THE INCOVINIENT TRUTH (5) PANTAMI AND TERRORISM ACCUSATION
I was among the few or the many who reacted to the appointment of Dr. Isa Pantami as Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with mixed feeling. My initial optimism was men of Pantami’s stature would add value to the nascent democratic governance the country is attempting to build.
As a clergy man and a person grounded in Islamic jurisprudence and western education he will bring his experiences to bear on the way government handles its business.
Conversely, I was skeptical as a man of God he would pay dearly for accepting to work in a democratic non- secular state government.
Accepting to serve under any government be it APC or PDP or any political party for that matter there will certainly be conflict of interest with his role as a preacher. The searchlight would constantly be on him. The society will take special interest in what he does. It will pry in his conduct and actions. Every minute details of his actions will be scrutinized. People will always look for any deviations from his position as a man of God in both actions and deeds. They will contrast his actions in government and see if it conforms to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him.
People will insinuate, cajole, attack every move he does. The Minister and his defenders ought have known this the moment he took the job.
My discomfort in his appointment is rooted in the way we handle issues in this country, bigotry, subterranean politics and bitter religious polemics take precedence over all issues of national interest. This is the unenviable position Dr. Pantami found himself.
The discussion that dominated the thinking of people when news of his appointment came to the public domain was whether he should accept or reject the appointment. Two divergent position emerged. Those who think he must not accept the appointment argued that as a preacher he has no business to be in a government that does not accept religion as part of it’s ethos. This group contended there will conflict of role in his position as a preacher and a member of a bureaucracy he agreed to work for and must defend
However, for those who took the simplistic position, they argued there is nothing wrong in taking the job. They did so because of their religious idiosyncrasies. They refused to look at the big picture and the implications the appointment would have on him as a religious preacher and Islam generally. This group allowed their emotions to take over their reasoning. The notion that people like him in government would change things and make the difference in the conduct of government business is just a wishful thinking and self serving.
They ignored the simple fact that even in a system where the state is secular Religion and Governance are always separated. Imagine, how the Muslim Umma would react if Sudais who has been leading prayers at Masjid Haram for over 35years and head of the Mufti council accept the post of a Minister. Back home would Sheik Dahiru, Bauchi, Jaafar and Albani in their blessed memories, condescend to accept a similar position.
The debate ended in conclusively as it started when Pantami, accepted the job but we knew the discussion just began.
In less than one year when the Minister assumed office our apprehensions started manifesting. The first was when he had a spat with Abike Dabiri-Erewa the Director- General of Nigeria in Diaspora Commission, a celebrated journalist, a parliamentarian, member of the inner caucus of the APC in Lagos state over office space a battle the Minister would never win.
The second was with personality clash between him and the Director-General Communication Commission Professor Umar Garba Dabatta. This became manifest during launch of the Commission building complex in Abuja where the Minister was alleged to have truncated all efforts by the DG to show case his achievements to the President. The relationship between the duo have remained frosty ever since. These two incidences will define the tenure of the Minister in the communication and digital ministry.
When the news surfaced in a few Nigerian news sites on April 12 alleging that Pantami was a Boko Haram sympathizer and enabler who is now on the radar of America’s intelligence community we were not surprised the third columnist have started.
The most prominent of the newspapers that promoted the story was James Ibori’s Daily Independent, which alleged that Pantami had “ties with Abu Quata¬da al Falasimi and other Al-Qaeda leaders that he revered and spoke glowingly of in several of his videos on YouTube” on the basis of which he is now “on the watch list of the [sic] America’s Intelligence Service.”
The initial reaction to the news by the Minister and his team indicated that they did not understand the gravity of the issues involved. Typical with our leaders even when the papers that break the news seem to be capitulating and are willing to retract their story due to initial public reaction, the Minister and his group got carried away and started acting arrogantly even suggesting they are heading to court clearly demonstrating lack of understanding of under current of the discourse.
As the storm begin to gather, the first salvo came from the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu, at plenary, he raised a point of order to demand that the House acts on the issue. He particularly urged the House to demand for the resignation or sack of the Minister.
The Speaker, had to come to the rescue by overruling the Minority Leader, that the matter being raised had nothing to do with his privilege as a lawmaker.
The government started getting discomforted from revelations surfacing in the print and social media. Garba Shehu, the spokes person to the President in his usual gut reaction jumped in to the van wagon by issuing watery statement full of implicating nuances declaring government stood behind it’s Minister.
As more evidence continued to unfold the one by Farooq A. Kperogi a friend to Panatami opened the pandara box. He copiously detailed past activities of the Minister. The writing was so believable not because of the chronology of events but the pains the Professor said he went through before putting the article.
