The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, speaks to PREMIUM TIMES on the raging controversies about his alleged previous views on Islamic extremism and recent retracted news publication that he was on a U.S. watchlist.
PT: There was a recent publication alleging that you were on U.S. watchlist over your views on terrorism and terrorists. Although the reports have now been retracted by those who published it, have you ever had any suspicion that you were being watched for anything?
Pantami: Thank you for meeting me for this interview. Firstly, I hardly grant interview. Some issues were drawn to my attention. I contacted my lawyer, and he is working on it. So, because of this, I will only respond to specific issues. Certain issues are legal issues which I believe the lawyers are in the better position to handle. Secondly, I try to give audience to media that are trying to be very objective, and this is what professionalism is all about.
We should try to be objective, to check our facts clearly, and to give fair hearing and enough time to people we are reporting on to respond. So when you discover that people are trying to follow that, they may have their weaknesses as human beings, you try to respond to them and answer such questions that are brought before you.
Based on the question you have asked and to the best of my knowledge, this has never happened to me. I have travelled widely, globally. There is no single country that has denied me visa. In Europe, I travelled to many countries. In these few years. I was in Spain, not more than once; I was France, more than once; I was in Germany, more than once; I was in Hungary, at least once; I was in the United Kingdom, many times.
In Asia, I travelled to countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and many more. In Africa, I travelled to many countries. In America, I travelled to the U.S. From 2016 to date, I travelled to America more than 10 times.
Maybe some of these issues were concocted from certain lectures we presented. Some of the lectures were even more than 15 to 20 years old. All of these countries that I have visited know more than all that the people are mentioning.
And I am sorry to tell you, all that they have been spreading is probably because they do not understand the context in which the lectures were presented. Usually, all the lectures they mentioned were presented around 1998, 1999, 2000. The most recent could be around 2006, which is also 15 years ago. Most of them were firstly, academic lectures from Islamic perspective, and we were presenting the lectures in order to calm our youth that were being recruited to join extremism. So, in the course of doing that, I came up with an approach. That approach was to be presenting lectures about international movements, explain the concept to them, and show them that our situation is not even the same with their own. If some people in Afghanistan with Taliban were fighting because they were booted out of their country, who booted you out of Nigeria – whether you a Muslim, a Christian or you don’t have a religion? Each and everyone is going to live in his country, nobody is sending you away in your country. You need to understand the context in which the presentations were made.
As I said, it was an academic exercise in Islamic perspective. When you are making a presentation from Islamic perspective, it is not your personal opinion. Sometimes, while preaching at times, when I mention something in the Koran, I will smile and people will ask me what happened, and I will say, ‘because the verse hits me, because I do not comply with the teaching of the verse as a human being.’
The position of religion is not, in any way, your personal opinion. When I sit down here to read the Koran, if you say what I mention in the Koran is my opinion, you are not fair to me. It is verdict of religion. If a Christian sits down in the church to preach reading the Bible, don’t say what he says is his opinion, he is reading the Holy Bible. Why? Because people gathered there are to listen to what he is saying.
So, most of them do not understand the context in which the lectures were presented. For example, if the President of the U.S. was addressing military while sending them for a war in Libya or Iraq, if you don’t understand the context, you will say he is harsh. I hope you understand me. So you need to understand the context in which the statement was made. I presented over 150 lectures mobilising youths to stay away from extremism. Some will just go and edit and just compile five minutes, six minutes out of 150 lectures, each one, the minimum is one hour, and maximum is one hour, thirty minutes. If you compile all, you will discover that it is over 200 hours lectures. Where is the remaining? If you want to do anything, write everything from A to Z and, secondly, understand the context. Religious context is not personal opinion; it is a religious context.
PT: During your experiences trying to obtain visas while visiting these countries you mentioned, did you have any suspicion that you were a man under watch?
Pantami: I could not see anything like that. I will give you evidence here with me, just for your eyes. At least I obtained the U.S. visa probably three to four times. One will expire, you apply for another. Even the one I applied for last, they asked for information which I provided. Look at their reply (he showed reporters an email evidence) . You can see the e-mail from the embassy saying ‘okay, you can go ahead to submit your passport for the visa’. So there is no any issue. I don’t have any issue. I have been travelling there.
