By Ikechukwu Amaechi
Nigerians are aghast, or so it seems, that Ali Isa Pantami, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, is, indeed, the jihadist in situ.
There is no gain in sugarcoating it. He is the Islamic militant within, well positioned in the corridors of power to deliver for his constituents – radical Islamists. And he has used his being “in place” to deliver handsomely.
Every well-meaning citizen of this country – Muslim, Christian, Northerner and Southerner – should be alarmed that a man who harboured such extremist views, even if it was in the past, made his way to such a high office.
Many questions remain unanswered. How did we get here? Who knew what?
In May 2020, a bitter conflict erupted between the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa, and Pantami.
As the feud got messier on Twitter, Dabiri-Erewa – who had accused Pantami of ordering gunmen to throw NIDCOM staff out of the office given to them by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) – made a quirky revelation.
Pantami denied her allegation and called her a liar. “This is a fat lie from her,” he tweeted all caps on May 24, 2020. In the evening of same day, Dabiri-Erewa punched back also calling him a liar.
But what raised eyebrows was not the fact of her fighting back but the telling insinuation. “An Islamic scholar should not lie Hon. Minister (PhD). You did that to me cos I am a woman. Your disrespect for women is legendary,” she wrote.
Why would a minister deny an agency of government an office space because the agency is headed by a woman? And why would Dabiri-Erewa consider such allegation an effective punch back in the circumstance?
In the last couple of weeks since Pantami became the issue in Nigeria’s never-ending debacle, one question has concentrated my mind. Was Dabiri-Erewa giving Nigerians a hint? Maybe! But Nigerians, not being prescient enough, failed to take the hint.
Things have since changed dramatically.
If Pantami has been a closet jihadist all along, the lid has been blown wide open with reports alleging that he was enamoured of terrorists and is now on the radar of America’s intelligence community.
His initial reaction was to bluster. But the more he blustered, the more his past was unearthed and brought to the public space. And they are damning. In the mid-2000s, Pantami was the ideologue of extremist Islamic groups like Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. His preachments were fiery and most times resulted in violence.
His fellow feeling for domestic and international terrorists, wholesale endorsement of terrorism and intolerance of non-Muslims, would make Osama bin Laden green with envy.
Pantami was heard on video saying, “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed, but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.”
He said bin Laden’s penchant for killing unbelievers makes him a better Muslim than himself.
When President Goodluck Jonathan moved forcefully against Boko Haram terrorists, Pantami said it was genocide against Muslims.
“See what our fellow Muslim brothers’ blood has turned to? Even pig blood has more value than that of a fellow Muslim brother …. You caught someone sleeping and you killed him. If it is not Muslims that undergo such treatments who else?” Pantami lamented.
In the wake of the religious crisis that engulfed Yelwa Shendam, Plateau State in 2004, Pantami volunteered to lead a jihad against Christians and admonished Muslims to shun politicians and religious clerics who preached peace and restraint. “This jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria,” he exhorted his followers.
When Abū Muṣ‘ab al-Zarqāwī, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in 2006, Pantami offered his public condolences.
His words: “May God have mercy on Aḥmad alFāḍil al-Khalayleh, raḥmatullāh’ alayhi. May God forgive his mistakes. He is a human being. He has certainly some mistakes in front of God, so may God forgive his mistakes. Who am I talking about? He is Abū Muṣ‘ab al-Zarqāwī.”
Commenting on the religious crisis in Bauchi in 2009, U.S. diplomats in Nigeria recorded in an April 15, 2009 diplomatic cable (exposed by WikiLeaks in 2011) that “Imam Pantami Isa, who preached at the mosque, had been previously thrown out of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University and of a Gombe mosque for preaching inflammatory rhetoric.”
This is the man President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Minister of Communications and Digital Economy at the inception of his second term after he had served as Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) from 2016 to 2019.
In both capacities, Pantami presided and still presides over Nigeria’s telecom databases and sensitive national identity and critical biometric data infrastructure. He is in-charge of the mandatory National Identification Number (NIN) programme. A man that harbours affectionate sentiment for terrorist causes is the custodian of the biometric data of every single Nigerian. If this is not scary, then nothing else is.
In this era of social media, the evidence against Pantami is so overwhelming that he has climbed down from his blustering high horse. But without apologising, he has rationalised his extremism by claiming that some of those comments were based on his understanding of religious issues at the time they were made.
“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,” he reportedly said while responding to questions during his daily Ramadan lecture at Anoor Mosque in Abuja on Saturday.
“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.”
Of course, his reasons for extremist escapades are preposterous. He was not the only Islamic cleric of the era he was talking about. So, why didn’t others become radicalised or become agents of global jihadist groups?
It is also a “fat lie” for Pantami to claim age as an alibi for his religious zealotry. He was not a teenager when, as the Chief Imam of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) Bauchi mosque, his incendiary preachments resulted in the brutal murder of Sunday Nache Achi, a 400-level student, who was leader of the ECWA Student Ministries (ESM) on the campus on December 9, 2004.
Achi’s crime? Distributing a Christian tract which Pantami said blasphemed Islam and Prophet Mohammed.
In an exclusive interview with TheNiche this week, Nache’s father, Prof. Samuel Achi – CEO of the Federal College of Chemical and Leather Technology at the time his son was strangled in the mosque where Pantami held sway as an Islamic avatar – said there was absolutely nothing in the tract that should attract a fatwa.
Pantami’s claim of having disclaimed Boko Haram is hollow. Of course the Boko Haram of 10 years ago is still the Boko Haram of today. Why would he support the group yesterday and repudiate it today? The only logical explanation is that he is now in government.
So, what happens when Buhari leaves office? Will Pantami once again remember that “pig blood has more value than that of a fellow Muslim brother?”
Some Nigerians have called on him to resign or for Buhari to fire him. That is what happens in a sane country. But Nigeria under Buhari’s watch has gone too gaga and I dare say none of the two will happen. Pantami will neither resign nor be sacked by Buhari.
Why would Buhari sack him for the very tendencies that earned him a place of honour on the presidential dinner table? Will Buhari claim that he didn’t know about his extremist escapades before appointing him minister?
What should worry Nigerians most is the fact that Pantami went through both security and legislative screening and was given a pass to become a minister.
Didn’t the Department of State Services (DSS) unearth his entanglements with extreme religious ideologies? Or they found out but thought he was indeed a changed man and, therefore, it didn’t matter again? What did the Senate know?
Pantami is a metaphor for what Nigeria has become under Buhari’s watch. The Pantami metaphor explains why terrorists hold sway in all the nooks and crannies of the country today – kindred spirits are not only in government but also in power.
*Amaechi is the Editor-In-Chief of The Niche Newspaper