Critical Conversations

America’s Terror Watchlist, Pantami’s Religious Antecedents, and the Telco Connection

In recent times, social media handles and platforms have been inundated with divergent thoughts on the authenticity of the news reports alleging that Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, is on a United States’ terror watchlist.

It all began like a fable tale. The Daily Independent newspaper broke the news, and various online publications rushed to republish and escalate the news that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, was on the terror watchlist of the US government. The report also alleged that he has ties with various international radical Islamic groups including the late Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf. No sooner had this claim become viral than various news sources including Daily Independent began to retract the story, some tendering unreserved apologies to him.

Following the retractions, Pantami on his Twitter handle said “@NewsWireNGR your retraction through your independent investigation has been noted. However, investigative journalism requires adequate work before publishing, not after.”

Pantami has been facing some attrition over his alleged link with terrorist groups with several Nigerians calling on President Buhari to sack him. The Nigerian Twitter community said it was risky to trust the Minister with data of Nigerians, especially with the ongoing NINs and SIM card integration exercise under his watch.

In a swift response, Pantami clarified issues concerning his past radical views and religious comments.

Pantami, who spoke while answering questions during his daily Ramadan lecture at Annor Mosque in Abuja on Saturday, said that he was young when he made the radical comments, adding he is now mature and knows better:

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

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

“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 the 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 the international events and therefore took some positions based on their understanding, some have come to change their positions later.”

Industry watchers have revealed that Pantami enjoyed a fearless reputation as the administrator charged with managing Nigeria’s information technology (IT) portfolio in National Information Technology Development Agency, (NITDA), where he held sway as an incorrigible but due process administrator before his appointment as a cabinet minister.

The Federal Government re-designated the ministry as Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy (FMoCDE) in October 2019 as a strategy for accomplishing the digital economy policy for national development.

According to the industry watchers, Pantami within few years in office resolved the ICT sector’s decade-long dilemma of harmonisation of Right of Way (RoW), charges for the laying of optic fibre by telecoms operators with all state governors, secured the President’s approval for the provision of security, as well as the designation of Telecommunications Infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure. He ensured the regularisation of all improperly registered SIM cards and insisted on the deactivation of unregistered ones. The deployment of over 250 digital projects across the country under his policies and supervision, as well as building the IT capacity of over 36,000 Nigerians were part of his achievement.

Under his ministry’s watch, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) was transferred to the FMoCDE and that has led to the massive registration of Nigerians to get their NINs to be matched with their SIM cards.

The Minister also accomplished the transformation of the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) and commercialised some activities of the organisation by registering few companies under it.

The news reports appear to have provided a link between Pantami’s days as a radical Islamic cleric and his public interaction with a terrorist sect founder as well as his Salafist ideology. However, some scholars have noted that while the Sunni Islamic Salafi movement is conservative in outlook and doctrine, Boko Haram’s brand of Islam is brutal, and lies on the extreme end of the spectrum.

Some times ago, the internet was saturated with Pantami’s prescriptions on ways to end the over 10 years of terrible onslaughts by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of Nigeria by a proposed policy of restricting the number of SIMs one can own to three and a more comprehensive NIN registration. This fetched him a death threat from a video released by Boko Haram Leader, Abubakar Shekau last February.

Boko Haram, according to experts, depends extensively on messaging apps like WhatsApp to share photos and video clips of their vile acts, and that requires regular availability of mobile numbers since they would need to discard them frequently due to security implications. The question on every lip is can Pantami who frustrated the Boko Haram operations and received death threats from them be an ally of the group?

So, as Pantami’s past comes under scrutiny, one school of thought has opined that it is a direct fallout from high-wired “telecoms politics” that the minister has deliberately or inadvertently entangled himself. The loss of revenue suffered by the telecommunications companies as a result of the ultimatum for subscribers to link their lines with their National Identification Number(NIN) and suspension of the registration of new SIM cards has led to a consistent reduction in subscribers. For telcos, subscribers are the billions they declare every year.

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It is indeed not uncommon in today’s mafia-like business world for companies to engineer crisis from any source, to neutralise any force they feel is standing on their part to consistent profitability. From all the details on the past spiritual activities of the former minister, including sermons he preached even as a teenager, the spread of the news on social media like wildfire and the concomitant calls for his resignation by elites even before he was given a chance to tell his part of the story, reveal that it was a well-funded, carefully orchestrated campaign.

Most probably, the aim was for the minister to either resign in embarrassment and confusion or for the president to sacrifice him for tranquillity to reign. It is vital for security agencies to thoroughly investigate this angle of development. If it can happen in the banking sector where banks sponsor negative reports to de-market other competitors, as well as oil, aviation, and even politics, telecommunications should not be an exception.

It is worthy of note that as soon as this imbroglio on terrorist lists took centre stage, the Federal Government promptly lifted the suspension on new SIM card registrations, effective April 19. The question is, could this be a “tactical retreat” by the ICT ministry?

The Central Intelligence Agency, whose role includes preventing attacks against the U.S. interest abroad, and its African Affairs Bureau, are yet to effectively respond to enquiries on the issue.

Findings from the FBI revealed that the United States government in 2003, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, established the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), a multi-agency centre administered by the FBI, to manage a harmonised database called “the watchlist” which contains the identities of those “who are known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activities.”

“The TSC uses the watchlist to support front-line screening agencies in positively identifying known or suspected terrorists who are attempting to obtain visas, enter the country, board an aircraft, or engage in other activities,” the FBI wrote.

The FBI said that because most TSC activities are classified intelligence, the centre does not confirm or deny whether any individual may be included in the watchlist.

Doing so would “significantly impair the government’s ability to investigate and mitigate terrorism, and expose sensitive national security information.”

‘The bureau, however, publicises its list of most-wanted terrorists,” the FBI said.

By implication, if the minister was on the US watchlist, the information would remain discreet going by the letter and spirit from the FBI until something fundamental happens.

Some pundits opined that Pantami since his appointment in 2019 has enjoyed the president’s vote of confidence based on an unprecedented performance in the ministry than his past predecessor.

A report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) depicts Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as the fastest growing sector in Nigeria’s economy under Pantami’s watch as it recorded the highest growth rate of all the sectors in both the fourth quarter of 2020 (Q4 2020) and the entire year 2020.

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This was based on the Q4 2020 Report on Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) released on Thursday, the 18th of February 2021, by the NBS that “the ICT sector also maintained its rapid growth rate in the overall year 2020 assessment, growing at 12.90%, or over 3 times the Water Supply, Sewerage, Waste Management and Remediation sector, which was next fastest-growing sector of 2020 with a growth rate of 3.81%.

“Again, the ICT sector was the only sector with a double-digit growth rate.

“Furthermore, the telecommunications sector recorded a growth rate of 15.90% and this was its highest growth rate in the last 10 years. This performance is unprecedented.”

If there are things to link with Pantami since he joined this government, it is the role of a performer and an achiever.

The advice from some commentators that he should be removed or reassigned to a less sensitive ministry are either based on sentiments and imaginary fear or it could just be part of the suspected bigger campaign to pull him down so that activities in the ICT and Communications ministry can return to its former lethargic state.

Imaginary stories on social media about fears of compromised security and baseless allegations of plans to register millions of foreign Fulani terrorists from other countries are clear gossips just to overheat the system, create mischief and generate confusion.

It would be quite prejudicious to punish Pantami or anyone in government over a past deviant or radical view that may not even be criminal in nature. After all, is there any human that has never changed position on any issue based on clearer insights?