Thursday, 30 July 2020 16:59

[OPINION] Isa Funtua: Trust Betrayed - Abdu Rafiu

The sudden departure of Ismaila Isa Funtua from earthly life came as a shock. Yes, hardly does death give anyone notice that it would soon come calling or it is already by the door seeking entry. Many who have had a protracted illness and over whom families and relations have given up hope, have been known to have recovered miraculously. Babies die; youths with everything going for them, die; the old kick the bucket, in calm or rough weather. In rough, stormy weather, ripe and unripe fruits fall. With all products of Nature, our exit is the same, man, or animal. There is even the rejigging of the earth crust by the elements. Most times, devastation is its accompaniment and a reconfigured surface of the earth in that part.

What is death? It is separation of the soul with the animating core, called spirit, from the body. There is never a merger. Body and soul are held together by an exchange of radiations each party mediates. When a person is sick, there is reduction and therefore weakening in the radiation from the body to the soul. There could be drop in supply from the soul as well if the spirit is covered with dross arising from crass material pursuits and mindless Godlessness. This largely accounts for sudden deaths among youths we all see as promising and on whom we build high hopes. If the wrong attitude is not corrected, supply of sustaining Light power from the Creator and the resultant animating influence on the elementary atomic particles to give the body radiant health is dimmed. All help is severed and man is left alone to drive himself to his wit’s end. In no time death ensues.

Every definitive parting is painful, no matter who may be involved – young or old. We regard death with great apprehension. We fear this secret weapon called death so much so that a great many avoid funeral processions. Every death is a sobering moment for us all. The sudden departure of Ismaila Isa Funtua has therefore driven cold shivers down our spines and provided opportunity for sobering reflections. It was while trying to grapple with the unexpected exit throes that the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) in its unwisdom decided to jolt us, throwing Ismaila Isa’s circle of associates, media stakeholders and members of our society interested in public affairs into an unnecessary controversy. The NPO, comprising the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) rechristened the NIJ House at Victoria Island as Ismaila Isa Funtua House. The renaming was justified by NPO which listed his exertions for the development of Nigerian Press as follows:

*For his untiring contributions to the development of Journalism and freedom of the press in Nigeria;
*the co-founding of Democrat Newspapers;
*Presidency of the NPAN at a time of national crises;
*life patron of NPAN;
*serving on the Board of International Press Institute;
*serving as chairman of Board of Directors of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism.

The NPO ought to have known that naming the prime NIJ property without carrying stakeholders along would be controversial. It ought to have known that questions would be asked and convincing answers would need to be provided. I am not persuaded that the justification adduced is cogent and unassailable. What is new in the reasons listed which no one else connected with the industry across the country has brought to the profession? It is increasingly getting clearer that sufficient consultation was not done for a consensus among stakeholders on a matter as crucial as whose flag should be hoisted on the NIJ building. The three organisations have constituencies in which there are leaders of thought who may not necessarily be on the frontline as of now, probably retired. This means the haste with which the building was renamed was unnecessary. It is unfortunate that NPO will open itself to charges of not being able to tell opportunism, calculation from true service.

Let me start from the beginning. The land on which the NIJ building is standing was allotted to NUJ under the chairmanship of Timesman Tunde Odesanya by the Administration of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe while he was Governor of Lagos State, facilitated by Abimbola Odunlami, his Commissioner for Information. The Lateef Jakande Administration extended the land with an additional plot. The Administration also allotted land at Ogba, Ikeja, for the permanent site of the Nigeria Institute of Journalism.

The institute was the brain child of Lateef Jakande when he was chairman of the NPAN. Its establishment was opposed on the ground that by 1971 when the institute took off, Nigeria already had institutions of higher learning – Lagos University and University of Nigeria – offering degree courses in Mass Communication. Nsukka may have been engulfed in war during which time Mass Communication students were brought from the war enclave to UNILAG, by 1971, it was already getting back on its feet. Jakande believed the training of journalists was urgent to produce pressmen properly honed in Journalism. Acting on behalf of NPAN, he got the International Press Institute, not strange to upgrading the Journalism education in Nigeria, to give the proposal backing. IPI had already been involved in organising diploma courses at the University of Lagos as of 1965. Jakande went as far as Australia to find for it the first director, Mr. Keith Harris, from The Age newspaper. The institute started at Breadfruit Street, using Tribune House. Jakande was chairman of the Board. As of the time, he was also a board member of the International Press Institute and later for years its first African President. He was in that office until he was elected Governor of Lagos State in 1979.

