Isa Pantami: Saint, Sinner Or Mole?

Pantami Caricature

…More Shocking Revelations Put Nigerians On Edge
…International Community Suspects He’s A Terrorists’ Sympath – Akinterinwa
…Criticisms Trail Presidential Backing

BEVERLY HILLS, April 25, (THEWILL) – Is the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, a saint or a sinner? Or even a mole for radical Islamic fundamentalists?

It is a question best left for readers to answer following recent revelations of the minister’s past incendiary and inciting Islamic rhetoric against those he sees as infidels. Now trending nationwide and even outside Nigeria, the man himself, who is currently in the eye of a gathering storm, initially denied ever making such speeches and then apologized, insisting he was immature at the time but now a new man sans extremism. Can a fiery religious extremist become born again overnight?

Ever expanding the national conversation, THEWILL explains how culpable or not President Muhammadu Buhari’s dependable ally has become.

“There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” the incomparable English playwright, William Shakespeare, wrote in one of his great tragedies, Macbeth. The bard of Stratford was only reinforcing the view that you cannot tell the innermost thoughts of individuals by merely looking at their faces.  Even so, people reveal – intentionally or not – what exactly is in their minds however much they try to conceal it or maintain an inscrutable exterior.

How is this done?

Dr. Isa Pantami
Dr. Isa Pantami

By word of mouth! What people say sometimes reveal who they are, what they are capable of doing and their general attitude to others. For as Christ once cautioned his disciples and, by extension, the rest of humanity, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile or defines a person.”

Sometime in early December 2004, at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, an Islamic cleric who was also a student, Sheikh Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, preached to hundreds of Muslim worshippers in the institution’s main mosque. He was the Chief Imam of the mosque in question.

Notorious for his fiery sermons, the student/ Chief Imam lived up to his reputation as a no-nonsense preacher, a man who gives no quarter to those he sees as infidels. By the time the Chief Imam was done, and just about the same time between December 8 and 9, a student of the university was dead, strangled to death right inside the mosque and then his corpse cast away in front of the place of worship.

What was the problem?

Before he was killed, 24-year-old Sunday Achi, a 400-level student of Architecture, was said to have dispensed Christian tracts in the school. (Information is scarce on whether or not the deceased actually went to the mosque to share his religious handbills.) To the Muslim community in the institution, it was nothing short of blasphemy and a Fatwa was promptly placed on the unfortunate student.

The tragic story of the late student has only recently resurfaced in the wake of revelations that, possibly, just possibly, the Muslim students’ reaction to Pantami’s preaching led, inevitably, to Achi’s early demise. Achi is the son of a former university don, Samuel Achi of the Kaduna State University, Kaduna.

In a heart-wrenching interview with Kayode Oyero of The Punch newspaper recently, Achi recounted how his son was murdered over spurious allegations of blasphemy by the Pantami-led Muslim community in ATBU.

“The incident happened in the early hours of December 9 (2004),” the former lecturer said. “It was from the night of December 8 to the early hours of December 9 that it happened. From the fact that I had, from clear indications, from the confirmed information that I had, he was not stoned. He was actually strangled inside the mosque. His body was discovered outside the university mosque.”

Continuing, Achi said his deceased son led the students’ fellowship of the Evangelical Church Winning All Ministry, adding that the tracts Sunday shared “did not contain any blasphemous content, but the Pantami-led Muslim community at the university pronounced a fatwa on him.”

Soon after the publication of The Satanic Verses by Indian-British writer, Salman Rushdie, in February of 1988, Muslim faithful around the world, particularly in Iran, looked up to their great Imam, Ayatollah Ruhuollah Khomeini, for a fatwa to be placed on Rushdie. He obliged them.

As anyone would imagine, the Muslim students of ATBU may have done the same thing, that is, go on their knees to the Chief Imam of their institution. Did Pantami oblige them?

Sunday’s father provided a fairly plausible answer in the said report thusly: “If Pantami, who was the then chief imam of the mosque a man of peace, the killing of my son would not have occurred.”

