By Simon Kolawole
Dr Isa Ali Pantami, minister of communications and digital economy, has been at the centre of a litany of controversies for two weeks non-stop — an unusually lengthy period in the Nigerian news cycle. A newspaper had reported that Pantami, who is also an Islamic cleric, was on the US terror watch list because of his views on al-Qaeda, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Western countries. Pantami spiritedly denied the report and demanded a retraction. I guess that in the absence of a compelling evidence to back the report, the newspaper recoiled and apologised. Pantami’s lawyers smelt blood and decided to go for the jugular, threatening a law suit.
Was that the final trigger for a full-blown crisis? Maybe. The consequences: people dug up more historical evidence of Pantami’s extremist views, on video and audio, and posted on the internet. Although an old video showing him fiercely debating Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf, the slain Boko Haram founder, appeared to exonerate him of being a terror sympathiser, there were other damning recordings in which he called Boko Haram members “fellow Muslims”, praised a slain al-Qaeda leader, celebrated the massacre of “infidels” and expressed strong opposition to people working in a secular government. He has publicly recanted his old views, saying he is a changed man.
But something far more damaging was loading. On Wednesday, a document, said to be minutes of a meeting of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) held at the Bauchi Central Mosque in July 2010 and allegedly chaired by Pantami, resurfaced on the internet. Decisions were said to have been reached to launch a “holy war” against Christians in the north, mainly in Plateau and Kaduna. The most damaging, going by the document, was a purported planned assassination of the then Kaduna governor, Mr Patrick Yakowa, a Christian. Yakowa had just been promoted from deputy governor after Namadi Sambo, the governor, was named vice-president to President Goodluck Jonathan.
Some things were easier for me to understand, even if I didn’t have to agree with them, as the saga unfolded. For starters, being on a terror watch list does not necessarily make you a terrorist: it just means your views and activities are suspicious and more attention should be paid to you. You may be denied visa or entry into the US or subjected to extra search and questioning at the port of entry. An outspoken cleric like Pantami could be on the watch list because of his sermons. It is, however, a different thing to be declared wanted for terrorism. Whichever way, though, there is no evidence that Pantami was on the “watch” or “wanted” list as the reports had authoritatively asserted.
I know that many Muslims initially had sympathies for al-Qaeda, especially over the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, even though most of the attackers were Saudis. Many Muslims believed the US was hostile to their religion and was out to humiliate them and take control of the oil fields. In Kano, there were several protests supporting al-Qaeda and celebrating its founder, Osama bin Laden. The US flag was regularly burnt. Within this context, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pantami, like many other fiery clerics, voiced support for al-Qaeda — and he did not deny this. As time went by, al-Qaeda started killing “fellow Muslims” and the sympathies faded.
Pantami once called Boko Haram members “fellow Muslims”. They were initially a collection of religious zealots with a deeply political message. Along the way, they began to clash, violently, with the security agencies. Jonathan had to deploy troops in Borno to contain them. I recall that a group called Borno Elders and Leaders of Thought issued a statement demanding the withdrawal of the troops because of alleged extrajudicial killings. When Boko Haram started bombing mosques and killing clerics who disagreed with them, they were no longer seen as “fellow Muslims”. Pantami had also seen them as “fellow Muslims” apparently before they declared him persona non grata.
It also emerged that Pantami used to preach against working in a secular government. This is in line with extremist views. A cleric of his persuasion would prefer a caliphate, governed by Islamic laws. That he later changed his mind, went to secular schools at an advanced age and even bagged a PhD from Robert Gordon University, Scotland, were indications of a U-turn. He had tempered his theology and adjusted his worldview. Can extremists really change their views as they mature in life? Should a former al-Qaeda sympathiser be made a minister? Should imams and pastors be given government appointments at all? These are interesting and important topics for public debate.