For example, in 2017, I was in the U.S. attending consumer electronic show. In 2018, I was there attending consumer electronic show. And I was in Seattle based on the invitation of Microsoft, and in 2019 I was also there attending consumer electronic show. And I was also in Harvard University where I attended a training as well. And I also travelled to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a visit, where we have a partnership with them representing Nigeria and government, and many more. These were between 2017 and end of 2019. It’s not even far, and the lectures they are even making reference to, the academic lectures, most of them are more than 15 to 16 years, while the traveling I am making reference to is not more than one to two years. So, what is there?
PT: So you currently have a valid U.S. visa?
Pantami: No, I don’t have. It expired within this period (of the coronavirus pandemic). You know because of lockdown, most of my visas expired. But I never applied for any visa and I was not given.
PT: You lived in the U.K. for some years. Were you preaching when you were there?
Pantami: I preached in the United Kingdom. I was not only preaching, I was the Chief Imam of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and the British government knew about me very well, because when they were conducting research on religion in Nigeria, they used to come to me purposely for interviews, the way you came here. They interviewed me through their institutions more than 10 times. I was even asking them how they knew about me and they said, ‘we have followed all through your information’. So they even discovered me and they have been contacting me to interview me. And at the time I was presenting the lectures which some people are cutting which I couldn’t get time to listen to because of Ramadan period and I am busy with engagements. Based on what my attention was drawn to, they are lectures of 90s and early 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 or thereabout.
While I was doing that, many students were dismissed from the university. I attended Government Secondary School, Gombe. During my studies, some were dismissed because of extremism. I was not one of them. In Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, I was not dismissed, but during my stay, many were dismissed. In fact, when I graduated, my university even asked me to come back and lecture there. So, throughout my life, either in Nigeria, in the U.K. or any other country, nobody has ever dismissed me as a student or as an employee. It has never happened to me. And I have never been invited anywhere by security based on any allegation against me anywhere in the world. Even in Nigeria.
PT: When you heard about the news of you being on watchlist, did you not have any apprehension that compel you to contact U.S. authorities, including their embassy in Nigeria, for any clarification?
Pantami: You know as a government appointee, and at this level, if you say you are going to be intimidated by everything, then you cannot do the work. You cannot do the work. I was with the Minister of Foreign Affairs this week, on April 12. I was with the minister. I was with the ambassadors of the U.K., the U.S., South Korea, and many other countries. We had an official meeting with them. We explained to them, even the wisdom behind the National Identity Number. One of the representatives of the development agencies said ‘your work is excellent, but you should be patient, you will encounter many attacks’. This was said to me in the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He said ‘you answered all our issues convincingly based on the wisdom and usage of NIN number, because criminals do not like it, criminals do not like it’.
Even this issue that we are talking about, based on our findings, preliminary investigation, many people are not happy with what we have been doing – linking National Identification Number with SIM. Because a situation will come that all the people using SIM to commit crime will not be able to do that. If they do that government will be able to intercept them easily. This is what they don’t want to happen. And this is a mandate given to me by President Muhammadu Buhari. He personally signed the letter that ‘you are mandated to do that’.
As his appointee, I should either do it or say I cannot. So, since I am willing to serve my country, I must continue to do it to the best of my ability.
So, in my meeting with them, they even encouraged me to push it and make it very successful.
PT: You said you were the Chief Imam at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.).It means you were preaching at least every Friday. Was there any concern raised either by any student or the university authorities?
Pantami: If there was any concern, I should have been invited. Nobody has ever invited me either from the university, or from the Aberdeen Council or from Scotland government or from the United Kingdom government. At all, nobody has ever invited me. I have never been invited anywhere to answer any question. And not only that, I travelled to other places for Islamic lectures. I used to travel to Newcastle. The lecture is online, and it is against extremism. I was in Leeds University for an Islamic lecture. It is available online. I was in Leicester for a lecture on good governance from Islamic perspective. All these were lectures that would bring thousands to the audience. Before or after the lectures I have never been invited by any other person.
PT: You also worked and lived in Saudi Arabia, what was your experience there? Were you also preaching there?
Pantami: In Saudi Arabia, I was one of the two Imams leading prayers in our faculty within the university. And you know how Saudi Arabia is very hard against extremism. You know this. I have never been invited by any person for questioning or for querying. Throughout my stay in Saudi Arabia. Not only that, I sometimes used to help in translating at the Holy mosque. If you go online you will find some of them in Hausa language for Hausa audience. So, throughout my stay there, there wasn’t any problem.
