When the spotlight on Dr. Isa Ali Pantami began, the direction of the conversation wasn’t unpredictable. The first sign of trouble was the refusal of his critics to retract their mistranslation of his conversations with the Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf. A social media user, David Hundeyin, had presented that famous debate organised by the Northern clerical establishment as proof of the minister’s endorsement of Yusuf’s terrorist ideology and cult. His refusal to acknowledge that misrepresentation of a well-documented period and venturing into excavating Pantami’s past utterances triggered a polarization that has now underlined Nigeria’s sectional sentiments.
To defend the past, Dr. Pantami himself has described as a period of his limited understanding of Middle East politics in response to his scrutiny, is to misapply wisdom. But equally unwise it is to argue that the minister had not, years after sympathizing with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban-led Afghanistan, opposed the Boko Haram. The age of these positions; lionizing Osama Bin Laden in the early 2000s and opposing similarly indoctrinated and dangerous Mohammed Yusuf a few years later, might be seen as a reflection of his intellectual maturation over the years. But the glaring danger in making this assumption is the absence of a publicized retraction prior to the storm, and so the trending outrage isn’t misplaced.
The difficulty in this conversation around the implication of Pantami is the unsuccessfully masked anti-Muslim North bigotry that keeps jumping out. Even the critiques of Pantami’s past by Muslim analysts are being interpreted as lacking an adequate measure of anger. The reactions to Professor Farooq Kperogi’s column, in which he admitted the minister is indefensible, left me confused. His sin was citing that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo too “has been accused of being an intolerant, narrow-minded Christian extremist” and reporting that Pantami’s story was “planted by executives of telecommunications companies.”
The reactions to Kperogi’s are a telling hint of where we are headed from Pantami, and it’s an agenda already in play mode. The anti-Pantami outrage, which is a justified democratic exercise, is transmuting into a mockery of unrelated Islamic heritage. On April 21, a Twitter handle, @datmastermind80, tweeted “Usman dan fodio threw the baton in the 1800s, Isa Pantami caught it in the 2000s.” I jumped on that misguided thought. “If you take this angle,” I wrote, “you’ve lost the plot in your campaign to get rid of Pantami. This clear-cut anti-Islam and anti-North bigotry, which your lots have denied, will only stir up regional and religious sentiments in favour of the Minister.” The author, along with his enablers, missed the point.
Dispensing anti-Muslim North conspiracy theories has become a fad now that even seemingly sensible notable voices have become participants. On April 22, a widely-followed Twitter account, @DrOlufunmilayo, revisited the death of Flying Officer Tolu Arotile, described as “Nigeria’s first female combatant pilot.” He shared that She had “had many successful raids against ‘bandits’ in the North” before “She was killed by a ‘friend’ who ‘reversed a car’ trying to ‘greet’ her.” He signed off that tweet with; “That’s what we were told.” It was a dangerous insinuation, and he had to delete that failed propaganda when the names of the suspects were given as Nehemiah Adejoh, Igbekele Folorunsho and Festus Gbayegun.
If one found @DrOlufunmilayo’s theory absurd, then another by a certain @quinlateefa on Twitter shows the extent of this malicious caricaturing of the Northern Muslim establishment. She wrote about the National Identity Number (NIN) project, which has been noted as the genesis of Pantami’s troubles, thus: “NIN linking of Sim was not a mistake at all (sic), they needed the data of Christians and Muslims in every state in order to know how to manuever their people into the state. They want a Christian minority in every state that’s why the nigerien president has been visiting of late (sic).” Speechless!
These serially moronic views are dispensed with the caveat that their outrage isn’t designed to demonize Islam or the North. It’s akin to a domestic dog denying membership of the Canidae. But the North isn’t without its shortcomings, even though often misrepresented. Mark Amaza sparked interest in this conversation on Twitter when, on April 20, he shared, “Today is a good day to talk about the gaslighting that’s always attempted anytime you criticize anything northern…”
For Amaza, a Northern Christian, “the North & Islam aren’t the same,” and that “for all the name-calling” Babachir David Lawal, a Northern Christian, “has gotten” on Twitter, it wasn’t interpreted as an attack on the North and that so is the criticism of Tinubu, a Southern Muslim. He asked why the North is quick to interpret criticism of, say, Buhari and Pantami as an attack on Islam. The Muslim North’s response to Amaza’s question was from Zayyad, tweeting from the handle @zvyyvd. He acknowledged that Amaza “raised some valid points re Northern Muslims and their posturing as custodians of Islam in Nigeria that should cause all of us to do some introspection,” and then pointed out the flaws of such arguments.
The comparison of the responses to Babachir and Pantami, Zayyad observed, is misplaced. Babachir “was not called names due to perceived incompetence simply because he happens to be of northern extraction. The name-calling was as a result of alleged corruption.” He shared that the suitable comparison would’ve been the former Pension Reform Taskforce boss, Abdurrasheed Maina, and that “Surely, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious northerner calling an attack on Maina an attack on the north.”
Zayyad took followers of the exchange down memory lane, underlining the cases of casually dispensed anti-Muslim North bigotry: the caricaturing of Buhari who rose to the rank of a General in the Army as “illiterate Aboki” over his public service records, while Lawal was spared, thanks to his Christian middle name. “(Much) like PMB,” Zayyad wrote to contextualize the religious tone of the trending attack on the Minister of Communications, “Pantami isn’t under fire for alleged corruption like Babachir was, but for faith-based utterances, he made decades ago, which he has since renounced.”
Although Zayyad was neither defending nor justifying Pantami’s past utterances, his thread contextualized the genesis of this mass disdain for Pantami based on his origin, and drew our attention to the condescending reaction of a particular social media influencer who, on learning that Pantami had been appointed to head NITDA in 2016, wrote, “His Ph.D. is from Saudi Arabia,” and that “The disdain Buhari shows for tech is unforgivable.”
But my fear isn’t Pantami’s stay in office, it’s the brewing hatred and propaganda warfare being sold as unaligned activism. On April 21, the People’s Gazette published a document that sought to drag Jama’atu Nasril Islam into Pantami’s case, profiling that umbrella body of the Muslim community in Nigeria as a murderous organization that plotted the assassination of Kaduna State Governor Patrick Yakowa. While a few sheets of A4 paper, which was published on Nairaland ten years earlier, can be produced by any poor-quality printer, this startling revelation shouldn’t be played down by our leaders even if untrue.
Kaduna is a volatile state and built on fragile ethnoreligious foundations, and it’s not gaslighting to ask us to tone down the volume of our sensationalizing and disinforming campaign. Although Jama’atu Nasril Islam and Christian Association of Nigeria Kaduna have cautioned against the story, calling the documents fake, I’m still unable to wrap my head around something: who takes minutes of a murder plot?
Mr Kakanda is an Abuja-based public commentator and columnist.