John Campbell, a former ambassador of the United States to Nigeria has reportedly said that the United States considers actions and speeches of individuals and their historical context before giving a verdict on them.
Reacting to the allegations associating Dr Isa Ali Pantami, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, with international terrorist networks, the former ambassador said the U.S. would not deny the minister a visa without considering when he made his statements.
“As for Dr Pantami’s sermons and other public statements, a consular officer would want to know when he made them–years ago or yesterday,” Campbell said.
He added that “There is also the question of whether he advocated violence and whether his apology is a repudiation of what he said.”
“Is he now part of an international terrorist network? Or, are some of his views merely parallel to those of, say, Osama Bin Laden? As you know, freedom of speech and of thought is integral to the American system.”
“So, actions (including inflammatory rhetoric) weigh more heavily than the mere expression of ideas or beliefs. Each visa decision is made on a case-by-case basis.”
Pantami had publicly recanted his statements supporting Al-Qaeda terrorist post 9/11. He said his speeches were based on a lack of adequate information on international politics.
The resurfaced audio clips came a few days after a Nigerian newspaper reported that Pantami is on the US terror watch list. The newspaper later retracted and apologised for the report.
However, the clips sparked an online uproar with some activists calling the minister to resign for his alleged support to the terrorist organisations claiming that he hadn’t sincerely repented.
“Our reply to those who say these men may have had a change of heart is that terrorists don’t repent, they are only looking for an opportunity to get close to power so they can strike harder,” said Deji Adeyanju in a petition he sent to the US Secretary of State on April 11, calling him to investigate the allegations.
The Nigerian government, on Thursday, said it would not punish Pantami for the things he did before he was appointed a minister without evidence that he is still perpetuating them.
“Today, there is an unfortunate fashion in public discourse that makes leaders in politics, religion, and civil society liable in the present for every statement they have ever made in the past – no matter how long ago, and even after they have later rejected them,” tweeted Garba Shehu, the spokesperson of the President Buhari.
“This insidious phenomenon seeks to cancel the careers of others on the basis of a thing they have said, regardless of when they said it.”
“The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, @DrIsaPantami is currently subject to a ‘cancel campaign’ instigated by those who seek his removal.
“They don’t really care what he may or may not have said some 20 years ago: that is merely the instrument they are using to attempt to “cancel” him. But they will profit should he be stopped from making decisions that improve the lives of everyday Nigerians.“
Experts weigh in on the matter
Dr Leena Hoofman, a researcher and an associate fellow with Chatham House tweeted that there is no point in ruling out the connection between Pantami and his active participation in breeding extremism in Northern Nigeria.
She said the only difference between Pantami and other terrorists like Muhammad Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, is the method, not the end, in which the former supported gradual implementation while the latter used a violent approach.
She tweeted that to confirm that Pantami has recanted his past views needs a proper interrogation, not a “premium gaslight.”
“That he has moderated his view on establishing overall Jihad is one that has not been properly interrogated and an honest and accountable government would show an appetite to do so transparently.”
On the other hand, the academic scholar who unearthed the controversial audio clips of Pantami endorsing the terrorist activities of Alqaeda post 9/11, Dr Andrea Brigaglia, said the minister should not be blamed for his past and now recanted utterances.
Brigaglia, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who extensively researched and published works on Salafi jihadism in Nigeria, including two separate academic works that mentioned how Pantami used his pulpit to endorse terror activities post 9/11, said Pantami had little knowledge of global politics at the time.
“He is simply a man who, in 2006, was trapped in the volatile world of the global Salafi da‘awa in the twenty-first-century; who had little knowledge of the global politics of the Muslim world; who was carried by emotions; and whose audience expected from him to be enlightened on matters he had a limited understanding of as them,” he wrote in a piece published by Daily Trust.
Dr Brigaglia added that people who are advocating for a witch-hunt against Pantami after Yelwa Shendam and Zonkwa crisis should ask themselves if there were no Christian preachers who made similar utterances that fuelled the religious violence.
“[They] should honestly ponder: are they so sure that the closets of the Christian preachers of Zonkwa or Yelwa Shendam are cleaner than his?” he asked.
In his article published among others in Debating Boko Haram, Dr Brigaglia documented how Pantami alongside other notable clerics in northern Nigeria like Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, became active agents of politico-religious entanglement that created mass support for the Jihadi combustion in Nigeria.
The paper generated controversy in Nigeria as activists used some of the information in the paper to demand the resignation of Pantami as Nigeria’s minister or be stripped of his portfolio.
The researcher said he published his paper when there was a similar witch-hunt against the Shiite members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in 2015 when hundreds of them were killed for baseless allegations that they were the origins of Boko Haram.
“My 2019 paper, it is important to remember, was written at a time when a crude witch-hunt against the Shiite members of the IMN was in full swing in Nigeria,” Brigaglia recalled.
He continued that Nigeria will not expect anything good from witch-hunt and scapegoating addressed to anyone from any religious sect.