According to him “This is a difficult column to write because although scores of people have importuned me to intervene in the controversy regarding Communication and Digital Economy Minister Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami’s utterances before he came into government, my wife, who knows Pantami is my friend, pleaded with me to stay out of it”
He added “I would be a hypocrite and betray the meaning of my name (and also my late father who taught me the meaning of my name when I was too young to fully grasp it and who never failed to remind me to live up to it) if I sidestep this consuming national controversy because it puts my friend in a bad light.”
The truth is that it’s impossible to deploy the resources of logic, reason, basic decency, and even religious morality to defend some of the sermons Pantami gave in the early to late 2000s, especially in light of his current position as a federal minister in charge of a vast treasure trove of citizens’ sensitive information” This is how ugly the matter became.
This dented whatever claim the Minister has made in his defense. The expose’ affected the credibility of the Minister going forward. It also put the country in difficult situation in the light of how the international community would react to the logjam.
In order not to allow the situation escalate the government acted quickly by issuing a statement it stand behind the Minister, they know the consequences of allowing the matter drag.
Another damaging contributing to the discourse was by the a former Assistant Director with the Department of State Services, Dennis Amachree, on PUNCH Online interview programme, the Roundtable. He said “He (Pantami) has just submitted his name into US database. The cataloguing of people is not automatic, it comes in drips and drops. Now, people are talking about him and that has come to the attention of the United States Embassy in Nigeria already. Now, they will do a deeper dive into his background. They will catalogue him and now they will start watching him and if it comes to a very critical level, they will place him on a no-fly zone.”
On how did the Minister scale through the screening? Amachree said, “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 have it”. But in spite of this he was appointed as the decision lies with the executive.
As a Muslim and some one who respect the Sheik, I was reluctant to comment on the issue. I almost tore my draft but for some few things that happened.
Firstly, when I saw the Attorney – General of the federation on a national television saying they are now profiling and preparing for prosecution all those who in one way or other contributed to the insurgents and terrorist groups in the country. I was jilted to bone marrow, this is the government, just some few days ago defended Pantami, one of it’s Minister who was alleged to have shown sympathy and made utterances supporting the actions of some radical and terrorist groups. I prayed we are not heading for another policy summersault?
Secondly, I also align with position of Professor Farooq A. Kperogi, as a public affairs commentator it would be un patriotic on my part to just look the other way simply because one of my own is on the firing line. The truth must be told no matter how in convenient it is. These gave me the impetus to re do my draft and contribute to this important national discourse no matter how people would feel.
I was also disturbed by the spin developing on social media to down grade the gravity of the issue. To me there is no amount of cover up, disinformation and conspiracy theory that can change what Minister did but telling the truth and owning the mistake and apologizing for it.
My advice to the Minister is for him to distance himself from the spin adopted to whittle down the embarrassing story. The theory being adopted, that the story was planted by executives of telecommunications companies in Nigeria whose companies are losing financially because of Pantami’s December 9, 2020 directive that halted the sale, activation, and registration of new SIM cards until an “audit of the Subscriber Registration Database”. Those introducing this line of defense must know the whole matter is beyond the personal image of the Minister, it also affects the Country and Islam as well.
I also think the Minister should order his social media handlers to delete the video clip on YouTube showing him lamenting how hard it was for him live his lucrative job in Saudi and how much he loved Madina, implying it took a lot of patriotic zeal in him to relinquish those opportunities to come back home and serve. This is not the time for it. What is required from the Minister is show remorse not justification for coming home as others would find the spin very offensive and annoying.
Has the Minister really contemplated how the children for those Nigerians who laid their lives on the line in defense of the country and paid the supreme sacrifice. To use this analogy in order to change narrative through weeping nationalistic sentiment is just nonsensical, ego boosting, self serving and may damage whatever remains out of his bruised image.
The most gratifying things the Minister did is the apology he offered for his past indiscretions which he rightly owned up as part of his youthful exuberance and that he has now “KNOWN MORE” He added by saying he has through various lectures, talks and preaching denounced all forms of radicalism, terrorism and insurgency in all its ramifications.
The lesson learnt from this we must remember the world has gone beyond the period when we store information on stones or caves. The Gutenberg era has been overtaken by the internet, analog has given way to digital communication, there is no hiding place for information no matter how minute. We must show grace, own and apologize when confronted with our dark past. We must learn from our mistakes tolerate all shades of opinions and speak wisely, as our past will always come to haunt us.
We must also know there is no amount of political support, grandstanding, and exuberance of power that can easily change the narrative. The administration may have provided some defense and succor for the Minister but the struggle to exculpate himself from this just began.
The searchlight will now on him from all angles. The international communities will now focus on him as he has now become a person of interest.
This is the age of the internet and digital media everything we say or do is there in the cloud all that is needed is just to click a button and everything will appear before you and the facts are incontrovertible the Minister knows better.
Our prayers are for the Minister going forward the world is watching. What happened is a wake-up call