David Hundeyin: Isa Ali Pantami – The Inside Story of Nigeria’s Minister of Communications & Digital Economy

April 19, 2021
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Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami is the proverbial chameleon with one eye on the past and one eye on the future. Depending on the situation or who is involved in it, he sometimes comes across as a cosmopolitan technocrat with a strong academic background. At other times, he transforms into a knuckle-dragging troglodyte spewing forth parochial religious and micro-ethnic sentiments.

Perhaps because of the sheer disconnect between the different Isa Pantamis known to different people, it has always been difficult to conclusively nail him down to a singular identity. To those who work around him or watch him on television delivering speeches about Nigeria’s broadband masterplan in his trademark reedy voice, it can be very disorienting to process the idea that this slightly built man with the gold-rimmed prescription glasses could be on of the most dangerous men in Nigeria right now.

Even after extensively-researched exposes about the furious and unrepentant religious extremist that resides somewhere within Isa Pantami’s polite exterior, it is simply difficult for many to accept. How is it possible that this man with a PhD from Aberdeen and several certificate programs at the world’s most prestigious institutions is also a supporter of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as an instigator of deadly religious crises in Northern Nigeria?

After reading Sheikh Pantami’s mealy-mouthed attempt to distance himself from his own utterances during a Ramadan service on Saturday April 17, 2021, I decided that the best way to break through his manufactured genteel posturing and lift the veil of denial is not to write another extensively-sourced 2,000-word deep dive, but rather to let Pantami himself do the work for us.

Pro-Terrorist Rhetoric and a Buhari Cameo

The man who would later become “Sheikh,” “Imam,” “Mallam” and “Dr” Isa Pantami was born on October 20, 1972 in the Pantami Ward of Gombe State. Pantami Ward is noted for being the last holdout of the infamous Maitatsine Islamic uprisings of the 1980s. Some have argued that these uprisings were in fact precursors to the Boko Haram crisis that would follow 2 decades later.

It is impossible to verify whether the adolescent Pantami was ideologically influenced by the Maitatsine-type Islamic cult which grew in Pantami Ward and culminated in a bloody showdown with authorities on April 29, 1985. What we do know for sure about Pantami is that after graduating in 2003 from the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) in Bauchi with a BTech in Computer Science, he became the Chief Imam at ATBU and an influential public figure in Bauchi.

On September 12, 2006, roughly one month shy of his 34th birthday, Pantami delivered a now-infamous public lecture in Bauchi titled “Suwaye Yan Taliban” (“Who Are The Taliban?). This was just one several incendiary sermons and public lectures that Imam Pantami delivered over the course of nearly a decade in Bauchi, but the reason it has now become infamous is because it found its way onto the internet. First Italian academic Dr. Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town Centre for Contemporary Islam published a paper in 2019 with a translation of the question-and-answer segment of ‘Suwaye Yan Taliban.’ Then a 54-minute audio recording of the lecture mysteriously turned up on a Nigerian Islamic community website.

By luck or by design, ‘Suwaye Yan Taliban’ has now become the proverbial bone stuck in Isa Pantami’s throat. At first he denied making such pronouncements outright. Then when the audio recording with his unmistakable voice showed up, he claimed that Dr. Brigaglia’s translation was inaccurate, suggesting that whoever translated it either did not understand Hausa properly, or simply did not like him. Several influential friends of the house eagerly went to work with this narrative, attempting to take advantage of the fact that most Nigerians who have a keen interest in this story are not (native) Hausa speakers.

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To establish whether there was any truth in this narrative, I collaborated with a trusted contact who was born and raised in northern Nigeria and is a native Hausa speaker. Passing across the 54-minute audio recording, I tasked him with extracting 4 parts of the recording that confirm or refute Brigaglia’s translation of what Pantami said 15 years ago. For the first time since the story broke, I can present 4 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.

The transcript for the segment above, taken from 2:50 – 3:57 of the full recording reads:

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“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 Talibans 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 Talibans 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 is taken from 13:14 – 15:19 of the full recording.

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“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 ar 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.”

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.

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.

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They have a plan of invading and dominating Afghanistan, so as to impose whatever they like on its Government. All along, this is their strategy all over the World, where any Nation of Infidels that is powerful can impose themselves on any other country. This is why we have been praying to Almighty Allah to urgently bring Mr Zero-Zero to Power in Nigeria. May Almighty Allah give us a true Muslim who fears Almighty Allah. I’m sure that you all know who I’m referring to, I don’t need to elaborate.

[Audience responds]: “Yes!

For reference, the main candidates in the 2007 general election 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. This is the first clue in the story of Isa Pantami that hints at a longstanding relationship with Nigeria’s current president.

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.

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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 this images as forbidden. May we be self-sufficient enough not to need this currency. It is against the Religion to put even the images of the Companions of the Prophet on the currency. May Allah help us to see that day when the Gregorian date, the Calendar of the Infidels that is on the notes is removed. And that day is coming when it will certainly be removed.”