Two years later, in 2006 precisely, Isa Pantami was again his voluble self, this time casting his fiery glances on a wider stage and settling on the heroic exploits of the Taliban in faraway Afghanistan.

What was it this time?

Exactly on September 12, 2006, five years and a day after Al-Qaeda’s orchestrated infamous attack on the United State of America, and one month short of Pantami’s 34th birthday, he delivered a lecture in Bauchi, capital of Bauchi state, entitled, “Who are the Taliban?” By then, Pantami had earned his stripes as a rising Islamic mullah, with thousands of Muslim followers across northern Nigeria.

For a better understanding of Pantami’s religious fervor, it might help to go to his natal village in Gombe. (One of the earliest religious riots, Maitatsine, in Nigeria in 1980 had its roots in Kano but spread to Gombe two years later.) Thus weaned on extremism, Pantami could not but carry on what he learnt from his formative years.

Islamic Scholar Making the Lecture Circuit

Shekau
Shekau

It was inevitable that someone of Pantami’s obvious calibre as an Islamic scholar would make the lecture circuit. He has been invited to many in parts of the north, one of which was the Bauchi lecture on the Taliban he delivered in Hausa.

Perhaps it would have lived only in the imagination of those who attended. But then, as most of the rest of the world now know, Pantami’s lecture was posted online, wherein an Italian academic, Dr. Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town Centre for Contemporary Islam accessed them and tried out a translation.

Brigaglia’s translation of Pantami’s lecture of a decade and half ago is what has caused the minister sleepless nights ever since it made it to the public domain. One analyst who has followed Pantami-gate and let his mind be known in a recent article published online is David Hundeyin.

Of the lecture itself, Hundeyin wrote that “by luck or by design, ‘Suwaye Yan Taliban’ has now become the proverbial bone stuck in Isa Pantami’s throat. At first, the letter denied making such pronouncements outright. Then when the audio recording with his unmistakable voice showed up, he claimed that Dr. Brigaglia’s translation was inaccurate, suggesting that whoever translated it either did not understand Hausa properly or simply did not like him.”

What Was Pantami’s Taliban Lecture?

From the Italian scholar’s translation, Pantami said inter alia: “With respect to enquiries/clarification on this topic, I decided to respond timely so as to underscore the importance of the topic to the people. A very important thought that came into my mind is that what our brethren-Al Sunnah (Salafists) want to know is how the Talibans who lived in Afghanistan were subjected to trials from Allah on this earth. They were subjected to tests of faith and love.

“Furthermore, there were a group of people, infidels, from the Western World, who don’t have any other target in this life except to destroy the good image of the Talibans in the eyes of their Muslim brethren, to destroy the Taliban image even in the eyes of the infidels themselves, by means of accusing the Taliban of deeds which were not committed by them.”

It also transpired that Pantami was alleged to have covertly or overtly supported the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, spoken sympathetically about organisations associated with terrorism and even praised them at the expense of the Western world, particularly the USA. The inference is that someone who supports terror groups might himself be a terrorist.

But recently, in the wake of the revelation of his radical teachings, Pantami at Annor Mosque in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, had cause to recant his words. He began by telling listeners at a daily lecture in the mosque that “some of the comments I made some years ago that are generating controversies now were based on my understanding of religious issues at the time and I have changed several positions taken in the past based on new evidence and maturity.

“I was young when I made some of the comments; I was in university, some of the comments were made when I was a teenager. I started preaching when I was 13, many scholars and individuals did not understand some of international events and therefore took some positions based on their understanding, some have come to change their positions later.”

Despite that, many Nigerians have since been calling for the minister’s resignation or for PMB himself to give him the boot. None of that is likely to happen.

For one, Pantami, a Fulani, born on October 20, 1972 in Pantami Gombe State, is a close ally of President Muhammadu Buhari who has canvassed for his presidency before the 2007 presidential election. And just last Thursday, the minister got a presidential seal of approval when Garba Shehu, PMB’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, told the world the president’s take on the matter.

