerian Textiles Company, Kaduna.

A recipient of the national honour, Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), Funtua observed in an interview: “We are not holding our leaders accountable all along and why are we not holding our leaders accountable? … What is the government about? The people.”  Considering his reputation as a power broker, it is significant that he acknowledged that ultimately power belongs to the people.

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