By OBINNA EZUGWU
On Wednesday last week, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami released pictures of himself attending the 42nd virtual Federal Executive meeting. Eyes glued to the screen of his computer set, he betrayed no emotions as he perhaps wanted to give the impression of calmness despite the raging storm around him. But that may be as far from the truth as the distance between the North Pole and the South Pole.
Pantami’s past extremist teachings appear to have caught up with him. Once seen as a reformist, he is now in the middle of a raging controversy; one threatening to shake the country’s to its very foundation; a controversy that has further exposed the sharp irreconcilable religious and ethnic divide in Africa’s most populous country.
In the country’s social media space, the anti Pantami and pro Pantami forces are up in arms. His supporters, mostly Muslims of Northern origin, insist, despite evidence of his extremist ideology, that he is being targeted because of his religion and the reforms he is pursuing in the ministry he heads.
His opponents on the other hand, argue that a person of his pedigree should not be in charge of sensitive data of Nigerians hence he should resign from office as minister in charge of the bio data of all Nigerians.
Tensions escalated on Wednesday, when some documents said to be the minutes of a meeting of Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), the apex body of Muslims in Nigeria, held in Bauchi in 2010, and presided over by Pantami, during which the group branded Christians in the South and West of Nigeria as animals, even as they plotted how to instigate crisis in Plateau, Kaduna, Bauchi and Niger, as well as eliminate then Kaduna State governor, Patrick Yakowa with a view to stopping the growing influence of Christianity in the states surfaced
“This meeting is born(sic) out the growing antagonism, hardship and how the Christians in Nigeria are attacking and despising the religion of Allah,” the minutes read.
“The worrisome issue is that the south and the west of Nigeria is predominantly Christians whom Muslims are considered as animals. However, in the Northern part of Nigeria which is predominantly Muslims, the Christians want to still take over.”
Lamenting what it termed the persecution of Muslims in Plateau under the then governor of the state, Jonah Jang, the meeting said, “The Muslims Ummah in Jos has solemnly resolved to fight the governor, his government and the entire- Christians in any way possible. They shall never support this government and they will destroy any development that shall come to Plateau even the existing ones.
“Again, they are ready for Jihad in the state as we have presently secured the needed arms. Over 3000 foreign arms have now entered Jos and we will not vote during the governorship election. But we shall ensure that we have the position of the Federal House of Representative Jos North/Bassa chairman Jos North, Senator Representing Plateau North, Plateau State member Jos North-North.
“They shall shed the last drop of our blood to ensure that the Jos master plan and the ban on Okada is realized. The Ummah in Jos shall frustrate the peace and development of the entire state.
“All traders and Okada riders have been enjoined not to go out for their business without any preparation on a daily basis they are soliciting the support of the entire Muslim Ummah in Nigeria to support Islam in Plateau in cash and in kind as there is an endowment fund raising to procure more arms and especially explosives. They have also declared both open and silent killings in Muslims areas on any Christian and security (No go area).
“We have pledge to deal with any Muslim especially those who are dining together with the governor for their selfish needs without diving a consideration to the Ummah. They shall kill them and their families and generations wipe away, we are watching.”
The meeting resolved to declare full Jihad on Plateau, noting that, “Having seen the need for Islam to take its rightful position in Jos there is need for all Muslim in Nigeria to come to terms and re-strategize. Muslims all over should bear in mind Jos is now labeled as a deadly zone to all non-Christians. There is need for all Muslims to extend their support to the Muslims in jos, Plateau and ensure that Jos is capture and declared a Muslim territory.
“With the way the governor and the government of Plateau are dehumanizing and scorning the religion of Allah, the only solution for our liberation is Jihad. The Muslim Ummah shall use Jihad and ensure that governor Jang did not return to office. Muslims in the state shall ensure that few months before the general elections jihad will be declare in the state which cannot be controlled even by the security agency with great slaughter and massacre which the Federal government will have no option than to declare a state of emergency in plateau.
