Sunday, April 18, 2021 1:44 pm
By Richard Elesho/ Lokoja
Dr. Ibrahim Ali Isah Pantami, is a man of many parts with authority. As Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, his words are laws in that sector. Whoever ignores them does so at his own peril. Whenever he sneezes, the nation’s communication conglomerates catch cold.
He is also a man whose ways, both past and present, stir controversies. The Minister, also a Sheik and religious influencer of no mean repute is in the eye of the storm with allegations that he is an advocate of Islamic fanaticism and terrorism.
His traducers accuse him of strong ties to Boko Haram insurgents, a group which has been waging an amorphous war against the Nigerian State in the Northeast, for more than a decade.
They also accuse him of being a fifth columnist in the effort to have a digital data bank that will ease the fight against crimes and insecurity.
Sheik Pantami’s alleged link to terrorism began early last week when the media feasted on his alleged sympathy and association with Boko Haram. In a number of reports, the Daily Independent and an online media People’s Gazelle alleged that the Minister is on the watch list of the United States of America, USA for shadowy terrorism links.
– A harvest of fiery sermons
Words, as they say, are like eggs which once spoken or broken cannot be packed. Pantami has a baggage of verbal entanglements. What nailed the Minister most is a series of the audio and video of his past sermons where he expressed opinions classified by his critics as betraying his unmistakable sympathy for the insurgents.
The preachment were not new as they were mostly given from the mid to late 2000s during the tenure of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as Nigeria’s President.
In addition, the lectures, mostly given in Hausa language have been transcribed and published in a journal since 2019. Even at that, they remain scathing and potent demonstration of intolerable, if not inciting statements against the other view.
Here are few of them:
When asked to react to the “killing of Innocent unbelievers” by Osama Bin Laden, the Sheik said, although he conceded that Bin Laden was liable to err because he was human, “I still consider him as a better Muslim than myself” and pointed out that “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed, but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.”
In the wake of the religious crisis that engulfed Shendam, Plateau State in 2004, Pantani was said to have incited the Muslim population against their opponents, rather than seeking peace. In an audio of his preaching, he said the “Ahlus Sunna,” that is, people who are now called Salafists, should strike back and shun politicians and religious clerics who preached peace and restraint.
“This jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria (hadhajihadfar? ‘ayn ‘ala kullmuslimwakhu?u?anfiNijiriya),” he said.
Elsewhere he was quoted as calling for a joint force of Hisbah from different states to storm the crisis area and volunteered to be the Commander. Kwamanda in Hausa.
When the Jonathan administration turned the heat on the insurgents in their enclave at Sambisa forest, Pantami was livid condemning the action as extra judicial killing. “Even if the Boko Haram fighters commit a crime, but can we justify the way and manner they are being killed?”
“Just look at how they are killing people as if they are shooting pigs even though they commit a crime, why the extrajudicial killing? Take them before the law for a fair trial.
“You caught someone sleeping and you killed him. If it’s not Muslims that undergo such treatments who else?” Pantami said. The cleric drew a similarity between militants in the Niger Delta area who were protesting against marginalisation and benefited from President Yar’Adua’s amnesty programs.
“The Niger Delta people did something similar to this. They massacred people, steal weapons, killed expatriates and kidnap some of them,” Mr Pantami said. “Yet, you still accept them back, open a ministry for them, gave them a minister and put them on a monthly salary pay without work.”
“The militants did more harm compared to what Boko Haram boys did,” the minister said. “But why will they do something like this? Why selective justice?”
– Calls for explanation
Although, Daily Independent beat a retreat on the publication through a retraction and yanking it off from its website, the damage has been achieved. Not a few persons have insisted on an apology and explanation from the Minister if he no longer hold the views he canvassed in those clips.
“The least we expect is for the Minister to renounce those opinions if he no longer holds them. If not, he should resign from the cabinet. Those views are too sentimental and divisive for a public office holder.” A commentator told The News.
To be sure, this is not the first time the Minister is coming to public opprobrium and disgust. His face off with Prof. Dambata, Vice Chairman of Nigeria Communication Commission and Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, Director General of Nigeria Diaspora Commission are in the public domain. Similarly in March 2020, Pantani’s decision to walk out the Correspondents of Africa Independent Television, AIT and RayPower FM from a public function attended by President Muhammodu Buhari advertised his intolerable side.
– Damage control
The Minister with his foot soldiers have been on the move explaining his side of the story. His supporters blame political and economic manipulations for the multiplication of his woes. They hold aggrieved telecommunication giants who have lost billions of Naira due to the federal government’s policy on SIM and NIN linkage of spreading the negative tales on the Minister. The recent lift on the ban of sale and new SIM registration is perhaps the strongest indicator that the lessons are sinking in.
Pantani has also described the charge of fanaticism against him as an attempt to give dog a bad name to make it fit for the slaughter. At a Ramadan lecture at An-Nur Mosque at the weekend he explained that he has never been fixated on issues, but rather changes his stance immediately he discovers that his viewpoints and verdicts on such issues are wrong.
He said further that though he started preaching as early as when he was 13 years old, his viewpoints have consistently changed as a result of acquiring more knowledge, exposure, traveling and maturity, as he advanced in age.
“I have changed my stance on some issues based on additional facts even after expressing Fatwa, a nonbinding religious opinion in response to a question posed to me,” he said.
He vehemently debunked the allegation of religious bigotry and intolerance adding that every Nigerian has the right to practice the religion he likes, in line with the constitution’s provision for freedom of religion. He said he is always against anything that can lead to war.
“I once saved two Corp members who were about to be lynched in Bauchi State during a fight between Christians and Muslims. I personally took them to the mosque to save their lives. So, anybody who will protect Christians will you still call him a fanatic? Also, I want to say that I was never suspended or expelled from any school as a student or lecturer because of my views, especially on religious matters,” he said.
The Minister argued that if he sympathises with Boko Haram, then their leader, Abubakar Shekau would not have condemned him and put him on a watch.
Pantami was a respected Islamic cleric with great followers in the north. He had often spoken against holding public office. But, President Buhari first appointed him as DG of NITDA in 2016. His performance in that position earned him a Ministerial slot in 2019.