Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua (1942-2020), who died in Abuja on July 20 at the age of 78, evokes different emotions in different people. To many, he was just a friend and ally of President Muhammadu Buhari, while others would simply tag him as a member of the Aso Rock cabal, consisting of himself, late Mallam Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to the President and Mallam Mamman Daura.
To me however, Alhaji Funtua was a father. This is despite the wide physical gap between Funtua, Katsina State, where he hailed from, and my own Abeokuta, Ogun State.
My interaction with this departed great Nigerian dates back to 1987 when he, as the Managing Director of the Kaduna-based The Democrat newspapers, now defunct, gave me my first job as a journalist, two months to the end of my youth service in Samaru, Zaria, Kaduna State.
I had gone to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Samaru main campus on a particular day to carry out an assignment given me by Mallam Siraj Abdulkarim, then the Head of Administration, of my place of service.
On getting back to our premises, I saw a van branded in the name and colours of The Democrat and I went straight to the office of Mallam Abdulkarim, now a professor in the Faculty of Administration, ABU.
Seated opposite him was a man he introduced to me as “Mallam Gusau Ahmad, an Editor with The Democrat.” I greeted the visitor and sent a non-verbal gesture to Mallam Abdulkarim. He decoded my message and asked “Would you want to work with The Democrat?” I said yes and Mallam Ahmad asked me to quickly write an application letter and give him before he departs.
Mallam Ahmad, who later became our Sunday Editor, and Mallam Funtua were among those who interviewed me for the job. The late Mallam Funtua told me that Mallam Abba Kyari, the Daily Editor-designate too, would have been on the panel, but he was absent because he had some engagements in the UK.
Mallam Funtua took immediate interest in me and asked me how soon I could join The Democrat. I was pleasantly surprised and immediately welcomed the offer.
I therefore later moved from Zaria to Kaduna town to commence an orientation programme at The Democrat, which lasted for about one month.
I approached Mallam a few days before the end of that programme and requested transfer to the Lagos Bureau. He was not too pleased about this. He nonetheless said I could go if that was my preference. Just as I rose up from the chair to leave his office, he said: “Lagos boy, you can go back to your Lagos, but just know that I can recall you back to the Head Office any time I feel like.” I told him that was okay by me, but I guess he knew I did not mean what I said. “Just go, your letter of transfer will be ready before the end of your orientation,” he said jokingly
I left Kaduna for Lagos at the end of the orientation programme and The Democrat soon hit the streets. I was covering General Beat, usually reserved for greenhorns in journalism.
Few months after, I got a phone call from Mallam Funtua: “Mikail, I am sending you to Dodan Barracks as the State House Correspondent. I know that beat is for senior journalists, but I know you can cope.”
He soon sent to me from Kaduna, three letters. One on my appointment as The Democrat State House Correspondent and the two others that I would take to Dodan Barracks to get accredited: one to Chief Duro Onabule, Chief Press Secretary to President (General) Ibrahim Babangida and the other to Mallam Yusuf Mamman, the Chief Press Secretary to Vice President (Admiral ) Augustus Aikhomu.
The first person I visited when I got to Dodan Barracks was Mallam Yusuf Mamman and he told me I was welcome. Chief Onabule, aka Double Chief, was however curious to know what qualified this young man before him to be sent to the seat of power. He asked me: “How long have you been practicing journalism ?” I answered without hesitation: “Six months.”
He took a deep breath and said: “This place if for people with long years of experience in journalism, but I cannot deny you accreditation since your MD feels you are up to the task. Your Oga is also my Oga’s friend, so you are welcome.”
That was how I joined the elite corps of Dodan Barracks Correspondent, thanks to Mallam Funtua.
Like the mother hen, however, Mallam kept following my career progression, and was always asking if there was anything he could do to make my job easy. He called for me one day in February 1989, when he was in Lagos. When I was ushered into his sitting room at his residence located at off Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, he asked: “Mikail, are you aware the president is travelling to Japan next week for the burial of the late Emperor Hirohito?” I answered in the affirmative and he asked if I was on the list for the trip. I told him I wasn’t and he demanded to know why.