PT: What is your view about extremism, about people who claim to be Muslims and are involved in extremism?
Pantami: Based on my understanding of Islam, there are three categories of people. One, there is laxity. Two, there is moderation, and thirdly, there is extremism. Throughout my life, I’m more attached to moderation. If it is laxity, they won’t even pray. That is why if you go to some places they will ask you, ‘are you a practising Muslim’? I am a practising Muslim, I pray five daily prayers. I fast in the month of Ramadan, and I try to do the best I can to follow the injunction of Islam. I’m not perfect but I always try to do what is good, because if you understand the teachings of Islam in their proper context, you won’t disagree with me that Islam is the most peaceful religion that you can ever get.
Most of the interpretations of the verses by these people is nothing but misconception without clear understanding of what the Koran says. Extremism is when people go to the extreme end in their understanding of the Koran, and in their interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet. They usually translate verses through reading the words without going through history to know what the revelation was, the reason for the revelations in that verse. And that is the point I started with, if you want to do justice to somebody, look at the context in which statements were made.
For example, many countries may be angry with Nigeria because our constitution in Section 33 even agrees with capital punishment. Many countries will say this is extremism because it is in the constitution. In the Koran, you see capital punishment. The position of Islam and the position of the constitution is not my position as a human being. If I mention that this is the position of the Koran, if I say this is the position of the constitution, I am not saying this is my personal opinion.
The position of the constitution is superior to my position. The position of the Koran is superior to my position. So, if you want to know me, ask me about my personal opinion. But if you ask me what the Koran says, I can tell you; what the constitution says, I will tell you. For example, today I recognise the immunity in the constitution – immunity for some elected officials. But at a personal level, I am agitating for the taking away of immunity. This is an example. But if I am appointed into government, I must respect that, because it is there as a law. So, that is why it is always important to draw the line of demarcation between personal opinion and Islamic perspective. For instance, this is my Koran, it is time for Ramadan and I am going for Tafsir. If I go, it is not my personal opinion I will tell the congregation. In the morning, I was attending Federal Executive Council meeting, and all my contributions were based on our laws and policies in government. But if you go to the mosque and sit down and open it (the Koran), it is no more my personal opinion. People there are not gathered there because you are a government appointee, they are there because you are a Muslim, and you will teach them Islam. So, you must tell them what the religion says. And in my teaching of religion, I am always moderate. This is my position, and throughout history, there wasn’t anytime, that I personally communicated with any extreme leader through phone, or through email or through sending any contribution to anybody.
But those who lived with me in the North-east part of the country will tell you all my engagements were physical with people, to even argue with them. At the time people were afraid, we were able to be physical and say, ‘okay, let us come and debate’. We argued and we debated, and these debates were recorded. And because of this, many people abandoned their ideology of extremism. Many people! Today, here, I can give you over hundred people that rejected extremism because of my preaching. I will give you more than 1,000. At Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, as students, many of them left the university, but because of my teaching they returned and completed their studies. And some of them are now engineers.
If you go to Maiduguri, there are many, that even at the peak of that issue, the University of Maiduguri used to invite me to come and preach to their students to continue their studies. And I would be hosted by the university administration on campus to come and preach. So, in the course of preaching, you always try to be moderate and be very objective. So, don’t quote something out of context. Some will quote something out of context, some will distort it. Somebody even called me today that he said he heard a voice (on tape). He said he had been with me for many years, and knew that was not my voice. He said that somebody said it was my voice and that I was the one talking, but that when he told the person that it was not me, the person believed because he knew that we were close. So, look at the extent that people can go to fight government policy that is good for all. The persons said, ‘I listened to it, it was not your voice.’ And this is somebody who has been with me since 1978. We grew up together. And he said, ‘it is not your voice’. People can go to any extent. You are in the media, if you say you will publish all rubbish, then you will also be in problem. You have to do investigation critically to justify whatever you say.
And you cannot judge someone who presented over 200-hour lectures by just bringing five seconds, seven seconds, 10 seconds without knowing the introduction, the genesis, the academic presentation, the Islamic position and many more. So, you cannot be fair to him. But despite all of these things, we are not intimidated. They cannot in any way prevent us from doing any thing we think is good for our country.