“They shall also use some of his political rivals to fight him and ensure that he did not return to office by plight of Muslims will be reduced. While they guard their areas, they must go out and attack the Christian dominated area and also destroy any government property at their disposal in the state.”
On Kaduna State which had at the time, a Christian governor, the late Yakowa, the meeting noted, “For a number of years Kaduna has witnessed its own share of religious crisis and for quite sometimes Christianity has been silenced thus the Muslims dominating every sector. It explains why the present Southern Kaduna is agitating for the creation of a new state to give them breathing space.
The Muslim Ummah in the entire Northern Nigeria are greatly shocked, surprised and sad with the present development given a Christian the opportunity to rule. In the history of this country a non Muslim has never rule Kaduna state because of our numerical strength, political power and prowess and as its significance to Islam.
“The present development that allowed Patrick Yakowa to rule Kaduna state is totally uncalled for and a slap to Islam in Nigeria; it is considered as equal a Christian ruling in Mecca, Iran or Iraqs. No Muslim can be given the opportunity of such magnitude of evens a deputy governor in Plateau state.
“The most worrisome situation is where Governor Yakowa is making moves to contest for the seat of the governor in 2011 and hoping to use government machines at his disposal. He also backed the support of the president his fellow Christian. To face the challenge in Kaduna state all Muslims must rise to their responsibilities and resolve to fight for Allah.
“The Muslim Ummah shall ensure that Governor Patrick Yakowa or any Christian does not assume that seat forever. We must device all political and Jihad means to ensure that we realize our plan.
1. 90 days from now, Muslims must ensure that peace has escaped Kaduna state.
2. Muslims must hunt all Christians especially those in the cities.
3. We must either use the security or other means to eliminate the governor, his family and all those they perceive are supporting him.
4. Must face and frustrate all Christians in Kaduna who are civil servants and traders.
5. Attacks must continue to be launched in Christian predominated areas as signals before jihad.
6. Shall use our men who are in the military to help us bring arms and ammunitions into Kaduna.
7. Use all resources possible to have control of the security before and during these attacks.”
Yakowa’s reign witnessed several attacks on churches and other facilities in Kaduna. The state was generally volatile under his watch, but it’s unclear whether it had anything to do with the said meeting.
He would eventually die in plane crash in 2012, a development that prompted celebrations among some Muslims in the state. And with the resurfacing of the documents on Wednesday, many suggested that his death may have been an assassination.
“Yakowa didn’t know peace as governor. Bombs upon bombs,” said activist, Ndi Kato, @YarKafanchan “When Yakowa died… silence…Oh God this is traumatic. It is not strange people… it is normal people… very normal people.
“No single, sincere Southern Kaduna person out there who will tell you they believe Yakowa’s death was an accident. I mean people danced in the streets in Kaduna and taunted our people when he died. There was even a rhyme for it “Yakowa nakowa ya koma” Traumatic!
In a statement on Thursday, however, Kaduna State chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. John Joseph Hayab said linking Pantami and the Muslim community to the death of Yakowa would endanger national peace and urged security agents to step in and tame the circulation of documents he said had “doubtful authenticity.”
Pantami’s story is one that began in the 80s when he was growing up in the Pantami Ward of Gombe State; a ward noted for being the stronghold of the Maitatsine Islamic uprisings of the 1980s, which culminated in a bloody confrontation with Nigerian authorities on April 29, 1985.
It spans through the 2000s during his time at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), first as a student, but later chief imam upon his graduation with a B.Tech, Computer Science, in 2003; to as recently as 2012, including a few years of learning and lecturing at the Islamic University of Medina (IUM), known, too, as a hotspot for Salafist Islamic terror recruitment.
But the recent controversy which has led to digging out of the minister’s recent and not too recent past, started with a publication on some newspapers on April 12, of a story alleging that he was a Boko Haram sympathizer and enabler who is on the radar of America’s intelligence community.
