Beyond Isa Ali Pantami’s impelled apology

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By Toby Prince

In a shocking twist, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Pantami, on Saturday, renounced some of his controversial comments in support of Islamic extremism. On the surface, the guilt-ridden minister seems reformed yet there could be more to his soft-spot for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

At the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2015, a fast-rising Madinah-based Nigerian Islamic cleric proffered some practical steps to halt further carnages. In his paper titled ‘Theology and Jurisprudence in the Ideological Framework of Current Insurgencies: Towards an Alternative Islamic Discourse’, the scholar blamed the “imported” ideology on injustice.

Boko Haram had grown into one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation. Between 2009 and 2015, the radical sect gained extensive territories in the north-east, including major cities such as Maiduguri and Baga; devastating the lives of millions, and constituting a significant threat to the Nigerian state.

In January 2015, the group carried out what was described as its deadliest attack yet, killing over 2,000 in Baga, a town on the border with Chad. Two months later, the Abubakar Shekau-led terrorists pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS),  signalling the beginning of another dimension of onslaughts. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, over 10,000 persons died, more than 1,000 schools were destroyed and over 1.5 million people displaced in 2015 alone.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s emergence offered solace. Although instant progress was made, the group was not on its knees like insinuated by the presidency’s claim of “technical defeat”.

While the security forces carried out the physical assault on the radical sect, Pantami, an assistant professor at the time, offered a more subtle approach of tackling the ideology. Speaking to Islamic faithful in Abuja, he kicked against the use of force, suggesting that the government should embrace dialogue.

Pantami noted that insurgency cannot be eliminated through military campaign. According to him, “no insurgency has ever been completely subdued, vanquished and eliminated with force only”. He added that “there is the need for encouraging the government to give more priority and preference to identifying the genuine insurgents and engaging them in dialogue”.

Pantami opined that there is an “urgent need to establish a State-of-the-art International Islamic Dialogue Center that can bear the name in the true sense of the word. The centre should involve intellectuals and responsible religious leaders. There are similar centres in Kuwait (Kuwait Dialogue Center) and Saudi Arabia (King Abdullahi Bn Abdul’Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue). There is also urgent need to establish another state-of-the-art Islamic Rehabilitation Center for misguided youth”.

If anything, Pantami’s tune was that of someone with a soft spot for the deadly group. His antecedent attests.

According to U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in 2009 by Wikileaks, Pantami’s repulsive ideals prompted authorities to kick him out of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) and from a mosque in his native Gombe State. It is believed that he studied the teachings of hardline Salafist scholars including Sheikh Muhammad Saleh Al-Uthaymeen.

He previously made remarks supporting Al-Qaeda – an extremist group founded by the late Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, by the US Navy SEALs inside a private residential compound in Pakistan.

Pantami also made comments backing the Taliban, a Sunni Islamist movement and military organisation in Afghanistan currently waging jihad within the country.

“This jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria,’’ Pantami was quoted to have said in one of his vicious preachings in the 2000s. “Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” he was also quoted to have prayed.

As massive outrage and demand for his sacking continued on social media, Pantami renounced his controversial comments on terrorism. He stated that some of his past views were made out of immaturity, alleging that attacks on him by Nigerians were politically instigated.

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.

“For 15 years, I have moved around the country while educating people about the dangers of terrorism. I have travelled to Katsina, Gombe, Borno and Kano states, and Difa in the Niger Republic to preach against terrorism.

“I have engaged those with Boko Haram ideologies in different places. I have been writing pamphlets in Hausa, English and Arabic. I have managed to bring back several young persons who have derailed from the right path.”

Pantami’s paper shows his strong and indisputable connections to – and deeply held sympathies for – the dark world of Salafist Islamic terrorism. His recent apology only confirms that he was and may still be on the side of the extremist.

A retired Army Captain in the United States Army, Bishop Johnson, said it was not common for people with extremist ideologists to change overnight. He said it was more troubling when people with extremist ideologies were in charge of sensitive national data.

“When people have radical ideologies, they don’t change overnight. They will carry such ideologies into whatever offices they occupy. So people with extremist ideologies should not occupy sensitive positions,” Johnson said.

Pantami showed bravery to renounce links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He may need to take another bold step by explaining his relationship with late Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

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