The storm surrounding the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, highlights the fragility of democracy and its guardrails in Nigeria, and the arduous task required to strengthen the nation’s brittle socio-political fabric.
Our appraisal of the saga leaves us with only one conclusion: Mr Pantami needs to take leave of his exalted public office or be relieved of it.
This is necessary to protect the modest democratic gains that Nigeria has made over the past 21 years under the hard-won Fourth Republic, and assuage reasonable fears about the integrity of government, its agencies and officials, alongside the commitment to the values that underpin a united and prosperous nation.
This saga began a few weeks ago when a newspaper reported that Mr Pantami had been placed on the watch list of the United States Intelligence Service over his alleged ties to leaders of international terrorist organisations.
Although the newspaper promptly withdrew the report under the threat of libel litigation, the matter opened the gate for a stream of multi-media evidence that has since torn the shroud of public amnesia covering the minister’s considered extremist religious worldview and fiery past. What we now behold is a worrying persona whose occupation of an exalted ministerial seat in a country with a complex diversity has become highly untenable.
Some of the evidence are from audio and video recordings of Mr Pantami’s old sermons as an Imam speaking to Muslim congregations around the country. We note that while there has been misreporting and decontextualisation of some past sermons, his overall worldview, to the extent that the tapes reviewed by this newspaper revealed, are troubling enough.
Mr Pantami initially stood by the controversial sermons, saying they had been taken out of context. In an interview with Premium Times, he said: “…all that they have been spreading is probably because they do not understand the context in which the lectures were presented. Usually, all the lectures they mentioned were presented around 1998, 1999, 2000. The most recent could be around 2006, which is also 15 years ago. Most of them were firstly, academic lectures from Islamic perspective, and we were presenting the lectures in order to calm our youth that were being recruited to join extremism.”
However, following the exhumation of more archival audio and video clips, and with angry Nigerians demanding his resignation or sack from government, Mr Pantami buckled, saying he had since adjusted his views on some matters contained in his old sermons.
During his daily Ramadan lecture at Anoor Mosque in Abuja on April 17, the minister said:
“There are some people who have been sharing some of my old clips of debates, some of them I did since the 90s. I started teaching people and preaching when I was 13. It is obvious that at that time that I was young, I would make mistakes. As a young student preacher, as an undergraduate, yes you are not matured enough to get everything right.
“As you grow older you think better, understand better and do things better. Anyone who listens to us now will know that we have grown older and wiser and we understand things better than before. It is a pattern in life, we always grow into things we do and understand things better. I have travelled widely, studied and taught in foreign countries. If you listen to me now, of course, it will not be like how we did before now and my stand in life will remain what I say now. There might be a lack of maturity when you are younger, but when you grow in life you behave with maturity.”
The Presidency, which had initially maintained an undignified silence on the saga, later sided the embattled minister, brushing aside the calls for his exit from government. Presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, was bullish in the fulsome defence of Mr Pantami:
“Today, there is an unfortunate fashion in public discourse that makes leaders in politics, religion, and civil society liable in the present for every statement they have ever made in the past – no matter how long ago, and even after they have later rejected them.
“This insidious phenomenon seeks to cancel the careers of others on the basis of a thing they have said, regardless of when they said it.
“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. 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 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 the Presidency’s argument completely missed the point. Nigeria is a healthily pluralistic society whose democratic political preferences, propose a big tent hold for its multiple ethnic groups and religious allegiances to co-exist peacefully. The Constitution, for that reason, guarantees every citizen the liberty to choose and practice his/her religion, as long as this practice does not infringe on the rights of others.
Nigerians find it comforting that the two dominant religions in Nigeria preach peace and tolerance in inter-religious relationships. Anyone who holds extreme views cannot be understood to be speaking for either religion.
What has emerged from Mr Pantami’s past therefore, are suggestive of a religious hardliner, who was intolerant of choices and views different from those consistent with his worldview. Despite his claims to have now embraced moderate religious views, it is difficult at this time to measure the extent to which he has reverted from such mindsets.
Still, while Mr Pantami might have had cause to revise some of his positions in relation to the need for Western education (he holds a PhD from a Scottish university and strings of certificates from American Ivy league universities), as more recently expressed in the media, it is difficult to say how much of this has influenced his core religious beliefs, which some still suspect to be extremist.
The foregoing have made it difficult for many Nigerians to accept Mr Pantami’s credentials as an unblemished bearer of inclusive and democratic values, or that he agrees, beyond mere rhetoric, to the ideals that we seek to build into a multicultural future as a country.
What Nigerians who have spoken loudly on this matter have expressed is that President Buhari needs to understand that they would remain uncomfortable having Mr Pantami in the federal cabinet overseeing a highly strategic department of government. The concern has also been expressed on how he balances his religious beliefs with the imperatives of our national interests.
This reasoning has been deployed to challenge the wisdom of having him as the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, overseeing agencies responsible for managing the databases of Nigerians and expatriates in the country, as well as the web infrastructure of most government ministries and agencies, the armed forces, intelligence agencies, and Nigeria’s satellite infrastructure that provides communication and navigation support for the air force.
On this case, and in spite of himself, the president needs to act in a manner that sends a strong message to Nigerians that even if divisive persons manage to find their ways into sensitive positions of trust, he can muster the courage and strength to ask them to step aside.
The survival of democracy depends on vigilance and a commitment to safeguarding the good of the greater majority, on the part of citizens, and the sturdiness of national institutions to promote the essential diversity that enhances social harmony.
Yet, there are other issues that the Pantami Saga bring into question: the integrity of the vetting process for appointments into high public offices in Nigeria, which involves security clearance and the scrutiny of the National Assembly. This prompts a sense of alarm as Mr Pantami has been in government for close to half a decade, first serving as Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), before his current appointment as a Minister.
It should also be remembered that Mr Pantami did not carry out his controversial activities as a cleric in remote or obscure places. He started in Bauchi, a university city and state capital. Did his sermons escape the notice of the media, civil society, his colleagues and students in the University? How come no one waved the red flag when he was tapped to administer aspects of the affairs of Nigerians?
While this issue questions the efficiency of the internal security services and the worth of the intelligence reports presented to government on candidates for appointment, there is an urgent need to now tighten up and secure this process. Also, the effectiveness of screening presidential appointees by the upper chamber of the National Assembly, calls for more rigorous measures, including possible public hearing.
President Buhari needs to put this saga behind Nigeria. Keeping Mr Pantami in government will only deepen divisions that have been created, and intensify the tensions in the polity, whilst questioning the motives of the president. The public interest and the desirability of having Mr Pantami vacate his ministerial position, in our opinion, far outweighs any other consideration, and his continued stay in office will only constitute a distraction at a time of rising ethnic, religious and nationality tensions in the country.
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