I was still managing to cope with Pantami saga until I read social media reports on Wednesday that he plotted with JNI, the Islamic body, to kill Yakowa and launch a jihad against Christians in northern Nigeria. I said: “No más!” (the Spanish for “no more”, famously uttered by Roberto Durán in the eighth round of their boxing bout in 1980 after Sugar Ray Leonard II had punched him silly.) You are free to defend your “fellow Muslims” — that is freedom of association. You can call the US “The Great Shaitan” — that is freedom of speech. You can even ask Muslims not to take up appointments in a secular government — that is freedom of thought. But plot to kill Christians? No más!
For me, I had had enough of the Pantami punches. I like making excuses for people, even to my own hurt, but I believed I had given Pantami enough benefit of the doubt. Left to me, President Muhammadu Buhari could no longer keep him in his cabinet — if the allegation was true. Keeping him, in my opinion, would be an irredeemable insult on the sensibilities. These are not the best of times for ethno-religious relations in Nigeria, with allegations flying up and down — and the body language of the president must not tend to lend credence to the conspiracy theories. Anything short of an appropriate and transparent treatment of the issue would only worsen the delicate matters.
I was expecting a robust position from presidency. For once, I looked forward to a proper response that would say the allegations would be investigated. But what did we get? The customary middle finger from Mallam Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman. The statement, which I think was hasty, ended up as a eulogy to Pantami on his contributions to the GDP! Sure, as alleged by presidency, it could be true that there is a co-ordinated and well-oiled campaign to “cancel” Pantami. After all, “cancelling” is a full-blown business in Nigeria. Anything is possible. But that is NOT the point. The statement came across as a brazen defence of Pantami rather than an attempt to address the issues.
At this point, I want to add that the notion that every demand for accountability and responsibility from the government is politically motivated is very unfortunate. This is the well-established standard response of nearly every government in our history. In the military era, people were tagged “disgruntled elements” for asking questions and demanding answers. I find it distressing that after nearly 22 years of civil rule, this “disgruntled” mentality persists. Even if the allegations are political, they deserve appropriate responses, don’t they? Opposition is core to multiparty democracy. It is the responsibility of the government to respond convincingly to the queries, not dismiss them.
The JNI response, which I would say came a little late but is still better than never, dismissed the allegations contained in the document. The body raised a number of questions: in what capacity could Pantami have chaired a JNI meeting when he was not a national or state leader? Why would JNI in only Kaduna, Plateau, Niger and Bauchi states meet and exclude other states? If a plot to assassinate Yakowa was indeed hatched in July 2010, how come he was later elected governor in 2011 in a state where a Muslim-Muslim ticket just sailed through (in 2019)? Now that JNI has stated its own side of the story, I would expect the government to launch an independent investigation.
Before JNI’s response, John Joseph Hayab, the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Kaduna state chapter, had cautioned the public against believing the document, suggesting that a thorough investigation should be carried out first. “Sensitive documents like the ones purported to be from the JNI meeting in Bauchi should be subjected to thorough security investigation and trials, not tools for social media warfare. The danger of making this a media issue, instead of a legal and security issue that it ought to be, is that we stand to lose the most important point: that of bringing to justice persons accused to have wronged the law,” he had said.
Hayab was an aide to Yakowa, so I find his position quite fascinating. A regular northern Christian leader would have jumped at the allegation and weaponised it. Hayab didn’t. I am inclined to queue behind Hayab in his call for a thorough investigation. If indeed it is a fabrication, that would be a heinous crime. Suggesting that Yakowa was killed because of his religion — meaning the air mishap was orchestrated — can further fuel the religious inferno in the north. There were insinuations when Yakowa died in December 2012 that it was not an accident, so if this document was forged, then the masterminds knew what they were driving at: to further divide an already divided country.
Where do we go from here? One way first: the security agencies must conduct a detailed investigation into the document. It has serious implications for national security. I am not saying other issues about Pantami’s past are not important. But the “minutes” cannot be treated with levity because it is beyond a ministerial appointment. It is national security and it is in our interest to get to the bottom of it so that we can come to closure rather than leave things hanging. And if this turns out to be false, then our problems in Nigeria are far bigger than we think. It means some people are so desperate to set this country on fire and would stop at nothing to achieve their aim. Terrifying.