Desperate partisanship and religious frenzy cannot delete Pantami’s recent past.
By Dr. Chidi Amuta, Executive Editor of USAfrica multimedia networks, Houston, is based in Lagos
President Muhammadu Buhari’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Sheikh Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, could have casually slithered through public office with scant notice if he could delete his past. Unfortunately, he cannot run faster than the jagged shadows from his past. In these parts, a ministerial portfolio with an oversized office and some fancy title can disguise many past inadequacies and thrust otherwise tainted individuals from relative anonymity to dizzying national prominence. Mr. Pantami easily fits into this familiar mould, having had scant national name recognition before joining government in 2016. But as a cabinet minister, he has recently stumbled on additional prominence by dint of a familiar media mishap.
Some media outlets published (rather prematurely and, for now, falsely) that the minister is on some US terrorist watch list. This has sent the minister and his foot soldiers scampering around social and conventional media outlets in search of mitigation. The minister’s specific contention is that he is not on any US watch or black list as variously portrayed by the errant media. No one has yet heard from the US State Department on the matter. What the minister is nervous about is the ‘fake’ news of the US watch list; not his past flirtations and murky alignments with bad people and dangerous organizations.
Whether or not he is on the terrorist watch list of the US or any other country, what has come out is that Mr. Pantami has a documented history of views, activities and associations that make him a fit candidate for both domestic and international close watch on matters relating to terrorist support and sympathies. By the same token, these attributes make him an unfit person to hold high public office in a nation that is part of the global campaign against terrorism and extremism. The current elevated attention on him is simply because his past actions and alignments do not fit the profile of someone who should be entrusted with a strategic public office.
In spite of feverish efforts to deal with the fake news in question, however, Mr. Pantami has found himself entangled in a sticky web from his recent past. His most lethal adversaries are in fact ghosts from an untidy past of bad behavior, ugly associations and bad choice of role models. As it turns out, Mr. Pantami was up to the time of his appointment into government an influential Islamic scholar and preacher, fundamentalist zealot, valiant extremist and an avid sympathizer and admirer of major terrorists.
It is disturbing that in spite of the cascade of anomalies in the Pantami affair, the Presidency, through Mr. Garba Shenu, Buhari’s media Special Assistant, has weighed in to protect Pantami from genuine public demands that he be held accountable for his past. It is of course a blatant falsehood to claim that Pantami was too young at the time of his untidy extremist activities. From available records, Mr. Pamtami is currently 48 years old. He was clearly a mature and well educated adult as at the time he was proselytizing for extremists prior to his ministerial appointment in 2019, having been the Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NTDA) from 2016. He is bo doubt an outstanding Islamic scholar with deeply ingrained convictions, achieving the uncommon feat of memorizing the Koran at the remarkable age of 13.
In any case, in every political context, the demons that fell major public figures are most likely to come from a past of unguarded actions. Even the diversionary claim that Mr. Pantami is the victim of a plot by Telcos and other interests to get even with him on policy grounds in a bid to protect and advance their interests is hollow. These interests did not deliver those fiery jihadist sermons or direct Mr. Pantami to issue fatwas against innocent Nigerian non muslims or direct those feverish endorsements of Osama Bin Ladin, the Taliban and Boko Haram. Moreover, documentary evidence of Pantami’s extremist career highlights make nonsense of the Presidency’s weak and rambling defense.
In a recent column, his friend, Farooq Kperogi, disclosed very disconcerting details from Pantami’s past. It is a past of active pro- jihadist views and subversive sectarian activities. Drawing mostly from the publication, Peoples Gazette, we are treated to the high-points of some of Pantami’s past views and sermons. Mr. Pantami has serially sermonized in favour of jihadists and terrorists. He is on record to have advocated acts of terror against fellow Nigerian non-Muslims. He once volunteered to lead jihadist warriors to avenge the death of muslims that fell victim of sectarian and communal violence in parts of Plateau and Nassarawa states. He has openly identifying with Boko Haram, advocating their right to violent acts of terror and justifying their apocalyptic zealotry and violent campaigns of bombings and killings.
There is videographic and textual evidence of a series of fundamentalist sermons mostly endorsing violence and terrorist acts against non-Muslims.
