Pantami for President, By Lasisi Olagunju

A normal southern Nigerian citizen would be shocked to hear cries of ‘Jihad now’ or ‘give us sharia or death’ or ‘it is sharia or bloodshed.’ In the fundamentalist north, what will shock the street will be if the rabble refuses to lick blood from the plate of those cries. The huge support which Isa Pantami has drawn from the far north since his case started should teach some lessons. There are two countries in Nigeria. One produced Isa Pantami whose wrong can never be wrong; the other sired Kemi Adeosun, a minister downed by her own people’s strict definition of wrong. You heard the president on Friday declaring Kemi Adeosun’s NYSC certificate sins heavier than his kinsman’s pro-terrorism charges. It is a function of where destiny put each of them. Sin here has ethnicity, and justice is defined by blood lines.

Nigeria is a theocracy being run by shadowy northern sheikhs and mallams. Pantami is one of them. The mistake he made was that he lifted the veil and showed his face in our public space. If he had remained politically unseen like the others, his eyes won’t be seeing the current insults from irreverent southern infidels. But, the scandal has further buoyed his A rating in the extremist north. He has become a superman, maybe to himself and certainly to his hailers, the loud and the silent. There is a cartoon online showing super-stud Pantami kicking out the teeth of his enemies. The authors labeled them wailers. If the man contests for the presidency of Nigeria today, the north is provoked enough to shame all of us by giving it to him. Indeed, there is a poster, probably made by his enemies, rolling across WhatsApp groups with the message: Pantami for President (PAP TEAM 2023). Before you say “over my dead body”, just pause and ask if there is any sin Pantami has committed which your incumbent did not commit during his Great Trek to power. What riles you about Pantami is the stuff that creates legends in our fundamentalist north.

My people say ironu ko papo (thoughts vary, they always lack unity of purity). A villain in the south may be king up north. Now, you know the internet does not forget. As the cyclone of the Pantami scandal raged last week, it threw up an old video of a GOC prophesying that a repentant Boko Haram terrorist could become the president of Nigeria one day. In July 2019, that General from the north east (what is his name?), told the press that “an ex-Boko Haram member who has laid down his arms and turns away from negativity stands to become the President of this country and take up any position in this country.” The nation heard him and gasped. But he was just being where he comes from. Or was it a Freudian slip? Or did he have any particular terrorist in mind? How many more snakes are in the rafters of Nigeria?

There is nothing Nigeria’s power elites cannot contemplate – and do – as long as it serves their purpose. They also condone anything that promises them control of Nigeria. Have you heard any of the power brokers from the north upbraiding Pantami for his past of unfortunate comments? It is either his views tallied with theirs or they are afraid of the principalities on whose terra firma Pantami stands. Indeed, the political and religious elites there can be ruthless and do anything for power and position. They are now equating attacks on Pantami’s extremist rhetoric as attacks on Islam. And it is not as if they are as pious as they roar. No. That is why even an exposed Sheikh Pantami would, because of his present ministerial morsel, repudiate his past of ‘pious’ puritanism. Everything is about packaging for politics and benefits.

United States-based journalism teacher and Nigerian Tribune columnist, Farooq Kperogi, in the spring of 2020 did an academic paper on this elite politics of religious opportunism, extremist posturing and sharia in northern Nigeria. He titled it: ‘”Sharia or Death”: The mass mediated hegemonic rhetoric of theocratic populism in Nigeria’s Muslim north.’ The piece is about how our north used “contingent, ephemeral, opportunistic, power-grabbing theocratic populist stratagem” to win back political power after the Obasanjo years. It is an ‘insider’ exposition on how a people could and, indeed, use religion to serve the end of selfish politics. I quote him: “In the service of their goal to recapture political power (from the south), northern Muslim political elites deployed not just threats of violence and actual violence, but also cruel, selective capital punishments against poor northern Muslims to instill fear and overawe their southern counterparts. In other words, northern Nigeria’s theocratic populism used ‘the people’ both to lend legitimacy to their politics and as expendable fodder in a self-interested hegemonic power game.” In other words, the northern big men (there are no women there) use their own people as firewoods to cook their broth of political religiosity. In case we have forgotten (and our memory is always short), Kperogi reminds us of the March 2000 amputation of Buba Bello Jangebe because he was found guilty of stealing a cow. He points also at the 2001 case of a divorced woman known as Safiya Hussaini who was sentenced to death by stoning by a Sharia court in Sokoto State for having a child outside wedlock. He adds that “in January 2002, a man in Katsina State was hanged by the state government after admitting to murdering a woman and her children. Months later, in the same state, a single mother by the name of Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. The sentence was overturned two years later by an appeal court.” The goats of sacrifice are always either the subdued talakawa or the infidels outside the north; the elites are too precious to go down no matter the weight of their sin.