“The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, is, currently, subject to a ‘cancel campaign’ instigated by those who seek his removal,” Mr. Shehu told State House correspondents. “They do not really care what he may or may not have said some 20 years ago. That is merely the instrument they are using to attempt to ‘cancel’ him. But they will profit should he be stopped from making decisions that improve the lives of everyday Nigerians.

“The Minister has, rightly, apologised for what he said in the early 2000s. The views were absolutely unacceptable then and they would be equally unacceptable today, were he to repeat them. But he will not repeat them – for he has publicly and permanently condemned his earlier utterances as wrong.

“In the 2000s, the minister was a man in his twenties; next year he will be 50. Time has passed, and people and their opinions – often rightly – change. But all discerning Nigerians know this manufactured dispute has nothing to do with the minister’s prior words, but solely concern his actions in the present.”

Of course, PMB’s spokesman also went to tell Nigerians how the beleaguered minister has been beavering away, “leading the charge against illegal data deductions and pricing; he has revolutionised the government’s virtual public engagement to respond to COVID-19 and save taxpayers’ money…In two short years, Minister Pantami has driven the contribution of the ICT sector to the GDP to more than 18 percent, making it one of the top two playing a critical role in the emergence of the economy from the COVID 19-induced recession.”

Concluding, Shehu stated emphatically that the “Administration stands behind Minister Pantami and all Nigerian citizens to ensure they receive fair treatment, fair prices, and fair protection in ICT services.”

What about other allegations that are also trending, of Pantami’s possible involvement in the Helicopter crash in Yenagoa where retired General Owoye Andrew Aziza, a former National Security Adviser and Patrick Yakowa, former governor of Kaduna state, died?

The presidency kept mum on that. Still, news made the rounds late last week that because people like Pantami couldn’t stand a Christian governor of a predominantly Muslim State, Yakowa had to be dispensed with.

However, the Christian Association of Nigeria Kaduna Chapter and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam denied Pantami’s possible collaboration in the death of Yakowa. How true all that is, time will tell. But what is blindingly obvious for now is the influence of religion on those who practice it – whether Christians, Muslims or any such faith known to mankind.

Religion has also made saints or demons of individuals. Right now, there is a phalanx of loyalists massing behind Pantami – witness the statement from the Presidency – and those who will have his balls if they could – Hundeyin et al. There is no doubt, however, that in all of the minister’s predicament, religion has played a huge part.

From way back, philosophers, writers and thinkers have put forward different views and opinions on and about religion. One of them, by Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, strikes a chord. “The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it,” Nehru wrote in his autobiography titled True Freedom. “Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and preservation of vested interest.”

A Mole In The Federal Cabinet?

Many were shocked when former President Goodluck Jonathan openly declared that Boko Haram had infiltrated the Federal Government, planting members inside government departments and the nation’s security agencies. Jonathan, who governed Nigeria for six years, made the declaration in January 2012 as his administration waged a costly war against radical extremists seeking to create a caliphate in northern Nigeria. The war against insurgency has raged for years without any end in sight.

Pantami, who occupies a very strategic office, attends federal cabinet meetings and superintends over the country’s entire communications and technology infrastructure, including National Identity Management Commission the agency issuing national identification numbers to people who are in the country. What is giving many Nigerians nightmares is that someone who has openly identified with radical terrorism and religious fanaticism occupies a top position in government, talk more of being in charge of such a sensitive portfolio.

NOT YET UHURU FOR PANTAMI

Although the House of Representatives had earlier stepped down a motion by the House Majority Leader, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu, calling for the sack or resignation of Pantami, the lower chamber of parliament, Thursday, maintained that it was by no means shutting the motion down, saying the matter would be debated when properly presented.

Hon Elumelu also confirmed this to THEWILL in a chat, Thursday evening, saying he would re-present the motion.