Some of the reports alleged that the minister 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.”
However, The Independent newspaper, one of the major platforms that reported the story, did a shoddy job of linking an audio exchange between the Minister and founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, whose killing in 2009, at 39, escalated the terror activities of the group.
In the exchange in Hausa Language, Pantami was disagreeing with the doctrines espoused by Yusuf, and this gave his defenders the impetus to push his case and the argument that he is being targeted by those against his “reforms” in the telecommunications sector.
The Independent, as well as an online platform, NewsWire eventually retracted, and Pantami feeling vindicated, threatened lawsuit against NewsWire.
But soon several video and audio recordings of the minister taking extremist positions during his preaching surfaced online, including a Wikileaks report on him expressing support for terrorist groups, and a whole new controversy began.
Notable among them being a September 12, 2006 public lecture titled “Suwaye Yan Taliban” (“Who Are The Taliban”), which Pantami, then aged 33, delivered in the North East State of Bauchi, a state that would later become one of the hotspots of Boko Haram.
In the said lecture, delivered a few years after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, United States, Pantami expressed profound support for Osama bin-Laden, the key suspect in the attack, who was on the run at the time, as well as the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda, even praying “May God help us to imitate their good.”
The lecture, which included a question and answer section, one of many where Pantami made incendiary comments about “infidels,” was subsequently translated by an Italian academic, Dr. Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town Centre for Contemporary Islam, in a paper published in 2019.
During the question and answer section, a questioner asked how one should respond to the Salafis who reject Osama Bin Laden because of his killing of innocent unbelievers, to which Pantami responded by answering that, “I still consider him as a better Muslim than myself. We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed. But the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason. Our zeal should not take precedence over our obedience to the sacred law.”
Earlier in 2004, while he was the chief imam of ATBU, Pantami was also alleged to have called for the head of a Christian student, Mr. Sunday Achi for preaching the gospel on campus, as narrated by a former student of the school, Hyat Stephen Hassan, @_hyatify.
Hassan who took to social media platform, Twitter amid the controversy over Pantami, to narrate the events, said Mr. Achi, then a fourth year student of Architecture and president of Evangelical Church Winning All Ministry (ECWA) Students Mission (ESM) on campus, alongside his colleagues, distributed pamphlets to willing students, an action deemed blasphemous by Pantami.
“Sunday Achi was the Ecwa Students Mission (ESM) campus President at the time. He and some of his members while on evangelism, distributed pamphlets to willing students which Pantami claimed was blasphemous being the Imam of the University,” he narrated via his Twitter handle, @_hyatify.
“Then came the deadly fatwa. That night, some derailed (sic) Muslim students acting on Pantami’s fatwa, invaded the boys hostel where Sunday Achi resided. Took him to a location adjacent the Uni’s gate and killed him without any security challenge. Of course, it was so easy cos Pantami was a demi-god in that school.
“As if that was not enough, after the school was shut down due to Achi’s murder, they (derailed Muslim students) went as far as tracing the family houses of 2 other colleagues of the deceased to kill them. Fortunately, they weren’t home at the time they invaded.
“And that was how Pantami’s so called naivety ended Sunday Achi’s promising life only to be rewarded with another chance to do more. RIP Sunday Achi. Your persecution and subsequent murder remains the earthly price of your righteousness.”
Last week, Mr. Samuel Achi, 67-year-old father of the deceased Sunday Achi, confirmed to journalists that he was aware that Pantami was the Chief Imam of the university’s mosque when his son was killed.
Mr. Samuel, a former lecturer at the Kaduna State University, Kaduna, confirmed that the late Sunday was the leader of the students’ fellowship of the Evangelical Church Winning All Ministry, while emphasising that the tracts shared by his late son did not contain any blasphemous content but the Pantami-led Muslim community at the university pronounced a ‘fatwa’ on his son.