Jakande was president of Guild of Editors and founding president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria. There is hardly anyone who can be said to have fought for freedom of the Press locally and internationally more than Jakande did. He led both the Guild of Editors and the NPAN to wrestle with the military governments, fighting one decree after the other. One of the celebrated cases was Amakiri’s of the Observer, the journalist who wrote what was regarded as a negative report on the Governor of Rivers State on the day of his birthday. Amakiri’s head was forcibly shaven. There was outrage in the land, regarding the treatment as dehumanising. Jakande led the Press battle, securing the services of Gani Fawehinmi and Dr. Olu Onagoruwa to successfully fight the battle in court.

He was unbending in the Press agitation that the military must go. During Yakubu Gowon’s administration, he wrote to Kam Salem, the Inspector-General of Police, that if his men had any problem with the Nigerian Tribune, they should leave his editors alone, but come for him. He was Managing Director and Editor-in Chief of the Nigerian Tribune. He wrote editorials from jail in the heady days of the 1962 crisis in the Western Region. He was a reporter, filing reports from the pilgrimage he undertook to Saudi Arabia in 1978; he was a columnist under the pseudo name John West and editorial writer banging out fierce, unsparing, informed and compelling editorials – exceedingly well argued in The Tribune. Which Journalism institution has been named after LKJ, if I may ask?

We can take the case of Babatunde Jose, the newspaper wizard who turned the Daily Times into the biggest newspaper empire Africa South of the Sahara. The newspaper was both an editorial and commercial success. He expanded the enterprise to 15 publications with the Daily Times selling, average circulation, 225,000 copies as of 1975 when he vacated office. Sunday Times average was 370,000 copies. Lagos Weekend 185,000 average weekly sales; Headlines, 138,000 copies; Sporting Record, 60,000 copies; Evening Times, 55,000 copies and Business Times, 50,000 copies, average weekly sales. Times International, 28,000 copies. In the magazine family there was Spear, 30,000 copies; we had Home Studies, 10,000 copies and Woman’s World 25, 000 copies. And there were publications such as Nigerian Year Book, Management in Nigeria; Times Trade and Industrial Directory and Africa Handbook. In the trading report in the year ended February 28/29, 1974, he left a profit of N1,444, 000 which was incredible for the business of that era. By today’s reckoning this surplus would translate into billions of Naira. I have not listed Times Press and Niger Pack. Nor his initiative for the Stock Exchange Building. He built up stupendous assets for the Times in Kaduna, Onitsha and Port Harcourt.

Jose was a reporter, regional editor in Enugu and Kaduna and he was reputed for fierce editorial writing. Even as Chairman/Managing Director of the Daily Times, he was locked up by Gowon’s administration, with his deputy, Laban Omowale Namme and Segun Osoba over the newspaper’s crusade for corruption free Nigeria. He set up Times Training School and gave tremendous boost to manpower development, with journalists sent to universities or to the United Kingdom. The vision saw graduates without Journalism background, among them Areoye Oyebola and Martin Iroabuchi sent to Plymouth School of Journalism in the UK. There was a special office to co-ordinate this in London. Jose was an active member of Newspaper Proprietor’s Association. For all his vision and exertions, which Journalism institution has been named after Babatunde Jose?

Jose wrote of Sam Amuka in his memoirs: “It took me some time, involving changes of editorship, to find an editor who would produce the Sunday Times as I conceived it. That is, like the London Sunday Times – beefy with in-depth feature articles; spicy with entertainment; biting with investigative reports, informative with news, and compelling with power-packed editorials, and ability to produce the paper on schedule for sale. Only three editors achieved that standard – Alade Odunewu, Sam Amuka and Gbolabo Ogunsanwo.”