For instance, in one of them cited by Prof. Perogi, Pantami describes himself as always very ‘happy’ when ‘unbelievers are being killed’ by jihadist terrorists. He once justified killings by Boko Haram as acts of revolt against an unjust Nigerian state. He has therefore advocated for amnesty for Boko Haram militants in the manner of the Niger Delta militants. In the process, Mr. Pamtami vicariously elevated Islamic jihadist terrorism to the pedestal of a legitimate political agitation for equity by aggrieved citizens. In one of the sources, Mr. Pantami is on record as being stoutly opposed to the government’s war against the terrorists and insurgents, characterizing it as a ‘cheapening’ of the blood of fellow muslims! Mr. Kperogi cites a particularly scathing twenty minute long sermon in which Sheikh Pantami concludes with the prayer: “Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and to Al Qaeda”, having previously confessed his open admiration for Osama Bin Laden.
Similarly, a trove of files, intelligence chatter and leaks from a broad range of other sources seem to confirm Pantami’s alliances and activities. Chatter from international counter terrorism organizations and active military commands operating in the Sahel have also included Pantami’s name among jihadist influencers of note in West Africa. Background briefing documents for both the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the French military operation in the Sahel code named ‘Operation Barkane’ as well as the dedicated French force in northern Mali code named “Operation Serval” mention the major ideological influencers of jihadist extremism in the Sahel which include Mr. Pantami. Major scholars who have written on Boko Haram have cited some of his sermons as well. As it turns out, Pantami’s past flirtations with fundamentalist extremism and Salafist ideologies were not merely episodic or accidental. They were systematic and sustained throughout his preaching career. The bottom line of these sources is that he has been consistently associated with the popularization of extremist Salafist ideologies in Nigeria.
In sum, Mr. Pantami comes out in these revelations as an active advocate of jihadist violence and a subscriber to dangerous sectarian ideologies. As a free citizen, however, Pantami remains free to hold beliefs and subscribe to faiths and ideologies that appeal to him but most of his past activities, views and affiliations run counter to the interests of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the harmonious co –existence of its peoples.
Perhaps the Pantami debacle would have been easier to wave off if his cabinet portfolio was a less strategic one. It is chilling that Mr. Pantami presides over what is arguably the most strategic ministry in the country. A self confessed pro- Al Qaeda, pro -Boko Haram and fundamentalist extremist is in charge of the nation’s entire telecommunications infrastructure and network, satellite communications, internet access and connectivity and vital citizens digital data base.
The same person is presiding over all of the nation’s corporate and private citizens’ Bank Verification Numbers (BVN), ongoing National Identification Number(NIN) system, International Passport digital data base etc. And when the ongoing merging of all citizens personal digital data is completed, Mr. Pantami’s ministry will be presiding over the telephone numbers, internet activities, personal data, financial data, travel information, voter registration data, drivers license data etc. of at least 180 million Nigerians! All this in a
country that now boasts some of the best digital technology experts in the world. It is of course immaterial that Mr. Pantami may possess the requisite expertise. The concern should be to what uses he could put the information at his disposal given his embarrassing antecedents.
The case of minister Pantami throws into bold relief some very embarrassing lapses in our leadership selection and emplacement system. While our democracy has all the fancy infrastructure and institutional embellishments of even the most advanced democracies, our institutions have functioned more like the outposts of an authoritarian Banana Republic.
When it comes to Senate confirmations of ministerial nominees, our lazy ‘bow and go’ system has reduced the process of screening of public office nominees to a national televised comedy. Thus, in spite of his troubling past activities and views, Mr. Pantami was cleared for appointment as a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by our security agencies. He was subsequently confirmed for appointment by the Senate. In the case of cabinet rank appointments, it ought to be that the security services would dig into specific backgrounds of nominated individuals to equip the Senate with enough background information to make informed determinations.
Clearly, this process does not seem to have been followed in the case of Mr. Pantami and indeed many other ministerial confirmations in recent times, hence the parade of incompetence we are witnessing.
It is unfortunate that it has taken imperfect media inquiries to unearth these sad details from the past of a serving Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. These revelations have now compelled Mr. Pantami to disavow his previous pro-jihadist utterances. He and his sympathizers have bombarded the internet with regrets about his past of infamy.