“It (the motion) will be re-presented,” he said, in a reply to a message sent to him via his telephone.

Earlier in the day, the Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, had said in a statement: “The House will hear Rep Elumelu’s call for Pantami’s resignation when it is properly presented before it.

“The House is aware of several publications on online and traditional media claiming that the Speaker of the House, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila, blocked a motion by the Minority Leader of the House, Ndudi Elumelu, purportedly demanding the resignation of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami.”

Kalu added, “For the avoidance of doubt, the House is guided by the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives (House Rules) in its operations and administration. In this case, the Minority Leader should have known better than to present such an issue for debate via Order 6 of the House Rules which only applies to Legislative Privileges.

“He ought to have come under Order 8 Rule 4, as a matter of urgent national importance, or via a motion on notice to enable other members second the motion and make their contributions through debate in true democratic fashion, after which the House would be able to take a position on the issue.

“It is, therefore, pertinent to inform Nigerians that the House has not acted in error, but in line with the provisions of its rules. All insinuations that the House did not allow democratic debate to take place on the important issue of Pantami’s resignation are simply untrue.

“As always, the House stands ready to give audience to Rep. Elumelu or any other member of the House on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House.”

PRESIDENTIAL SOFT LANDING

Dr. Isa Pantami and President Buhari.
Dr. Isa Pantami and President Buhari.

A new twist was however added to the controversy on Thursday evening, as The Presidency finally came out in defence of the Minister in the statement by Mallam Shehu Garba, a move that left many supporters of the president in shock and disappointment.

THEWILL had earlier contacted the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, for his reaction to the issues being raised in the Pantami saga, but he neither picked the call made to his phone line nor replied the text message sent to him.

The statement however provides the embattled Minister the much-needed soft-landing to at least hang on to his job, even as pressure mounts on the West to investigate the cleric.

DSS KEEPS MUM

The Department of State Security spokesman, Peter Afunnnaya, refused to comment on the enquiry sent to him by THEWILL on the claim by a former Director of the Agency, Dennis Amachree, that DSS actually informed the Federal Government of Pantami’s sympathy for Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda when he was appointed minister. A text message sent to him on Friday morning was not replied and when our reporter called him later in the afternoon, he replied via a text message that he was in a meeting.

PRESIDENCY HAS SAID IT ALL – MINISTER’S AIDE

Uwa Suleman, spokesperson for the Communication Minister, said she was driving when THEWILL called her to react to the controversy surrounding her boss’s past leanings with Boko Haram and the presidential support to him through Garba Shehu’s statement on Thursday.

“The Presidency, the highest office in the land, has spoken… what do you expect me to say again?” was her reply as she pleaded to be allowed to concentrate on her driving, adding, “Maybe we can talk later.”

SACK AND INVESTIGATE HIM – AKINTERINWA

Professor Bola Akinterinwa, former Director General of the Nigeria Institute for International Affairs, however, added a new dimension to the issues raised, saying  the allegation against Pantami “is multi-dimensional,” even as he  stressed that in the eyes of the international community,”he is a terrorist sympathiser.”

Akinterinwa, in a chat with THEWILL, said:  “The first issue is that Pantami said he made the statements when he was young.  And people are asking what is his current age and when did he actually make the statements. When, for instance, he was quoted as saying Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, was a hero, the question one is led to ask is: what does hero mean? Is that because he is /was a major proponent of terrorism.?

“The international dimension to it is that Nigerians have petitioned officials of the United States Governments,  the Americans who reportedly told the Nigerian Government to be more watchful. That is how it all began as an international question.

“The issue of NIN. He has been accused of trying to replace BVN with NIN. In the thinking of many observers, this is seen as an instrument to flood Nigeria with Fulani from outside the country.

“He should be removed from government. What is happening today is simply a justification for Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s fears when he told us that his government then had Boko Haram sympathisers.  I think he should be removed and investigated to find out the extent he had been aiding and abetting Boko Haram.”