“The incident happened in the early hours of the 9th of December (2004). It was from the night of December 8 to the early hours of December 9 that it happened. From the fact that I had, from clear indications, from the confirmed information that I had, he was not stoned. He was actually strangled inside the mosque. His body was discovered outside the university mosque.”
However, Uwa Suleiman, Pantami’s spokesperson denied the report, insisting that “The allegations are not true.”
But as more evidence surfaced, many, especially on social media began to demand for Pantami’s resignation or outright sack should he fail to resign, even as others wondered how he managed to pass DSS vetting to become a minister. On social media space, Twitter, #PantamiResignNow maintained tops on trending topics for periods.
“Pantami risks life or 20 years imprisonment or both for supporting and aiding terrorism; by virtue of Sections 5 & 18 of the Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act, 2013. So, apart from resignation, Nigerians should demand for his prosecution. But, this is Nigeria,” said lawyer and rights activist, Festus Ogun of Festus Ogun Legal.”
Faced with the emerging evidence, Pantami granted audience to an online medium, Peoples Gazette on Friday, April 16, during which he denied any links to terrorist groups, noting that he had always preached peace and has been attacked in the past by fellow Muslims for protecting his “Christian brothers.”
He went on to point out that his personal driver, secretary and technical assistant are all Christians. “My personal driver is Mai Keffi, a practising Christian. I also have a Christian, Ms Nwosu, as my secretary and Dr. Femi, also a Christian, as my technical adviser,” he said.
Making reference to Brigaglia’s transcript of his 2006 lecture, Pantami said the Italian authors of the academic paper that chronicled his Salafi teachings as a bulwark of radical views amongst university students in the North, had misrepresented him by failing to reach out to him before concluding the papers.
“They did their research but failed to contact me and sit down with me for an interview before publishing their papers,” he said. “It is possible they used a translator that did not understand Hausa or just did not like me.”
But his denials failed to dissuade his critics. And the next day, April 17, Pantami, while answering questions during his daily Ramadan lecture at Annor Mosque in Abuja, owned up to his past for the first time, but maintained he had had a change of heart.
“Some of the comments I made some years ago that are generating controversies now were based on my understanding of religious issues at the time, and I have changed several positions taken in the past based on new evidence and maturity,” he said.
“I was young when I made some of the comments; I was in university, some of the comments were made when I was a teenager. I started preaching when I was 13, many scholars and individuals did not understand some of international events and therefore took some positions based on their understanding, some have come to change their positions later.”
Still, his explanations did little to assuage calls for his resignation, with many arguing that he was already a full responsible adult when he made the comments, even as his recent actions, some say, have suggested he still holds on to his extremist ideology.
“Pantami is 48 years. He was 29 years when the 9/11 terrorist attack happened. He loved the outcome to the extent he made Osama Bin Ladin his role model,” said Chuks Ogbuagu, @ChuxOgbuagu “Pantami was a full responsible adult when he sided with terrorists. He wasn’t a teenager like he claimed.”
In a country boasting of several vibrant private media organisations, including few government owned outlets, the decision of the Ministry of Communications under Pantami to obscure, exclusively Islamic channel, Afrikiy Tv, as its official media partner in a seccular country, has also been interpreted by his critics as an indication of his continued perception of the country as an Islamic enclave.
“He has not changed,” argued journalist, David Hundeyin while appearing on Channels TV on Wednesday. “And let me just give one example. Right now, if you go to the Twitter handle of the federal ministry of communications and digital economy, look for any of the videos, probably from last month. There is a YouTube video linked to the handle, a flag off of a skill acquisition programme for 600 Nigerian youths. Now, the YouTube channel the ministry used to live stream the event is an Islamic YouTube channel called Afriky.
