By Issa Aremu,
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 grand father.
However, as the General Secretary of Textile Workers’ Union, I had the privilege of engagement with him for almost 30 years. Mal. Ismaila captured imagination more as an investor, engaging and enthusiastic employer of labour. And a policy debater too!
He would be remembered for his singular unrelenting commitment to industrialisation 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 unfair business practices which undercut 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 the cotton, textile and garment value chains. He was the arrow head 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 pioneer 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 singlehandedly be attributed to the relentless activism and investment patriotism of Mallam 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 Mallam Isa was more than being transactional or organisational. It was also personal. It was an honour to relate with a humbling guardian (he often called me ‘Baba na’ as his privileged namesake!) I agree with the former head of state, Ibrahim Babangida that Mallam Isa “ …was one Nigerian who never pretended about issues and situations. You would outrightly 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 eminently prepared for. He even deliberately courted some exchanges bordering on the ideological between capital and labour.
Sometime 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 the challenges of disbursement and restructured repayment of the CBN support fund channeled through the Bank of Industry (BOI). Mallam 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 were 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’s fund was a repayable loan not a grant to be given to workers as bonuses! Mallam carpeted you unaware and almost when the right of reply was a luxury. 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 worsening cost of living! Of course “Baba na!” had a knock on the head while the engagement continued until Allah came calling last week.
Everyday 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 again mulled calling on him once the COVID-19 lockdown eased for continuation of the outstanding industry/labour issues.
Still on the bonus struggle! Sequel to the inability of management of UNTL Ikorodu to pay the 2019 bonus, early this year, the workers organised 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. 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 total factory shut down. Eventually, both the union leadership and management resolved the dispute and restored continuous production which still keeps some 600 work force.
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 the 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 the 27th of November 2019, walked to the Textile Labour House along Nnamdi Azikiwe Express road in Kaduna again for an engagement with labour. 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 to guide the alumni aright whenever there are 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.