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LongRead…Outstanding scholar or opportunistic bigot? Inside the travails of Sheikh Pantami

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In the past two weeks, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami, has been the most talked about man in Nigeria.

He has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, with a cross section of aggrieved Nigerians calling for his resignation or outright sack by President Muhammadu Buhari over his perceived extremist ideologies or support fir global Islamic terror groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pantami ran into troubled waters when news broke that he had been reportedly placed on the US terrorist watchlist. Although the Minister fought back gamely and threatened to sue the newspaper that published the story, the seed of disbelief had been firmly planted in the minds of Nigerians who went into the archives and dug out his past antecedents.

As it turned out, it was discovered that Pantami had, in the past, held and shared ideologies considered as being in sympathy with those of some terrorist groups, and as much as he tried to disentangle himself from the brewing scandal, Nigerians kept hammering on him with the hashtags #PantamiResign and #PantamiMustResign on Twitter, gathering a lot of following and retweets.

It was also discovered that there were YouTube videos which had Pantami seemingly endorsing violence, encouraging reprisal attacks and glorifying masterminds of Jihad and terrorism.

In one of the videos, Pantami was heard extolling the virtues of the late founder of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, asking “Allah to grant the terrorist group triumph in their fight” against those he termed as unbelievers.

With doubts firmly etched in the minds of Nigerians, the dig into Pantami’s past has become even more compelling, given the strategic portfolio of managing the data base of fellow countrymen.

The man Isa Ali Pantami

Communications Minister Pantami warns NCC over SIM card registration

Pantami, also known as Sheikh Pantami, is a Fulani man born on October 20, 1972, in Pantami Ward, Gombe State, to Alhaji Ali Ibrahim Pantami and Hajiya Amina Umar Aliyu. He started his education at the Tsangaya Islamic School, a traditional school for memorizing the Qur’an.

After four years of studying and memorizing the Qur’an, the young Pantami pursued western education at the Government Science Secondary School in Gombe.

After his secondary education, he gained admission into the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi, where he studied Computer Science, graduating with a BTech in 2003 Session and an MSc in 2008.

At the ATBU, Pantami proved to be a radical Muslim, ending up as the Chief Imam of the institution’s Mosque.

He went on to obtain a PhD from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, and was also trained on Digital Transformation at Harvard University, USA, Management Strategy at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Institute of Management Development in Loussaune, Switzerland.

Pantami was, at a time, a lecturer in Information Technology at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University before joining the Islamic University of Madinah as Head of Technical Writing in 2014.

In 2016, he was appointed the Director General/CEO of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), with the specific mandate of developing an ICT infrastructure in the North-East in the aftermath of the destruction caused by Boko Haram insurgency.

He was made the first Minister of the newly created Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy by Buhari in 2019 after the President won a second term in office.

Bigot or defender of the faith?

Despite his impressive educational pedigree, Pantami has been perceived by many as a bigot and an extremist.

While at ATBU, Pantami, as the Chief Imam of the institution’s Mosque, was said to be a fiery preacher whose teachings often led to uprisings between the Moslem and Christian students.

He is also a Shurah member and Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Shari’ah (SCS) in Nigeria, having been trained by radical and hardline Islamic scholars including Muhammad Umar Fallatah, Abdulmuhsin ibne Abbad, and Sheikh Muhammad Saleh Al-Uthaymeen.

For those who do not know, Sheikh Al-Uthaymeen, is described as a Salifat Jihadist who has issued lots of Fatwas on ‘non-believers’ and is known to always tell Muslims to carry the Jihad to every nook and cranny of the world and exterminate those who refuse to convert to Islam.

He is also known as the “Giant of the Salafi movement” and had, on several occasions, said that peace between Muslims and non-Muslims can only be temporary because “jihad is the highest form of Islam.”

Pantami also serves as a member of Shari’ah Board of Jaiz Bank and is the Chairman of Board of Trustees of Al’Hudah Islamiyyah and Mosque Foundation, and a member/Secretary of the Bauchi State Elders Advisory Committee and Bauchi State National Qur’anic Competition Committee, among other committees.

Pantami, a Jihadi in sheep’s clothing?

To Pantami’s die-hard supporters, he is a bright-eyed, relentlessly intelligent and academically competent Young Turk who has found his way into the topmost level of Nigeria’s government at the relatively young age of 48, due to his conscientious dedication to the pursuit of educational achievements.

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However, behind the neat and immaculate cover story that has been woven around Pantami, sits a man who has been involved in a lot of religious controversies, especially his use of inciting words while preaching the gospel of Islam, which, according to him, were done out of ignorance and when he was much younger and could not discern right or wrong.

Yes, Pantami was a young bigot at the ripe age of 29, if we are to believe him!

Essentially, Pantami’s past is catching up with him and although he claims that he has “repented” of his Salafist ideology, his violent preaching of those days have been damagingly chilling.

