By Aminu Nuru
Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami’s odyssey into public service, and mainstream politics in Nigeria by extension, is so far filled with notable controversies that muddy the stream of his public image despite being received and welcomed with a reservoir of goodwill and optimistic anticipations by many Nigerians.
Although some people may argue that, before Pantami’s appointment to public office, there were members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) equally knowledgeable in the matters of Islam and could be regarded as scholars in their own rights. Still, the fact is that both Mallam Aminu Kano and Senator Bello Maitama Yusuf made a name for themselves in politics and public service before Islamic scholarship and preaching. Or, to say it better, the duos are more widely known for their political engagements than anything else. Thus, they were seen as full-time politicians in the public eye. While Pantami, on the other hand, got his fame strictly from Islamic teachings and discourses.
Therefore, Pantami is a trailblazer who pioneered a cause in Nigerian polity – a revolution of Islamic clerics from Northern Nigeria joining national politics and public service. This position naturally accords him the status of a role model for subsequent clerics from the North that are willing to join public service in the future.
Though preaching and propagation of Islam would have played a role in Pantami’s rise to prominence and subsequent appointment into Nigerian public service, the controversial minister, to be fair, has demonstrated some degree of competency and seems to be averagely prepared, to say the least, to the job he has been offered as the Director-General of NITDA and later Minister of Communication and Digital Economy. In the same vein, he has also recorded some achievements so far. Unfortunately, however, a series of controversies are beginning to overshadow these achievements, which are at the same time complicating his polity. Still, some of these complications may not be disconnected from his past. On the contrary, they could be best appreciated if one revisits and analyses the context and content of his previous preaching vis-à-vis the atmospheric politics of the time.
Efforts to corroborate the exact date Pantami made his debut into the realm of Islamic preaching in his first preaching base – Bauchi – proved abortive. But what is certain was the unique style he adopted in delivering lectures, Tafseer sessions and Friday sermons, which promptly endeared him in the hearts of the local audience.
In the early 2000s, most Western-styled educated Muslims were looking for a fresh voice in Islamic preaching and seemed to be tired of the “oldies” and their archaic modus. They wanted something different and were eager to access the new approach that analyses and interprets contemporary issues from Islam’s perspectives. They were looking for an Islamic preacher to address and speak to them in the manner and tongues they would align and reason with. A preacher that could, for example, scrutinize the EU’s foreign policies and the US invasion of the Middle East and validate his points with the verses of the Holy Qur’an.
In Pantami, they saw the exponent of those ideals. This was due to his ability to demonstrate basic knowledge of global politics, international relations, and science and technology through the lenses of the Quran and Hadith. In addition, he commanded a very good English Language (a rare talent among Islamic clerics at the time). He exhibited a charming oratory skill sauced with puritanical diction – a personal endowment and enchantment that he consciously or subconsciously deployed to arrest, startle, and move his audience. The eloquence with which Pantami delivered his sessions was what stood him out among his contemporaries. Consequently, Pantami became the darling of Muslim populations in Bauchi and beyond for this and other intellectual traits. The Western-styled educated populations saw a 21st-century Islamic cleric of their dream in his shape.
As an influential preacher with access to grass-root populations, his pulpit echoed a dissenting voice against the government of the day. He was explicitly critical of PDP’s government at both the state and national levels and openly promoted the presidential ambition of General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB). It is on record that Pantami was not the only cleric to uphold the candidature of GMB via his pulpit; other clerics had also promoted him with equal conviction. However, Pantami’s open romanticism and penchant for the General were so extreme that when his old “friend” – Governor Isa Yuguda – fell out with Buhari’s ANPP and decamped to PDP, Pantami was not reluctant to denounce this move. Therefore, he launched out series of attacks and criticisms of the Yuguda administration in his Friday sermons (despite being a back-door “friend” of the Yuguda administration).
In an article titled “Nigerian Politicians and Hypocrisy”, Pantami wrote: “I do not know a profession anywhere in the world that is full of professionals who fulfil all the characteristics and signs of hypocrites aptly described by our infallible Prophet like Nigerian politicians in the corridors of power, particularly the companions of the largest, and probably the most dangerous party in Africa (PDP)” (Premium Times, 2012).
Nobody felt Pantami was not doing the right thing among the population. He was even celebrated and eulogized for his vilification of the PDP’s government and support for GMB. His effort was appreciated as a selfless service to the poor masses. He was practically dancing to the bits of the society. Naturally, this created a public image for Pantami – an image of an honest Islamic cleric who told the truth to power (PDP’s government?).
Considering this background, it is not entirely out of sight if some groups work to step back on Pantami’s toes now that he has been appointed a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They would not also relent to feed him the same bitter pills of politics through (de)constructive criticism, malice and deliberately cooked scandals. Therefore, it is not a surprise if, for example, some pundits dug into his past utterances to make the polity difficult for him now. Or it is not least expected if some of his critics alleged that he used the garment of Islamic preaching to reach where he is now – an allegation echoed loudly by his fellow preacher and former neighbour in Bauchi. This particular preacher believes that Pantami is not worthy of being considered an Islamic cleric simply because he did not attend any Islamic school.
This allegation could be dismissed as sheer envy, especially as it comes from a fellow Salafi cleric who does not hide his aspersion of the minister. Reputable Islamic scholars have, time without number attested to Pantami’s intellectual prowess and competence in Islamic scholarship. Besides, altogether, he has tackled those accusations cleverly by not quitting the teaching of Islam even after being appointed a Minister.
The accusation that may have firmly stood is how Pantami’s pulpit swiftly changed from being a pro-people voice to one with less interest in the matters of governance and the governed. There’s no more dissent voice against the government. Even the choice of his texts for his ta’alims at Annur Mosque were deliberately strategic in the sense that their content analysis and commentary of moral truth and calls for proper conduct may not be extended explicitly to subjects within the present government. From their titles, both Kindness to Parents and Kindness to Relatives and Loved Ones would surely give a soft landing for anybody willing to avoid activism in his preaching.
His defenders may argue that Pantami now has unlimited access to the government. Therefore, he can channel his grievances privately, but the atrocities for which he vilified the previous government have also been committed, doubled and tripled by the present administration. Morality demands that he does more than voice his anger privately, considering his earlier vituperation.
One would think he will not hesitate to relinquish anything that has to do with this administration to demonstrate his unreserved solidarity for the masses. But, unfortunately, Pantami – an erstwhile vibrant advocate of good governance – is not the man to surrender power for posterity. Therefore, while it may not be the wisest decision to leave the government to demonstrate his pro-masses stand, Pantami should do better in making patriotic moves decisions no matter whose ox is gored. He could do that while avoiding avoidable controversies and political tussles that may tarnish his image and the institution he represents.
Aminu Nuru wrote from Bauchi. He can be contacted via email@example.com.