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Nigeria: After Pantami, are there ‘more closet extremists’ in government?

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Tuesday, 27 April 2021 10:34, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:51

Isa Ali Pantami, Nigeria's Minister of Communications and Digital Economy
Isa Ali Pantami, Nigeria's Minister of Communications and Digital Economy/all rights reserved

As a young Islamic lecturer in the 2000s, Isa Pantami made inflammatory comments in support of the extremist ideologies of terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Now, in his role as Nigeria’s minister of communications and digital economy, he oversees the country’s databases. Many citizens are not comfortable with that. They are now asking: 'Who else in this government may hold similar views?'

Until recently, Pantami had come across as an internationally-acclaimed scholar who had passed through some of the world’s best universities including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University and Robert Gordon University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he obtained a doctoral degree in computer information systems.

That reputation took a hit last week after audio and video clips from the 2000s surfaced online. In the clips, Pantami preached that — while he was against the ideologies of Boko Haram terrorists — he supported what Al-Qaeda and the Taliban stood for.

The minister has been under growing pressure to resign, for supporting actions of terror groups in the past; but the Nigerian presidency has dissuaded him, instead defending the 48-year-old after he apologised and said he has “changed several positions taken in the past.”

In the clips — which were of his radical teachings as chief imam of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) in Bauchi State, where he graduated in 2003 — he had said that he considered Osama Bin Laden “a better Muslim” than himself and that “we are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.”

“This jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria. Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” the cleric had said.

Why #PantamiResign has been trending online in Nigeria

In defence of Pantami, a Nigerian presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, said the minister has “transformed” and should be forgiven.

Some critics believe this avoids a hard look at a serious issues, given the prevalence of clerics in northern Nigeria who indoctrinate residents — especially the young — with teachings that suggest violent extremism will create a Salafist utopia.

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow of Africa Programme at Chatham House, says there is “more than a lot to see” beyond Pantami’s views on “establishing overall Jihad” even if the comments were made when he was young and naive.

“He wasn’t a fringe voice in this restructuring, he was a forefront charismatic cleric and debater who indoctrinated and suffocated the critical thinking and development of a generation of Muslim youths,” she said on Twitter.

“Northern Nigeria is in the grips of a crisis of moral vigilantist chauvinism because of a steady diet of extreme, puritanical doctrines from the likes of Pantami. These views were not just prescriptive but punitive and have molded northern Nigeria into its present culturally closed, volatile and intolerant state.”

More closet extremists in government?

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development — an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organisation — says allowing Pantami to remain in office amounts to “telling the international community that there are more closet extremists in the administration and Nigeria.”

It is difficult to verify Pantami’s claim that he has changed from his past position, considering that “radicalisation and holding extremist views is a matter that appeals to the mind,” says Oluwole Ojewale, regional coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies.

“It is true Pantami rallied against Boko Haram and engaged beyond the debate with Mohammad Yusuf, in counter narratives to deter youths from joining Boko Haram before he became a government appointee. However it is against good conscience, equity and even Islam not to walk away in spite of the outcry for him to step down,” Hassan says.

“His actions are fueling more polarisation in the country and Islam preaches peace and that power is given only by Allah.”

A blinded legislature and the power play behind the scenes

Last week, a motion urging the lower federal legislative house — which is dominated by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party — to demand the sack of Pantami was blocked by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, who said the motion did not follow “due process”.

Ndudi Elumelu, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lawmaker who sponsored the motion, had raised concerns that there have been instances where “top government officials have been complicit and acted as moles, divulging government strategy to the (Boko Haram) insurgents and some openly lend financial support (to them).”

Gbajabiamila’s argument notwithstanding, what played out in the House of Representatives re-echoed the failure of the senate to question Pantami over his past, when they screened him for the ministerial position in 2019.

What was meant to be an interrogation turned out to be a charade, with the APC loyalists eager to ask the ministerial nominee to “take a bow and go” and none of the senators bothering to point out his past extremist views.

