The multi-tasked late elder statesmen, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua, who died in Abuja last Monday at the age of 78 years understandably meant many things to all: a publisher, elder statesman, construction entrepreneur, a silent and dignified politician, father, and grandfather. However, as the General Secretary of Textile Workers’ Union, I had the privilege of engaging with him for almost 30 years. Mallam Ismaila captured the imagination more as an investor, engaging, and enthusiastic employer of labor. And a policy debater too!
He would be remembered for his singular unrelenting commitment to industrialization in Nigeria. He was among the few Nigerian entrepreneurs who courageously stood to be counted on the side of domestic production, import substitution in place of wholesale importation and smuggling.
He loathed dumping and smuggling as an unfair business practice that undercuts domestic production. He unapologetically repeatedly prodded the union to engage the Customs Service in upscaling its seizures of smuggled items. Smuggling ruins local textile mills perhaps as much as electricity failure. Notwithstanding the challenges of electricity supply, smuggling, and high costs of long term funds for investment, Mallam Isa tirelessly worked for Industrialisation and beneficiation, especially in cotton, textile, and garment value chains.
He was the arrowhead of the historic first comprehensive Cotton, Textile and Garment, CTG, policy announced by President Muhammadu Buhari two years ago. The CTG policy aims at reviving the entire value chains of cotton growing, ginneries, spinning and weaving, printing, and garments production.
The survival of the few pioneers textile mills, namely United Nigerian Textile Company, Kaduna, and Ikorodu Lagos (which used to employ 10,500 workers) and Funtua Textile Mill which currently employs more than 750 workers can almost single-handedly be attributed to the relentless activism and investment patriotism of Alhaji Isa Funtua.
The question is: who continues with equal zeal, sagacity, and energy? I can’t think of any last encounter with him precisely because the relationship with Alhaji Isa was more than being transactional or organizational. It was also personal.
It was an honor to relate with a humbling guardian( he often called me Baba na as his privileged namesake!) I agree with former Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, that Mallam Isa “ …was one Nigerian who never pretended about issues and situations. You would rightly know where he belongs. He was not given to frivolities and shenanigans.
He was pointedly frank when he needed to make his position known on any matter. He carried with him an aura that defined his persona”. He never shied away from “fights” most of which he was eminently prepared for. He even deliberately courted some exchanges bordering on the ideological between capital and labor.
Sometimes last year, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, the CBN Governor summoned a meeting on the Bank’s intervention fund and measures on the revival of the textile industry. The discussion was on challenges of disbursement and restructured repayment of the CBN support fund channeled through the Bank of Industry. Alhaji Isa as usual spiritedly and authoritatively spoke on behalf of the textile manufacturers, including the Chinese and Indians.
He pressed for the reduction of interest rate on the intervention fund, and prompt disbursement by BOI among others. But he was not done yet! Pointing directly at me, he told the CBN to warn the Union against putting “undue pressures” on the ailing industry through “unreasonable demands” for annual bonuses from companies that have been posting losses, not profits, over the years.
According to him, the union’s preoccupation ought to be employment, nothing else! He also reminded me of the obvious: CBN fund was a repayable loan, not a grant to be given to workers as bonuses! But I also had my way later when I told him that it was “a bonus” for the textile owners like him to be granted reduced rates by the CBN on intervention fund. What was good for companies was even more desirable for the workers who have kept faith with production targets despite the worsening cost of living!
Of course “Baba na!” had a knock on the head while the engagement continued until Allah came calling last week. Every day was a moment with an employer-of-the-heart! He was truly authoritative but certainly not authoritarian.
Indeed he was a friend of the union in heart and actions. I and the President of Textile Union, John Adaji, just weeks ago mulled calling on him once the COVID-19 lockdown eases out for the continuation of the outstanding industry/labor issues. Still on the bonus struggle! Sequel to the inability of the management of UNTL Ikorodu to pay the 2019 bonus early this year, the workers organized wild cat strike without union’s directive.
They locked in the expatriates, the HR Manager, and other workers unwilling to join them in the protest for two days within the company’s premises! The branch executives they freely elected two years ago were chased out of the company premises.
The dictatorship of the proletariat against the proletariat! Mallam Isa had had enough of the protests. He flew in from Abuja and went straight to Ikorodu. He was bent on the total factory shut down. Eventually, both the union leadership and management resolved disputes and restored continuous production which still keeps some 600 workforces.
Again who continues this advocacy for the industry and employment? Who would have all the time for outstanding details that include uncredited contributory pensions and of course implementation of the CTG policy? The best tribute to Mallam Isa is to sustain his legacy of industry and enterprises for sustainable employment for the mass of unemployed youths, especially in the North.
The 19 Northern governors should partner with President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure speedy and full implementation of Cotton, Textile and Garment, CTG, the proposed establishment of industrial parks in the North, revival of KTL in Kaduna as well as payment of outstanding entitlements of the workers. A humble employer that he was, Mallam Isa on November 27, 2019, walked to Textile Labour House along Nnamdi Azikwe express road in Kaduna again for engagement with labor. His remark in the Union’s Visitors’ Book is an eternal testimony and best wish: “Keep the flag moving as usual and may Almighty Allah protect our workers. Amen – Mallam Ismaila Isa Director, Funtua Textiles Limited.”
As a two-term elected Secretary-General of the Alumni Association of the National Institute, ANNI, (2013 – 2017), I bear witness that he was an active senior member of the prestigious Alumni of the National Institute AANI, the motto of which is: “Towards A Better Society.”
His statesmanship was legendary as he intervened several times to guide the Alumni aright whenever there were divergent perspectives. He was the Monitor General of the Senior Executive Course 9 in 1998 of the prestigious National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, Kuru. May Allah grant him eternal peace and mercy.