Among other things, he had reportedly said in one of his ferocious lectures:
“Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda. This Jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria.”

In a leaked US diplomatic cable intercepted by Wikileaks in 2009, Pantami was described as a “radical extremist cleric whose views were so repulsive that he was kicked out of the university and from a Mosque in his native Gombe State.”
“Sheikh Pantami has been accused of making several incendiary utterances and expressing support for violent Jihadists around the world,” Wikileaks added.

In his words, he once held a deep admiration and support for the ideologies of Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban, and in one his preaching at a public lecture delivered on September 12, 2006, in Bauchi State, titled “Suwaye Yan Taliban” (Who Are The Taliban?), Pantami had prayed for the global terrorists and asked his followers to emulate them.
“May God help us to imitate their good,” he was quoted as saying.

In the recording, Pantami mentioned Osama bin Laden several times, saying he was his hero and often followed the mention of the late al-Qaeda founder’s name with “Haẓahu ’Llāh (may God preserve him).

During a question and answer session, a participant had asked Pantami if bin Laden is capable of making mistakes, to which he answered:

“Yes, he is liable to make mistakes, (but) I still consider him as a better Muslim than myself. We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed, but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason. Our zeal (Hamasa) should not take precedence over our obedience to the sacred law.”

Another participant then asked how a Jihad could take place in Nigeria as there was no consensus over a leader who would willingly lead the onslaught, to which Pantami replied by saying the specific goal of his lecture and other preaching was the need to establish in Nigeria an overall Islamic leadership that would champion the cause of Jihad in the country, before moving to the next step.

He had said: “In Nigeria, this is the time for correction (Gyara) and preparation (isti‘dād). How can you start a Jihad when your father is still going around without a beard? When your mother is still going around with a mere transparent veil rather than with a full-length hijab?

“Any effort to start a Jihad without having established correct Islamic practices is doomed to failure, and this is precisely the main lesson to draw from the Afghan Taliban, whose success was established upon their unwavering attachment to the Sunna.

“This is the reason any attempt to start a struggle that you have seen me rejecting so far, it was because it was not led by scholars and there was no understanding of the Sunna.”

While extoling the virtues of Al-Qaeda in a publication, Pantami was quoted as saying the strategies adopted by the extremist group was more ‘gradualist’ as it believed “Muslims must be educated first on Sharia; then the idea of Jihad must be popularised, and Muslims must be convinced to take up arms as the only method of emancipation. It is less exclusionary. It has forged alliances and quietly entrenched itself and its ideas within local communities with the aim of eventually building a pure Salafi one.”

Unearthing the irrefutable evidence of Pantami’s own pronouncements, hitherto hidden behind what he considered to be the veil of the Hausa and Arabic languages in which he is quite fluent in, tells a very clear story about exactly who the man is, and what his existential goals are.

These are no longer conspiracy theories or politically motivated witch hunt as being propounded by his image makers and stick-in-the-mud supporters. They are clear and hard evidence that Pantami is, and has always been an apologist of extremist groups.

Murder allegation

Beyond his links with terrorists groups, perhaps, the weightiest allegations against Pantami was that of having a hand in the alleged murder of a 400-level student of Architecture at the ATBU, Sunday Achi, who was killed by Muslim students on December 9, 2004, over allegations that he circulated a tract that contained blasphemous contents against Islam.

Pantami’s name was linked to the murder of the 24-year-old Achi in the Mosque of the institution after the Minister, who was then a student in the school and the Chief Imam of the Mosque, reportedly issued a Fatwa on Achi who was then the leader of the students’ fellowship of the Evangelical Church Winning All Ministry (ECWA).

Speaking on the murder of his son, his father, Samuel Achi, a former lecturer at the Kaduna State University, told Punch Newspaper on April 21, that Pantami was the one who issued the Fatwa that led to the murder of the boy.

“The incident happened in the early hours of the 9th of December, 2004. 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,” he said.

Continuing, Achi added:

“The Minister of Communication, Isa Ali Pantami, was then a student of the university and the Chief Imam, and from what I gathered, he was the one that issued a Fatwa on my son which led to his death.”

Enter the DSS

While Pantami and his image makers have been trying to do everything to make him come out smelling like roses, a former Assistant Director with the Department of State Services (DSS), Dennis Amachree, has come out to exonerate the Secret Service following accusations that they did not do due diligence in investigating the Minister when he was nominated by Buhari in 2019.

Amachree, who spoke to PUNCH Online on April 21, claimed the DSS had compiled a comprehensive report on Pantami and handed over to the Federal Government, but was shocked that the Senate screening committee had cleared him due to “a lot of factors including federal character balancing.”

“There is no information that escapes the DSS; we have all of it, all. When I was working there, we keep a catalogue of anybody of interest that comes up to limelight in this country.