“When I say Islamic TV station, I mean, Islamic religious content TV station. A TV station that broadcast only Islamic content. It’s not one that is Islam leaning, it’s an Islamic station. It’s like Emmanuel TV owned by Prophet TV Joshua being to contracted to live stream programmes of a ministry in the federal republic of Nigeria. A federal event by what is supposedly secular state is being live streamed by an unknown Islamic TV station.”
Pantami also triggered controversy on Monday when his verified Facebook account was used to place a curse on the convener of human rights group, Concerned Nigerians, Deji Adeyanju for asking the United States to place him on terrorism watch-list.
Some supporters of the Minister had declared Adeyanju an ‘Enemy of Islam,’ and in a post on Facebook, one Datti Assalafiy wrote, “The non-Muslim, Deji Adeyanju, hates Islam and Muslims, supports the abuse of Islam and Muslims on his social media…”
Commenting on the post with his verified Facebook page, Pantami wrote in Hausa, “Allah ya tsine masa alubarika” which means “May Allah rebuke his blessings.”
However, as the comment drew attention, the minister claimed his account was hacked by some youth.
Following his suggestion that he had been misquoted by Brigaglia in his transcript, Hundeyin who had done extensive report on the subject, said he contacted a native Hausa speaker to translate parts of the recording to ascertain whether the Minister was telling the truth, but the result proved otherwise.
“For the first time since the story broke, I can present four accurately translated and carefully subtitled extracts from ‘Suwaye Yan Taliban’ that tell a very clear story about who 33 year-old Isa Pantami was.
“In the first extract below, Pantami describes the Afghan Taliban in glowing terms, saying that they have undergone “trials from Allah” while dealing with kafuri (“infidels”) from the Western world who wish to destroy the “good image” of the Taliban,” Hundeyin wrote.
“The transcript for the segment above, taken from 2:50 – 3:57 of the full recording reads: “With respect to enquiries/clarification on this topic, I decided to respond timely so as to underscore the importance of the Topic to the people. A very important thought that came into my mind, is that what our brethren-Al Sunnah (Salafists) want to know is how the Taliban who lived in Afghanistan were subjected to trials from Allah on this earth- subjected to a test of faith and love.
“Furthermore, there were a group of people, Infidels, from the Western World, who don’t have any other target in this life except to destroy the good image of the Taliban in the eyes of their Muslim brethren, to destroy the Taliban image even in the eyes of the Infidels themselves, by means of accusing the Taliban of deeds which were not committed by them.”
The next extract, Hundeyin said, is taken from 13:14 – 15:19 of the full recording:
“The Land of Afghanistan was in a terrible state until the Monarchy was abolished, that is Kingship System, exactly around 1978 Christian Era. If you did arithmetic, you’d notice that about 30 years had gone by. Afghanistan found itself in a state of anarchy to the extent that the infidels began to plan on coming in and dominating Afghanistan.
“This is because when you are religiously pious, patient, worshipping God, reading the Quran, our adversaries – the Infidels, especially the United States of America are always distressed. As such, they are always lurking around and looking for an opportunity and launching an attack against you. Right now, they are claiming to be super powers, whereas the USSR was formerly the World Power.
“Under the pretext of promoting peace, The USA invaded Afghanistan. Their entry into the country was characterised by their support for one group against the other. Right now, if Allah were to bring a test of faith on Nigeria, who do you think would be the first to invade Nigeria? AMERICA!
If they invaded, who do you think they would support: Muslims or Infidels? INFIDELS! This is exactly how they seek to operate. This is the reason why in the rules of Islam, it is wrong to take premature action without making Preparation (Istidhad). This is the path of God’s Religion.”
According to Hundeyin, apart from Pantami’s repeated use of the word “kafuri” (infidel) to refer to non-Muslims, the important thing to note about this extract is that the inference in the second paragraph is that not only are Muslims at war with the USA by default, but that the only reason they should not “take action”, i.e a violent jihad is that if the USA intervened, it would side with non-Muslims.