I told him only Nigerian Television Authority, News Agency of Nigeria and Radio Nigeria correspondents were on the list because there would be no advance party and everyone one on the trip would be in the Presidential Aircraft with President Babangida. “Don’t worry, you are travelling with the president on that trip. I will talk to the president,” he told me.
I got to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Press Centre, Dodan Barracks the following day around 12noon and was told that an aide of Chief Onabule had been there about three times to ask after me. “Hope your paper has not written something he found objectionable?” some of my colleagues asked in genuine concern.
I went to Chief’s office and he asked why I was coming that late. “Do you have your travelling passport with you?” he asked. I feigned ignorance about why I had to be with that document and told him that I did not, since I had not been told to do so. “Make sure you bring it tomorrow and come early. You are traveling with the president to Japan and we have to send your passport to the protocol department for issuance of visa,” he said.
I did as instructed. On our way to Japan, President Babangida left his VIP section of the plane to throw banters with other members of his entourage. He was closely followed by Chief Onabule. When the president got to me, Chief Onabule told him: “Sir, this is Mikail Mumuni, The Democrat Correspondent,” whereupon the president responded, “Thank you Chief, I know him.”
My relationship with Mallam Funtua did not end even after I left The Democrat. When Dare Babarinsa, one of my former bosses at TELL Magazine, who later became Editor-in-Chief/Managing Director of the Westerner magazine, owned by Otunba Gbenga Daniel, former Governor of Ogun State, invited me to join him as Deputy Editor, Mallam Funtua again proved that he was a father. Babarinsa had transformed The Westerner from a tabloid to a glossy newsmagazine and a committee, headed by him, was considering those to be invited nationwide to play key roles at the public presentation billed for Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos.
At one of our meetings, I suggested Mallam Funtua as the Chairman of the occasion. Babarinsa and other fellow members of the rebranding committee were ecstatic about the national look the presence of Mallam Funtua as Chairman of the occasion would give The Westerner in addition to huge leverage of his being a former President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria.
Members of that committee were however concerned about how to get him to attend. I would get that done, I assured them. I got a call across to Mallam. I told him about the coming event and the role I had asked that he be penciled down to play.
He said although he does not agree with the name The Westerner and would prefer a name that is national in outlook, he would be there on my invitation. True to his word, he came. When we went out to usher him in and he greeted me, mentioning my name, his friend and publisher of Vanguard newspaper, Sam Amuka, who accompanied him, was surprised and he said: “Mallam, you mean this was the person you said invited you to this programme all the way from Abuja?”
Mallam Funtua could see the surprise on the face of Uncle Amuka who apparently felt the Mumuni his friend told him about would be “one big Alhaji” and he told him: “Yes, this is my ‘son’ Mikail Mumuni. We have being together since our Democrat days.”
It is instructive that he attended that programme without seeing the letter of invitation and my Editor-in-Chief after the programme wrote a well crafted letter of appreciation in the inimitable Dare Babarinsa style to Mallam Funtua. He insisted I must personally take to Mallam Funtua in Abuja.
When I got to Abuja and phoned to tell him that I was in town with a letter of appreciation from my MD/Editor-in-Chief, he said I should not have travelled all the way from Lagos simply to give him a letter of appreciation. A phone call from Lagos, he said, would have been enough for him. “Now that you already in Abuja, where are you staying so that I can ask my driver to come and pick you,” he said.
His driver came to my hotel and took me to Mallam Funtua’s residence, where we relived old memories.
Many years after, I was held up in traffic around the Federal Secretariat, Abuja and the driver of the car beside mine rolled down the glass and called out: “Mikail, when did you come to town?” That driver was my former boss and ‘father’, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua.
Such was the love he radiated to all who came his way, while he was here. Adieu, my adopted father, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua. May Allah reward you with Aljanat Faidous.
· MUMUNI, a journalist and Group Corporate Affairs Manager of Dr. Wale Babalakin’s Resort International Limited, writes from Lagos.