A minister’s past of reckless extremist rhetoric caught up with him and the state excused his sin because “he was then in his 20s.” How old was the president himself when he fought in the civil war 54 years ago? How old was Chukwuma Nzeogwu when he committed the 1966 sin for which the north made all his people suffer? How old was Odumegwu Ojukwu when he did his own thing in 1967? The truth is, the north and its government are with Isa Pantami because he is blessed to be of them, and because his problematic rhetoric is no problem to them. Indeed, if not for the international dimensions of what the Sheikh said, the big men who are quiet would be on the rooftops saluting his courage. Pantami can hold extremist views if the law cowers before him and what he represents. What he lacks is the moral right to continue sitting on state resources ministering to the affairs of those he wantonly called infidels. He lost them the moment he was found out with those views. No presidential ‘amnesty’ and tough talk will restore the confidence of the abused. And the president, in allying with him, has added himself to the list of those in the dock. If Nigeria is a poultry house, these gentlemen will henceforth be seen as kites and buzzards to whom chicks are snacks.

A northern president declaring the sin of a northern minister as weighing less than that of a southern minister is intriguing. My people would swear such happens only in the animal world where might is always right. They would sum it up with just a saying. They would say this dog knows how to breastfeed his own children while also knowing how to seize the bush rats’ cute kids for supper. Using captured state power to create victim-states and victimized populations in the south is foreboding. In all places where such seeds were planted, the fruits were sour eventually. Read the Serbo-Croatian, Yugoslavian experience. We are seeing that already complete with molten lava. The president of a country should be a national property, a cover for all. He must do nothing that turns him to a sectarian, sectional warlord. A leader must not speak on a problem unless he has a solution to proffer. Unfortunately, President Muhammadu Buhari, who speaks to us through mediums, spoke on Thursday and Friday on the Pantami matter and left his southern worshippers speechless. A matter is ripping apart the country and you would think that if he had no cure for the headache, the president would be quiet and keep his gullible fellows to guess where he stood. But, maybe, in his native wisdom, keeping quiet and not taking a (partisan, parochial) stand is a badge of cowardice. It may be that openly backing and girdling a shaken taliban is a sacred duty of religion. So, our president of courage spoke and cleared all doubts. Buhari’s verdict: His admission notwithstanding, Pantami is not guilty; he is on solid, dry ground. The guilty scale weighs heavily against his accusers and they will not go unpunished. That is the judgment from a man elected by people across the country, and who swore on oath, before God and man, to do justice to all without fear or favour.

Perhaps if our presidency has been fighting extremist bandits with as much energy it has pumped into defending Pantami, the country would be safe today – and be shifted from the precarious edge. But, no. Bandits are omo ijoba; they are beyond reproach; forgiveness is their punishment. You heard Professor Wole Soyinka at the weekend as he spoke about our “collective wails of impotence.” About Nigeria becoming a plague to Nigerians, especially to the youth. You heard him as he spoke to those “who have been proven weak and incapable” but who wallow still in the bosom of hollow arrogance. You heard his warnings about hammers on our gates, about death throes with “vultures and undertakers hovering patiently but with full confidence.”

You heard the plaintiveness of his and others’ unheeded whistles. You also heard the loud absence of our government as bandits murder the young for blood ransom. You feel the growing confidence of murderous bandits as leadership weakens the state. It is not strange. A country where the wages of sin of extreme crimes are measured by where the sinner hails from risks becoming desolate; it is called Ahoro in Yoruba, an ex-state. The world has examples.

This piece was first published on April 26, 2021 in the Nigerian Tribune

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