A Case Study in Dissembling, Dishonesty and Disingenuousness

Since the audio recording emerged, making it difficult to deny and obfuscate any longer, Pantami has changed tack. In a Q&A segment during his daily Ramadan lecture at Annor Mosque in Abuja on Saturday April 17, 2021, Pantami said:

“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.

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.

– Isa Pantami responding to questions about his jihadist preachings

This statement is important because it shows that Pantami relies of the credulity and lack of research of his audience to get away with his everlasting chameleon act of constant reinvention without accountability. Pantami is clearly expecting his audience to take to heart the emotionally believable tale of a “teenager” or “13 year-old” being “immature” and misled. In fact, “Suwaye Yan Taliban’ was delivered in 2006 when Pantami was 33 – 14 years older than the oldest possible teenager..

Understanding this type of dishonesty is central to unraveling the Isa Pantami myth and lifting the layers of carefully constructed falsehoods and misdirection that one of Nigeria’s most dangerous individuals uses to conceal himself. Here is another example of Pantami being disingenuous, this time in response to a question about his ouster as Chief Imam at ATBU:

A solid answer to a question nobody asked.

Reading this answer, you would think that Pantami has directly denied the story referenced in a 2009 Wikileaks cable about his unceremonious ouster from ATBU. In fact however, he has cleverly danced around the question which was “Were you thrown out as Chief Imam at ATBU after formenting a series of religious crises in the community?” Instead he provided an answer to “Were you thrown out of ATBU as a student?” A fine answer it was – but not an answer to the question. He fully expects his audience to lack the mental rigour to spot this obvious disingenuousness, which enables him to escape being pinned down on anything.

When all else fails, the second tactic Pantami employs is to issue vigorous, bloviating denials, often lying through his teeth. An example of this is his May 2020 fallout with NIDCOM Chair Abike Dabiri-Erewa, where armed men acting on is orders forcefully evicted she and her staff from their office at the NCC. While Dabiri-Erewa was very clear and forthright about what happened, with several eyewitnesses corroborating her account of events, Pantami had this to say:

A clear parallel can be drawn with his recent reaction to stories about his presence on a US terror watchlist. Of course he knew better than anyone that with the record he has and the extensive intelligence network operated by the NSA, CIA and FBI, it is almost impossible for someone like him to not be on such a watchlist. For that matter, he also knew that it is impossible to fact check such a story because the intelligence agencies involved will never voluntarily divulge such information. Yet here he was in true bloviating Pantami fashion – strutting for his audience and basking in a phantom win before completely reversing himself a few days later and claiming that it was all the fault of his misguided teenage self.

“I’m not that person anymore” –

Most blatantly of all, Pantami’s declaration that he no longer agrees with his jihadi iteration from 2006 is demonstrably false, and this can be easily proven. Here is just one example. On March 22, 2021, Pantami’s Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy hosted a virtual flag-off ceremony for a capacity development programme empowering 600 people with VSAT Installation Skills. Pantami himself was in attendance and he spoke at the event.

This would all seem very run-of-the-mill and prosaic until you click on the YouTube link in the tweet. Was it livestreamed by the FMCoDE’s YouTube channel? No. Was it livestreamed by the NTA YouTube channel? No. Channels TV? No. TVC? No. AIT? No. No major broadcaster was engaged to livestream this event hosted by Pantami’s Ministry. Instead, a little-known Islamic TV channel called Al-Afrikiy was contracted to relay an event organised by the Federal Government of Nigeria.

It is important to point out that Al-Afrikiy is not merely an Islamic-influenced, or Islamic-leaning TV station which also covers other things. Al-Afrikiy is an Islam-only TV channel. It broadcasts strictly religious content. Getting this channel to host an FMCoDE event would be the equivalent of getting TB Joshua’s Emmanuel TV to host an official Federal Government event.

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an islam-only tv channel somehow got to host pantami’s fmcode event

It gets worse.

Al-Afrikiy is not just an Islam-only TV channel. Its social media handles also get involved in religious controversies, as proven by this post from its Facebook page.

This is the sort of outfit hired to broadcast FG events now apparently

A look through Al-Afrikiy’s YouTube uploads shows that this channel uploads exclusively religious content, with only 2 exceptions. The 2 of them have something in common which readers will immediately spot.

Notice anything?

Here too…

But wait. It gets even worse.

I looked up the website link on Al-Afrikiy’s Facebook page. I wanted to get a sense for what kind of no-name religion-only channel somehow gets the inside track on broadcasting events by a federal ministry – a contract that I know for a fact actual TV broadcasters would bite off Pantami’s hand for. This was what I saw:

Pantami’s “Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy” has its events relayed by an unknown Islamic TV station without a functioning website.

In case you’re still thinking “No way, there has to be an explanation. Pantami cannot be so openly parochial as to give federal broadcasting gigs to an Islamic version of Emmanuel TV, here is what Al-Afrikiy itself has to say about the kind of programming it does.

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I rest my case here.

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