I read Mike Awoyinfa’s most recent Press Clips titled “Good Friends We’ve Lost” with lyrics taken from Bob Marley. It was about the iconic Mallam Ismaila Isa OFR, mni. It was heart-warming to learn of the international accolades bestowed on the man Isa (also known as Isa Funtua). The International Press Institute (IPI) had given Isa a “Lifetime Fellowship” in Belgrade, Serbia in 2008. He also served on the global board of the Institute. He was honoured for his services to the cause of free press, and free society.
This towering figure, literally and figuratively (he was over 6 feet tall!) did a lot to bring pride and honour to Nigeria. It is no wonder that the Nigerian Press Organisation has just renamed the recently built Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) House in Victoria Island, Lagos as the ISMAILA ISA HOUSE, to immortalise the man.
Isa had also served as Minister of Water Resources in Nigeria’s Second Republic. A lot of Nigerians know him as one-time President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). It is a notable pressure group in the body politic, and was an arrowhead in Nigeria’s struggle for democratic rule.
One thing I can say about Mallam Isa is that his humility is disarming. Isa is the owner of Bulet Construction Company, a company for which it would appear that half of Nigeria’s money was poured into, for the execution of a lot of the nation’s biggest construction projects, making Isa a very wealthy man indeed. The time I met him once was at Abuja airport. Upon being introduced, he said he had noticed my frequent flying in and out and wondered: what was the secret?! I must confess I was gobsmacked! Mallam Isa noticing me! This was a man I can bet was friends with EVERY Nigerian president or head of state who has ever lived!
Isa’s private jets were forgotten possessions, in fact last year, another friend of his, in the media this time, told us all in a gathering how Isa graciously let him use his jet; and that was how he made it to a certain event at which he was keynote speaker, but for which there was no timely commercial flights.
Mike Awoyinfa in his Press Clips spoke of Isa’s unstinting generosity and kindness to friends in need.
Many more people know Ismaila Isa to be an ally of President Muhammadu Buhari. He is also known to be a part of the cabal of the current administration. That said then, it is a greater testimony to his generosity of spirit that he used his power of influence to support female politicians in Nigeria.
First Lady Aisha Buhari in her tribute at his passing on spoke of the part Isa played in getting female politicians appointed into various boards, over the last 4 years. But of great concern here is the controversy that has been generated over the visit Isa made to Omoyele Sowore, CEO of Sahara Reporters Group of Companies, while the latter was still in DSS detention for planning to hold a nationwide rally. The recent passing away of Isa has exacerbated that controversy which appears to be festering now, like an open wound.
In the course of Sowore’s four-month detention and confinement by the DSS last year, one of the few people permitted to visit him was Ismaila Isa. He went in company of some other top media executives. After that visit, it was reported that the meeting with Sowore had been at the instance of the federal government. This I believe was the deduction of the host, after the visit. But the easiest and best thing to have been done would have been to interview Isa himself. On this, I am afraid his primary constituency, the press did not quite do him justice. His strenuous denial of a federal government initiative did not resonate.
In December 2019 I was in Lagos for the NMMA Awards. My column, “The Princess Files” had been nominated for NMMA’s “Columnist of the Year.”
Isa was a keynote speaker at what would turn out to be his last media engagement in life. He lamented how he was longing to hand over media leadership to the next generation. But where were they? he had asked.
The next thing that happened was that in a heartbroken voice with his pitch rising almost to a squeal, Isa spoke of how shocked, how pained he had felt upon reading in Sahara Reporters of how he was “sent by Buhari” to negotiate Sowore’s release. I have scarcely ever seen anyone so aggrieved. It was a terrible moment for me, for all of us who were present that evening.
Now sadly, shockingly six months later, the man is dead. Sadly for me too is that in the six months ensuing, my column has been on hold. But for now, there is the need to look at this matter clearly and realistically: Coul President Buhari have sent Isa to go negotiate for him with Sowore? It is just like the situation in the ancient Oyo Kingdoms where there were people referred to as the Oyo Mesi. They were the kingmakers; however, once a king was crowned they were all subject to his authority. Isa was just like one of those ancient kingmakers. Omoyele Sowore is a known person to me even though I have no access to him. It hurts me to see how all this has become so misconstrued as to now be a burning issue.
It is pertinent to point out that Isa’s son is married to one of Buhari’s beautiful daughters, making him the President’s in-law. This same son contested for the Katsina governorship ticket in the 2019 election. He did not make even the primaries. If Isa did not abuse his privilege to impose his own son for the party ticket; how plausible is it that he would later become an ‘emergency government contractor’, to go negotiate Sowore’s release? Isa is someone who was known for doing everything to protect the media, and fight the cause of pressmen and press freedom. Every issue concerning press people, Ismaila Isa always took upon himself, to handle
Another example is the midyear 2019 seizure of the operating licence of DAAR Communications by the NBC. DAAR is the operator of AIT and Raypower Radio. Isa is said to have set up, and followed through on series of interventionist meetings. The result was that the operating license was soon restored.
It would be most unfortunate now for the matter today to appear to pall the current memory of Isa, who was actually fighting on the same side as Sowore, to actualise a free Nigerian society.
Ironically, Isa’s newspaper The Democrat had the aim of fighting to restore democratic governance in Nigeria. It was a struggle that Isa fought just as did Omoyele Sowore, in their own ways. It was in remembrance of all that both of them individually stood for that Isa, on his own initiative, arranged for the mediatory visit. His aim was to have Sowore released FIRST, then take it from there.
My humble submission is that ISA WAS ONLY FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM FOR THE FREEDOM FIGHTER.