By Mahmud Jega
I was reluctant last night to write this short tribute to Alhaji Ismaila Isa Funtua, prominent businessman and politician and one of the leading figures in the Nigerian newspaper industry over several decades.
Not only did his sudden death, which I first heard about from Daily Trust’s editor, cause me personal anguish, but his funeral had not even taken place.
It is slated for 12 noon today, Tuesday, and all prayers and tributes should traditionally wait until after the funeral.
I particularly recall my last meeting with him.
Two weeks ago his nephew Mohammed Isa called me and said Alhaji Samaila said he had not seen me in many months.
I said it was due to the pandemic and the lockdown, so two days later Mohammed and I went to his house at Garki.
He had already said he was entertaining a visitor, and from the motorcade waiting outside we figured out that it was Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila.
I entered his living room that day for only the second and, as it turned out, final time.
We spoke on a wide range of subjects for an hour.
Days before this meeting, I had read online allegations against him and his son, including that CBN assisted him with funds to buy Providence Bank.
I thought that was what he wanted to discuss with me and when he did not raise the subject, I raised it.
For a man thought by Nigerians these days to be a powerful member of President Buhari’s “cabal,” Alhaji Samaila seemed to me to be helpless in the face on unfounded allegations.
He told me that he never heard of Providence Bank until a month earlier, when he went to inspect a house in Lugbe that he wanted to buy for an aide to his late friend, Marafan Sokoto Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi.
He said as they negotiated a corner in Lugbe, he saw a signboard and asked what bank was that because he never heard of it.
Imagine his shock therefore when an online medium said he owned the bank.
Even though I had known Alhaji Ismaila at some distance since 1990, I only got to know him closely when he told his nephew last year that he had been reading my writings but did not know me.
I then went to see him in Abuja.
I entered his house with some trepidation, with stories of “cabal” ringing in my head.
His house was an old one, in the heart of Garki.
It was a bit cramped and had no signs of splendour.
I thought he had something important that he wanted to discuss with me but he had none.
We only engaged in general discussion, in which he expressed personal opinions about some issues and persons in the Buhari administration.
I did not expect him to remember that but I saw him several times at The Democrat newspapers in Kaduna, of which he was publisher, in the 1990s.
Even before that I heard of him because he was a minister in President Shehu Shagari’s second term, which lasted only three months.
From 1991 however, I saw Alhaji Samaila regularly at Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi’s house in Kaduna.
He was a top notcher in Choice 92, Shinkafi’s campaign organization.
He was very wealthy, as chairman of Bulet Construction Company which was handling big Abuja projects.
The gossip in Choice 92 then was that he was the only close Marafa associate who was spending his money in the campaign.
I also ran into him twice abroad, once in New York and another time in Geneva, but it was long ago and we did not discuss much on those occasions.
Alhaji Samaila was very prominent in the two top organisations of newspaper publishers, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria [NPAN] and International Press Institute, IPI.
For many years he was the leader of both and even afterwards, he was a life patron of NPAN.
Most Nigerians however became familiar with his name since 2015 due to its frequent mention in the newspapers as a member of the so-called cabal around President Buhari.
During my last meeting with him, I urged Alhaji Samaila not to do like the late Chief of Staff Abba Kyari, that he should not leave serious allegations against his person to go unanswered.
He merely shrugged and said, “I told you how I first heard about a bank I was said to own.
“What else is there to answer?”
With his quite sudden death last night, perpetrators of the social media allegations will have no one left to answer them.