“This is an important point because it ties closely with the “gradualist” philosophy propagated by Al-Qaeda, whereby emphasis is placed on preparation, typically through political means, instead of simple confrontation favoured by the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram.”
Hundeyin continued, “In the next segment taken from 17:28 – 17:51, Pantami makes a nudge-wink reference to “Mr. Zero Zero” (a northern Nigerian reference to Rt. Gen Muhammadu Buhari) being a “true Muslim” and hence his preferred candidate in the upcoming (2007) elections.
The main candidates for the 2007 general election, which was in view when Pantami delivered the lecture in 2006, were Umaru Musa Yar’adua (PDP), Muhammadu Buhari (ANPP) and Atiku Abubakar (AC). Yar’adua eventually won with 24.6 million votes to Buhari’s 6 million votes and Atiku’s 2.6 million votes.
According to Hundeyin, the fourth and final extract taken from 52:35 – 53:21 contains a chilling set of prayers that directly instigate Pantami’s audience against the Nigerian state in a manner not dissimilar to that of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf.
“May Allah help us see the Gregorian calendar and money of the infidels removed!”
“And therefore, we are praying to God that based on our understanding, we pray for a day when the images on the notes in our pockets will be removed. No Muslim Cleric has ever spoken against these images as forbidden. May we be self-sufficient enough not to need this currency!
While Buhari failed to win the presidential election of 2007 and 2011, he became president in 2015 and subsequently in 2016, appointed Pantami as Director General and CEO of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), before making him minister upon his reelection in 2019.
Amid the controversy on Thursday, the president, in a statement by his spokesperson, threw his weight behind Pantami, noting that he is being targeted by those who want him removed from office.
“The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami is, currently, subject to a “cancel campaign” instigated by those who seek his removal,” Shehu said.
The presidential spokesperson argued that the comments for which the minister is being criticized were made long ago, when he was in his 20s. This is even as the most controversial of the Minister’s remarks in which he expressed admiration for terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were made in 2006 when he was already in his 30s.
“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,” he continued.
“The Minister has, rightly, apologized 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 all discerning Nigerians know this manufactured dispute is nothing to do with the Minister’s prior words, but solely concern his actions in the present.”
Shehu’s statement triggered outrage on social media, with many alleging it was a confirmation that the president has the same agenda as the minister.
“Am I disappointed at the statement of the presidency on Pantami? NO. It was expected. Leadership of our country has been hijacked by a narrow and sectarian cabal with feudal agenda,” said human rights lawyer and activist, Abdul Mahmoud, @AbdulMahmud01.
‘’Someone jokingly said last night ‘if you probe Pantami, you’ll discover Buhari,'” said activist, Henry Nwazuluahu, @henryshield “Those words are still ringing a bell in my head till now.”
It’s a case, observers say, has more than anything else, spoken to the irreconcilable worldviews in country. At House of Reps plenary on Wednesday, Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, urged the House to demand resignation or sack of the Minister for backing activities of terrorist groups in the past, but his request was shut down by House speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila.
Speaking at plenary on Wednesday, Elumelu said: “Mr. Speaker, my privilege border on one of the serving ministers called Sheikh Ali Isa Ibrahim Pantami. He is the Honourable Minister for Communication and Digital Economy of the federal republic. And the portfolio that he currently occupies gives him the free latitude to administer, coordinate and manage the flow of sensitive information within and outside the shores of Nigeria.”
Elumelu’s submission, however, was faulted by Gbajabiamila who argued that he raised a point of privilege without showing how his privileges were breached.
“One Nigeria” is a ruse. This became clear today when the north mobilize its number in the House of Representatives to oppose today’s motion by Elumelu calling for the investigation and removal of Pantami,” said Mahmoud
“Every conceivable northern Muslim representative across party political lines literarily held the House by its jugular as Elumelu attempted to move his motion.
“Amid the ethnic and religious divisions within the House, Gbaja pandered to the north by killing the motion with a spurious Rule of the House.”