He is of course free to claim that he has now recanted his previous views and beliefs. Every free society has room for people to change their minds on matters of belief and conviction. But in matters of fundamentalist extremist radicalism, there is an even bigger requirement. There must be a systematic de-radicalization process before the individual extremist is adjudged truly repentant. I am not aware that Nigeria has ever put in place a proper de-radicalization programme for repentant terrorists and jihadists. I do not know if Mr. Pantami has enrolled in any such prrogramme yet. It is only natural and politically expedient for him to now plead repentance and disavowal of his past if only to save an influential and lucrative ministerial job. But there is nothing in these rearguard disavowals that protects the nation from the dangerous consequences of his dangerous curriculum vitae.
In a desperate bid to save his job, Mr. Pantami is playing into existing religious and partisan murkiness. The organization of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) has joined in calls for him to remain in office as, in their view, he has committed no offence. Sporadic voices from from contrary faith bodies and enlightened civil society are insisting that Pantami quits. Our partisan divide has predictably joined the fray. While the ruling APC has rushed to vindicate the minister, the opposition PDP has risen to join voices with calls for Mr. Pantami’s removal. There, of course, remains the still small voice of genuine patriotic outrage in the middle of the raging fire and storm of desperate partisanship and religious frenzy.
I think the Pantami debacle is above religious bigotry, partisan trade of abuses or the other silly dichotomies with which we derail sensible national discourse. This is not about the lazy recourse to North versus South among political devotees. Nor is it about the opportunistic recourse to Christian versus Muslim that zealots on bith sides use to trivialize serious matters. This is not about Mr. Pantami’s constitutional right to hold beliefs or pray as many times as he wishes in a day, facing any direction on the compass. It is not even about whether his title remains Sheikh, Bishop, Imam, Arch Deacon or General Overseer. It is not about infringing on his right to enter into alignments, to endorse or subscribe to ideologies of his choice. It is not even about the religious role models he chooses to adopt for his personal sanity. The latter belong in the realm of his personal choices and right to freedom of worship and belief as are constitutionally guaranteed.
On the contrary, we are dealing with the fundamental realm of the higher ethical requirements for holding public office in a diverse republic with interlocking beliefs, alignments and faiths such as ours. It is about the ground rules that govern leadership selection and the overriding higher imperatives of public office and the trust that ought to go with it. Even more important is the overarching imperative of national security as the strategic bottom line for all public offices in the nation.
It is therefore immaterial whether Mr. Pantami has repented and recanted. What is paramount is that his position as minister violates all known criteria for the selection of the leadership of any decent country. First, it is flagrant disregard of the principle of a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold high public office. This unscripted principle prescribes that citizens that must be approved to ascend to high office must not in their past or present conduct, activities or affiliations have engaged in acts unbecoming of an occupant of such high public office. Secondly, national security must take precedence in the consideration of individuals for high public office to ensure that such appointments do not in any way jeopardize or compromise national security. Thirdly, the public must be satisfied that the procedure by which persons are processed for high public office have integrity and follow approved due process.
Forgiveness of an errant public officer may be easy if it were personal. But the erosion of public trust resulting from an official’s error is more difficult. Once an occupant of a strategic public office is found to have betrayed public trust, there is only one route open to the individual concerned and the system he serves. As things now stand with Mr. Pantami, the plain unvarnished truth is that he can no longer be trusted with any public office let alone one as strategic as the one he currently occupies.
The way out of this unfortunate debacle is a route with only two lanes. The first and easiest is for Mr. Pantami to resign his appointment and tender an unreserved apology to all Nigerians. The other is a recourse to the prerogative of ultimate presidential responsibility. President Buhari needs to quickly relieve Mr. Pantami of his appointment in order to save himself, his administration and the nation the lingering embarrassment of the Minister’s continued stay in office.
For a nation that has repeatedly echoed its commitment to the global fight against terrorism, the Pantami entanglement is a consequential test. If the president keeps Pantami in office, he will have hugged terrorists and could lead the public to unsavory conclusions that can only load up his already bulging baggage of political liabilities.