Sam Amuka was a celebrated columnist, a highly rated editor and publisher. A taste of the pudding: Off Beat Sam in the column captioned “This Nigeria,” wrote: “At this time, the eighth day of the week, when in many towns, political opponents can campaign neither by day or by night, and all strangers, at the door (in some curfew towns) must be turned out after 10 pm (Yuletide welcome), Nigerians still regard their country as “the bastion of democracy.” This thing called democracy means all things to all men. In an Africa beset with both home and foreign manufactured troubles, Nigeria stands out as its hope for stability. It also offers hope for the survival of representative government and fair rule. This hope is embosomed in this election.”

The column as Sad Sam was raised to a new high in the Sunday Times. One of the classics that comes to mind: “Who says Nigeria is in need of being saved, from politicians or from the military?” After Sam Amuka left Daily Times in 1971, he founded a magazine called Happy Home, from Happy Home to Punch with Olu Aboderin. From there he founded Vanguard, and with doggedness made it one of the most successful newspapers in the country. Amuka is an active member of IPI, and NPAN and for years its life patron. He has traversed all the spheres of the Nigerian Journalism firmament. He is the longest today in Journalism practice as well as a publisher. What institution is to be named after him for his imperishable contributions and as a big employer of labour, if I may ask?

Ernest Ikolie was the pioneering editor with Adeyemo Alakija as founder of the Daily Times as strictly an independent newspaper, owing allegiance to no interests other than to Nigeria. The paper was later to be transformed into a newspaper empire. I have not mentioned Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Anthony Enahoro who founded newspapers and used their pens to fight for the Nigerian Independence.

What of the triumvirate of Adamu Ciroma, Maman Daura and Turi Muhamadu who gave Nigeria a clear and unblemished irresistible Northern voice called New Nigerian? Why not Ajibola Ogunshola who dramatically transformed The Punch into a formidable and commercially successful newspaper we see today?

Ismaila Isa is sold to the Nigerians and the media in particular as a fighter for press freedom and as a board member of IPI around the world. This claim will be taken with a pinch of salt. In 1994, his newspaper, The Democrat spearheaded a campaign for government clampdown on The Guardian. Joined by Today newspaper founded by Abadina Coomasie, the Democrat also pressed for the sack of Mr. Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian from Abacha’s government. In an editorial titled “Ibru, Time to Go,” the Democrat claimed that The Guardian “propagates a sectional agenda that is a little to the east today and a bit more to the west tomorrow, but decidedly anti-north everyday.” On August 15, Sani Abacha heeding the call closed down The Guardian for one year. It was not to return to the newsstands until October 1st 1995. A week later, the closure was hailed by Sunday Triumph. The Kano-based newspaper said in its editorial: “This is not the time for niceties.

This is not the time for tolerance, and more tolerance,” and referred to Mr. Ibru as a disloyal member of the government. The explanation by Mr. Ibru that he was different from The Guardian and as a rule did not interfere in the running of the newspaper fell on deaf ears. He offered to resign if the government was not comfortable with The Guardian stance on public policy issues. He eventually left, and from then began his travail until he died about 16 years later. The Guardian joined National Concord and The Punch which had been shut down by Abacha. The Babangida Administration over which Ismaila Isa could be said to have tremendous influence, promulgated a decree in July 1993 which empowered the President to close down newspapers. It was called Decree 35, and indeed six newspapers, among them The Sketch, The Punch, Abuja Newsday, The Observer, Concord and African Economic Digest were closed down at one go.

Ismaila Isa was not a co-founder of The Democrat when it first came into existence in 1983. The paper’s first coming was through the collaborative efforts of Alhaji Ahmed Joda, Philip Asiodu and Shehu Malami. About five years later they were joined by Shinkafi, and Ismaila Isa as his representative. Funtua soon gained increasing influence and became a dominant figure and publisher of The Democrat. For some years he was curiously president of the NPAN without a newspaper.

The decision to name an edifice of the kind of the NIJ house after him was hasty and not well thought through. He was a nice man all right; he cultivated friendship and bonded effortlessly. But he kept company with industry chiefs more for visibility and connection for his business. The huge bank facility for the upgrading of the NIJ House may have been an attraction for the unprecedented honour, but it is not enough. There is also the controversy over the acquisition of Etisalat. The NPO ought to have waited for issues to settle and be properly cleared. Anyone after whom the NIJ is to be named should be an icon, a role model for the industry; he should be a hero, convincingly seen as one with banners without stain. The renaming of NIJ House must be reversed.

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