“During the vetting process for anybody to be appointed a minister or commissioner or anything, your name is sent to the SSS for vetting. They check your background up to the extent of your grandmother.

“They check your schools up to the extent of your primary school. And, of course, they keep a tab on you online and offline. We get a lot from open source intelligence and I can tell you that in Pantami’s case, we had it.

“But there was a political angle to it. The political decision is not taken by the SSS. Even when you go to the Senate for confirmation, there is party by party and you can see that there are some political candidates that the opposition party will say that this one will not be appointed but because he belongs to that party, they will appoint him.

“So, these are political and federal balancing where they will say that there is nobody from this place that has been appointed, so let’s appoint him,” Amachree said.

Will Pantami resign or be sacked?

The case against Pantami is earth-shaking and while there are a lot of inconsistencies in his defence where he claimed he was acting on youthful exuberance when he made the offending utterances, it is clear that there is more than meets the eyes.

The brewing storm over sensitive allegations that have revealed Pantami as a fervent supporter of extremist Islamist sects is one that cannot be wished away.

In his defence, Pantami had claimed that he was now repented, acknowledging that he erred as an innocent youth.

He also painted a picture of himself as a moderate Islamic scholar who had placed on himself the ‘heroic task’ of de-radicalising Salafist extremists using his superior Islamic education and his ability to debate.

But not many are buying into this even as excuses of fresh allegations make the rounds that he recently approved an Islamic TV station to be broadcasting official programmes of the Ministry of Communications?

Beyond that, Pantami’s elevation to high public office exposes the ridiculous state Nigeria finds itself. It also lays bare the mediocrity, incompetence, nepotism and questionable compromises which have become the hallmark of the present administration and are evident in the current mess Nigeria has found itself enmeshed in.

Indeed, Pantami’s emergence as a Minister, in the face of supposed credible intelligence by the DSS, lends credit to the many claims that the President may simply be unaware of the things going on around him.

Critics have also branded the Senate which screens ministerial nominees as a hollow rather than hallowed chamber, for allowing itself to be guided by pedestrian gains and not national interest.

It has been argued that the fact that Pantami was given the normal ‘take a bow’ by the Senate speaks to a shameful lack of seriousness which defeats the purpose of such screening meant to sift out the chaff from the wheat.

Disappointingly, the Senate has continued to turn such screening exercise into a charade, and party affair, while neglecting its core duties.

But will Pantami do the right thing by resigning? Will Buhari take the bull by the horn and relieve him of his position?

Pantami, government pikin?

The presidency, predictably, has come to Pantami’s rescue even as many Nigerians think that his credibility as a Minister has run out its course.

In an elaborate statement issued Thursday, April 23, a media aide to President Buhari, Garba Shehu, said, among others:

“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.

“The minister has, rightly, apologised for what he said in the early 2000s. The views were absolutely unacceptable then, and 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 is nothing to do with the minister’s prior words, but solely concern his actions in the present.

Shehu was to reinforce the position of the presidency in another twenty hours! Speaking on national television, he said:

Shehu said: “Let me tell you this, people who stand in criticism of this position of the man who said he had wronged himself and society, and has apologised and they are not willing to forgive, are the problem.

“In all our lives, we change and transform. We don’t remain in the same position. The people just assume that he cannot change. If God who created you gives you the privilege that from being bad, you can become good, what tells you to deny some other persons this right?

“They are the ones who are deeply intolerant, and who are telling the world that in this country, we have the set of people who don’t forgive and don’t want to move on. They are the problem of the society.”

If Shehu is to be taken very seriously, no amount of pressure by ordinary Nigerians would be sufficient to convince President Buhari to remove Pantami from office, especially as they have been branded the problem.

In fact, some Nigerians have set up a wager platform where the vote has been overwhelmingly high that Pantami will not resign and will not be sacked by Buhari.

The indication that he would not be relieved of his job was made more glaring when the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, told Nigerians that Pantami’s issue was not raised at the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on Wednesday, April 21.

Not even an attempt to raise the issue on the floor of the National Assembly by a member of the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu, was allowed to progress by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila.

Again, Buhari’s silence, and the seeming non-challant attitude of the Federal Government over the Pantami scandal, tell a lot about the famous body language of the President and his reluctance to weigh in on matters of national importance.

Final twist

In his defence, Pantami has fingered his traducers and political enemies as being behind his current travails, and while trying everything to present himself as the unfortunate victim of circumstances beyond his control, all indications point to the fact that there is some history behind his bigotry.

The latest twist that he has since renounced some of his fierce and extremist religious ideologies may not mean that he has weaned himself of the toga of a sympathizer of extremist Islamic groups.

The bitter truth, however, is that there is a Pantami in most Nigerians and the moral in his travails is that careless utterances always have a way of coming back to haunt the person.

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