PT: What about publications that were said to have linked you to extremist views?
Pantami: If it is a publication, it is an academic work. The best way to reply is through academic research. I am a researcher. I publish many papers in international journals. Whoever writes, usually, it is his opinion, based on the information available at his disposal. It is not a divinity, it is not a law. You are only expressing the outcome of your research and that research can be right and can be wrong. In the same journal you will discover two articles that are not on the same line – one is for, and one is against. It is an argument. Anything that is an academic research, we can make a research to invalidate it. We can do that. We have sufficient data at our disposal. Because if someone can write based on secondary data, the one who has primary data – like my humble self with primary data – will invalidate any secondary data, because primary data is the most reliable foundation that you can use in your research. So, I have primary data, for over 30 years about all that we have discussed here.
PT: The platform that originated the story of you being on watch list has since retracted it. Have you forgiven them?
Pantami: I think this issue is not with me, it is with my lawyers. Any legal issue, since I’m not a lawyer, I hardly rely on my personal opinion. You consult lawyers, and whatever they say, usually, you comply. We are always encouraged to consult experts in the area for advice. Usually, the decision of my lawyer is 99 per cent my decision, because it is based on trust. They are representing us.
It is a huge commitment from them. All of them retracted what they have published and they apologised.
But all the same, they (the issues) will be coming up from time to time, because it is inevitable. Even the president, it was done to him before. He just made a statement in Hausa, and they started quoting it somehow, and said he said ‘dogs and the baboons will be soaked in blood’. The Vice President made a statement and they quoted it anyhow. That is normal. They are normal in life and it is not only in Nigeria. Trump told our president and said Christians are being killed in Nigeria. The president asked him, ‘who told you?’ So, such negative news is inevitable. If you are in position of power, people who don’t like the government or the policies of government will try to continue to attack you either directly or indirectly. But what is most important is to make sure that what you are doing is right.
PT: Why are you suggesting that the publications and other comments about you are because of the NIN registration policy of the government?
Pantami: I have no doubt about this. It has to do with the National Identification Number. Do you know one thing? This policy was started in 2011, it was not successful. Why? It was fought.
PT: By who?
Pantami: You have to try and investigate as a journalist. In 2015, it came up, it was not successful. In 2018 there was a time that there were meetings between government and mobile network operators. And it was actually announced that by the agreement with government, the deadline was January 2018. It is there online, I will share it with you if you like. By January 2018, it was not implemented, because there are forces against it. There are forces! Now they have started coming with the news that people are coming from neighbouring countries to register. What they fail to understand is that the National Identification Number is not only for Nigerians; anybody in Nigeria can obtain it. Section 16 and 17 of the Act mention the registrable people in the country – citizens, legal residents, legal permanent residents, and legal residents for a minimum of two years. So, it is not only for citizens. And it is also important to know that this is not just an indication that they are citizens of Nigeria. It is rather an indication that you presented your biometric data, so government has control over your data. And that data of NIMC (National Identity Management Commission), nobody has an access to it in any way he likes. Getting access to it illegally is 10 years in prison. It is there in the law. But people will like to discredit it, because they don’t like it.
As long as it is implemented by government, it will go a long way in reducing crime and based on the statistics we have been seeing now, it’s really encouraging. As government, our priority is the protection of lives and property of our citizens. Security is our priority as a government – whether in agric, digital economy, education or in health, in whatever. President Muhammadu Buahari is so passionate about security, and he directed me to do that because he knows I try to persevere despite challenges and do what is right in the interest of our citizens and humanity.
PT: Will you be going to the U.S. anytime soon?
Pantami: Usually I travel officially. When there is official need to travel, why not? If the president says, you are part of this, go and do this, why should I say no? There is no place in the world that I cannot go.
And you will not have any fear if it is the U.S.?
Let me ask you a question, today if you travel to Saudi Arabia, is there any issue? No issue. So what is the issue? In the whole world, there is no place I cannot go today. Don’t mention one or two countries. Ask me if there is any country in the world that I cannot go to. There is no country in the world Isa cannot travel to. Whether it is in Asia or Africa or in Australia, or in North America, or in South America. Anywhere! There is no country I cannot travel to, because I travel widely, and I have never been invited by security even once. And I have never been denied entrance into any country or deported. It has never happened to me, and I have lived in many countries.
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