The fire stoked by the Nigeria Press Organisation comprising Newspaper Proprietors Association (NPAN), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), in renaming NIJ House after late Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua, is still raging. The issue is as much about the personality of Funtua as about the borrowed robe of “defender of press freedom” and the symbol of the Nigerian Press that he was gifted.
One of the most decorated and highly respected generals of the Nigerian media, Mr. Ray Ekpu, has been upbeat in his defence of Funtua and the “honour” done to him; I salute Ekpu for his courage. Selling a bad product or defending the indefensible does not come easy. It takes the lion-hearted to take up such a hazardous task; more so when we consider the pedigree of Ekpu who, even in his own personal recognition, is a doyen of the media. Moreover, he stands on the shoulders of giants – the late Mr. Dele Giwa and the Newswatch newsmagazine, both of blessed memory.
Our people have a saying, to wit, when you mention a tortoise; you also must mention the forest from which you picked it. There is no mentioning Ray Ekpu without also mentioning - or remembering with nostalgia - Dele Giwa and the Newswatch newsmagazine that the slain, inimitable editor pioneered. Sweet, indeed, is the memory of Dele Giwa! Ekpu was an important part of that history. At one time, he had the singular honour and unenviable task of stepping into Giwa’s shoes and keeping the vision alive.
He must have tried his best. We knew he kept the flag flying for a while. But we also knew it could not have been easy. Even biblical Moses wearied keeping his hands up on the battlefield and needed an Aaron and a Hur. But in all situations and circumstances, Ekpu must never forget that he has a lofty tradition and an unblemished honour to continue to keep aglow. Generations to come look up to him and his other colleagues at Dele Giwa’s Newswatch to remain not only worthy successors but also protectors and promoters of the Dele Giwa/Newswatch legacy. It is important to always keep that in mind.
The groundswell of opinion is that those who conferred the so-called honour on Funtua not only lacked the locus but also were wrong in their judgement. Responses to my “Funtua: Honour not deserved” (New Telegraph, Wednesday, July 29, 2020 and which also went viral) gave me that idea; so also comments by other writers. AbdulRafiu in “Isa Funtua: Trust Betrayed” (The Guardian, 30 July, 2020) described the NPO decision as “unwise”, “jolting”, thus creating “unnecessary controversy”.
He added that the decision was done “without carrying stakeholders along...I am not persuaded that the justification adduced is cogent and unassailable”. There was nothing new and extraordinary that Funtua did for the media more than many others more worthy of the award, he said.
Abdul Rafiu extolled the virtues of ex-Governor Lateef Jakande, who gave to the NPO landed properties (part of which the NIJ House in question and the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba were built); who worked tirelessly for press freedom and press development; and who occupied all the top media positions at home and abroad. Remember the celebrated Amakiri case; the journalist who was ordered shaved by the then military governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diette-Spiff? Jakande got Messers Gani Fawahinmi and Olu Onaguruwa to fight the battle.
I remember that as Features Editor of The PUNCH, I interviewed Diette-Spiff, by then a traditional ruler, and put him to task on the Amakiri issue. AbdulRafiu mentioned other names by far worthier than Funtua, including Babatunde Jose, Sam Amuka Pemu, Ernest Ikoli, Adeyemo Alakija, Zik, Awo, Enahoro,Adamu Ciroma, and Turi Muhammadu who had made more outstanding contributions to the media than Funtua.
He then said: “The decision to name an edifice of the kind of the NIJ House after (Funtua) was hasty and not well thought through... 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 a 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”. I concur!
Martins Oloja, Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian newspapers, in his “Inside Stuff” column titled “How did Isa Funtua defend Press freedom? (The Guardian, Sunday, August 2, 2020), described the award gifted Funtua as “curious, provocative and hasty”, which made the NPO to “stoop low...to stain their badge of honour”. Whatever contributions Funtua might have made to the media, Oloja posits that they are “not significant enough (for him) to deserve the honour” in question.
Specifically, Oloja accused Funtua of instigating the closure of The Guardian newspaper in 1994 by the Abacha junta. He also mentioned the case of a journalist, Jones Abiri, publisher of the Yenagoa-based “Weekly Source”, who was arrested on July 21, 2016 and was then detained on trumped up charges for two years by the DSS – this in the Buhari administration in which Funtua prided himself as “the cabal”.
Said Oloja: “For two years, the DSS rebuffed all efforts by Jones’ family, lawyers, journalists and the civil society actors to get any information on him (hence) The Guardian editorial titled “Why did FG lie to IPI” (July 26, 2018)... That was the highpoint of the June 2016 cover up by the Federal Government in Abuja when a Vienna-Based world journalism body, the International Press Institute (IPI)... had, among others, demanded the release of (Abiri) at the State House banquet hall in Abuja where Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari had declared (the IPI’s conference) open on June 21, 2018.
“But curiously, instead of telling the truth, Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Mr Lai Mohammed, who was at the opening ceremony, covered up the detention of citizen Abiri when he told the nation and the IPI that no journalist was in detention in Nigeria...What was more curious, the embarrassing cover-up by the Federal Government was reinforced the following day at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja by one of the pillars of IPI in Nigeria, Funtua, publisher of a defunct newspaper, The Democrat, which ceased publication more than two decades ago.
“At the time government was covering up the detention of Abiri, Funtua was the chairman of the Governing Council of the premier journalism institution in Nigeria, the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), the same that the IPI (had) helped to establish in 1963 when Jakande was in charge of the local chapter of IPI.”
Oloja also said that in 1994, Funtua’s The Democrat newspaper spearheaded a campaign for government clampdown on The Guardian. “Joined by “Today”, a newspaper founded by the late Abadina Coomaise, The Democrat also pressed for the sack of Mr. Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian, from Abacha’s government.
“Specifically, on August 15, 1994, Abacha, heeding the call by Funtua’s The Democrat, closed down The Guardian...It was not to return to the newsstands until October 1, 1995.
“So, from all these antecedents, how can we dress Ismaila Isa Funtua, whose newspaper in 1994 asked a military dictator to clamp down on an independent newspaper, and in 2018 helped a government to sustain a lie to the IPI that no journalist was in detention when he knew that journalist Jones Abiri had been in DSS detention for two years, as a fighter for press freedom?
“Our leaders in NPO should meet quickly to reverse their rash decision, lest we face the harsh verdict of history.” They are facing it already!
In “Isa Funtua cannot symbolise Nigerian journalism”, (Sunday PUNCH, August 2, 2020), respected Sonala Olumhense described the renaming business as “embarrassing” and its justifications as mostly “irrelevant”; adding that “there was absolutely nothing outstanding in the (NPO’s) claims (that justified the decision).
“It ought to take something extraordinary to name an entire industry’s prime real estate after an individual within four days of his death. That something extraordinary would be character, which relates to an aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of someone.”
It is Sonala’s considered opinion that Funtua fell far short of that because, though “he had a chance to enjoy such recognition (he flunked it because) he was not an advocate for Nigeria. Instead, in a faltering government, he pronounced himself a member of a reviled power block.”
Funtua could have “advocated a robust press in the nation’s democratic process but he was neither on record as objecting to a revised Decree 4 nor as advising Buhari that engaging journalists is a duty and not an option.
“These are issues of character, not politics, questions that the NPO, were it being honest or professional, ought to have asked before it ventured into the embarrassing renaming business.”
The concluding part comes up next week, God willing!
- Bola Bolawole
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