By Emeka Alex Duru
In August last year, development economist and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, Obadiah Mailafia, provided a lead that could have been explored to get to the roots of the insurgency in the country. But the chance was fluffed.
In a programme on Nigeria Info 95.1FM, Abuja on August 10, Mailafia said that repentant insurgents had informed him that a governor from the North was their commander. The statement caused a stir among Nigerians.
But in a bid to downplay the disclosure, the Department of State Security (DSS) dismissed it as fake. Mailafia, stood his ground, insisting he was ready to lay down his life for Nigeria. “This is not the time to disown what I said. Yes, I was privy to some very sensitive information, which all statesmen are entitled to have by virtue of our public roles”, he asserted.
But after several invitations by the DSS and rigorous interrogations, Mailafia backed down on his claim, saying that he lacked the evidence to sustain them. Nigerians were, however, not convinced. They suspected, rather that he might have been pressured to make the confession by operatives of the security agency. With that, the opportunity to dig into the sponsorship of insurgency in the land, was bungled.
Nigeria’s Minister for Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami has accepted his past life and sympathy to Boko Haram but said he has ‘changed’
But the controversy around the Minister for Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami and his hurried defence by the Presidency, show that Mailafia may not have been careless in his disclosure, after all. The ugly developments have rather confirmed insinuations in some quarters that the Muhammadu Buhari administration may just have been paying lip service in the battle against terrorism.
An online publication, NewsWireNgr, had earlier in the month, alleged that Pantami was an ally to the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, adding that the minister has been listed by the American Government under its terrorist watch list. Faced with threats of libel, the medium quickly pulled down the story with a retraction.
But more audio materials published by another platform, Peoples Gazette, gave out the minister as sympathetic to Boko Haram members in his sermons at several worship centers in the late 2000s.
Other public comments of Pantami, including a 2004 speech, exposed where he expressed support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda (“Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda”). He was also said to have preached that “jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria.” In another instance in 2006, Pantami was captured mourning the death of the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (“May God have mercy on Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalayleh (al-Zarqawi’s birth name]).
His image handlers have alleged misrepresentation in translation and a calculated agenda to undo him. But following strident calls for his resignation, Pantami caved in, admitting; “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.”
The minister’s confession may have recorded some points in some places. But that is not enough. The axiom that to whom much is given, much is expected from, is apposite here. As a young adult of almost 50 years, Pantami has gone far in positions and academic attainments, given the relative education disadvantage of his region of birth. He had attended leading institutions of higher learning, including Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, where he earned a PhD.
Pantami was also trained on Digital transformation at Harvard University, USA; Management Strategy at both, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Institute of Management Development in Loussaune, Switzerland. He was in Cambridge University for Management Programme, among others. At various times, he was a lecturer in Information Technology at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi and at the Islamic University of Madinah, as Head of Technical Writing. He is an author of several publications. His last outing before being appointed minister was as Director General and CEO of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) from 26 September 2016 – 20 August 2019.
By all standards, Pantami parades a comprehensive resume that should advertise him as an emerging leader in the march for a better Nigeria. But as the saying goes, the hood does not make the monk. The academic laurels garnered by the minister, do not have much impact in broadening his world view. Rather, he has proven to be a typical Nigerian politician who readily exploits the various fault lines in the country to achieve a particular advantage at any particular time. While, for instance, it served him to play the religious card to hoodwink vulnerable members of his faith and region, it did not matter to him that such dubious engagement could weigh heavily on the unity and corporate existence of the nation. Now, it favours him to claim that he has known better and seen clearer. In a situation as ours where religious and ethnic sentiments take the place of rational reasoning, it is not unusual for foot soldiers and sympathisers lining behind the minister.
A thorough inventory on Pantami could have saved Nigeria its present embarrassment that he constitutes, if those charged with the responsibility had done their work. For whatever it is, a man of such bigoted orientation should not have had anything to do with public office in a delicate religious setting as Nigeria, let alone heading a sensitive ministry as communications and digital economy. That, in itself, is a threat to national security.
Of course, we may never know the report presented on him to the President by the relevant security agencies. But it will be difficult to excuse Buhari from the Pantami embarrassment. The haste with which the Presidency jumped out to defend him, to the point of describing the demand for his sack, as cancel campaign by interest groups, shows how aloof the government is to the sensibilities of Nigerians and the danger the Pantami antecedents pose to national security.
Perhaps, before the President forgets, it may be necessary to remind him that the Boko Haram that Nigeria has been grappling with since 2009, has severally flaunted its affiliation with the terrorist organisations Pantami had glamourized. Incidentally, the impacts of the group’s activities, have been felt more in the North, where Buhari had a cult-personality followership. It however seems easier for him to back the Minister and ignore the people. This is not surprising, anyway. The minister’s parochial views, to some extent run with the President’s exclusionist mindset.
We may blame Pantami for his fanatical antecedents or the DSS for not doing the needful, but the fact remains that he must have found favour with the president in clinching his current office. If you see this Buhari’s support for Pantami from the angle of two like minds bonding on issues of religious extremism, you may not be entirely out of order. After all, before the Boko Haram fully unfurled to its current murderous tendencies, Buhari was among those who saw the military offensive against the group as an attack on the North. Young Turks as Pantami, must have drawn a lot from that bizarre interpretation. But that is a story for another day.
It is good that Nigerians have made their points that the Minister should go. Buhari has the choice to cuddle him, if he chooses. But one thing is clear: any day Pantami remains in office reinforces the insinuation that the President has two sets of laws – one for those he hates and the other, for those he loves. Such duplicitous posture will continue to hinder the battle against insurgency in the country.
– Mr Duru, a consummate media personality is the Editor of TheNiche newspapers, Lagos Nigeria