Although federal lawmakers have said they are ready to debate the matter whenever it will be introduced, many believe there is nothing much they can do regarding the minister who is believed to be very close to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Moreover, the legislative chamber has, on more than one occasion, proven to be more or less an extension of the executive in the Buhari administration.

An agenda against Islam?

That also explains why some Nigerians see the calls for Pantami’s resignation, including from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as politically-motivated. Others see it as an agenda against Islam and northern Nigeria.

Kabir Kabo, director-general of the International Centre for Islamic Culture and Education, argues that Pantami did no wrong and those after him have ulterior motives.

“We have a guiding principle which is derived from the Quran and we try to educate people and make them really understand. Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and understanding,” he said during a recent news programme where he represented Pantami, during which he also said “some of these issues are quoted out of context.”

But is that really the case? David Hundeyin, a Nigerian journalist who first reported extensively on Pantami’s past lectures, thinks otherwise. He claims the minister has “a long history of making incendiary comments”.

“It is not a conspiracy theory to say that Isa Pantami is an Islamist extremist …. he has always had that around him throughout his career. And those kinds of opinions don’t just evolve,” he said.

Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram: The two sides of the ‘Pantami’ coin

Pantami, who was not available for comment after many attempts to contact him, dismissed reports linking him to terrorism when they first emerged. He argued, instead, that he has preached against Boko Haram for much of his adult years, dating back to his days as a lecturer and imam in Bauchi.

“My lectures against the doctrines and all other evil people have been available for over 15 years, including debates that endangered my life against many criminals in Nigeria,” he had said.

This is mostly true. In one debate with Mohammed Yusuf, founder of Boko Haram, the minister was seen reading an Islamic ruling that allows adherents to pass through western education, which is what Yusuf had preached.

But some have argued that the minister was only against the violent ways of Boko Haram, and not its end goal, which has similarities with that of terror groups he supported at the time.

John Campbell, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in 2015 that Boko Haram have a few things in common with Al-Qaeda and ISIS: “First, all three have emerged from the Salafist theological school of Islam (which interprets literally the Qur’an and teachings of the early generation of Muslims); second, all three are de-centralised movements, especially outside of their traditional areas of operation; third, they have emerged in regions that experienced colonialism and are characterised by a history of elite exploitation of the poor, notoriously bad governance, and popular marginalisation.”

Moreover, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution had argued that most jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda and ISIS preach Salafi-Jihadism, which Pantami had expressed support for.

“Given their exclusivist view that their approach to Islam is the only authentic one, Salafi-jihadists often justify violence against other Muslims, including non-combatants, by recourse to takfir, or the excommunication of fellow Muslims. For these groups, if Muslims have been deemed to be apostates, then violence against them is licit,” the centre said.

Pantami may remain in office; what does this mean for Nigeria?

In addition to the risks of Pantami remaining in charge of Nigeria’s databases, there are also concerns regarding what the unfolding situation says about Nigeria to the international community, in addition to the implications for key sectors such as business and security.

Moreover, it is also difficult to verify Pantami’s claim that he has changed from his past position, considering that “radicalisation and holding extremist views is a matter that appeals to the mind,” says Oluwole Ojewale, regional coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies.

“If the minister still holds extremist views, that means he is a danger to our data system in this country and it does not speak well for us in the diplomatic community. (But) if he has truly changed, then Nigerians have nothing to really worry about,” Ojewale said.

Abiola Gbemisola, a business analyst at FBNQuest — a leading sub-Saharan African Merchant Bank & Asset Manager — argues that current developments may affect the rapid growth of Nigeria’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

“The news … confirms people’s fears that this is not a good time for you to invest in ICT within the context of what is happening in emerging economies,” he said.

Perhaps, of greatest concern is the likely reinforcement of feelings of alienation among certain Nigerians by the Buhari administration, at a time the country is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Hassan says: “The presidency’s choice of Pantami over her citizens has not just taken away the elusive hope the citizens yearn for, but has further cemented the narrative of marginalisation by an uncaring and unresponsive government.”

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