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Pantami Saga: Screening process for potential public office holders on the slab

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Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami PHOTO: Twitter

Reps Insist On Zero Tolerance For Terrorism

A few weeks ago, the mention of Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Ali Isa Pantami’s name would have brought to mind the ongoing National Identity Number (NIN) registration and linking with SIM cards nationwide, which his ministry has been championing.

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But a purported report alleging his being placed on a terrorist watch list by the United States of America government and subsequent revelations about his past inclinations and sympathy for some terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Boko Haram insurgents, have changed the narrative.

Suddenly, Pantami has been thrust into the national consciousness in a different light, with the appropriateness of his continued stay in office as minister dominating discourse.

The minister, who is a renowned Muslim cleric, has renounced his past views, claiming the comments were based on his “understanding of religious issues at the time” and that he has changed several positions “based on new evidence and maturity.”

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But his renunciation has failed to stop the debate or douse the calls for and against his resignation or sack across the country. In fact, on social media, Twitter precisely, many Nigerians have expressing concerns about Pantami’s continued stay in the office using the hashtag #PantamiMustGo.

Many Nigerians have, however, insisted that the minister’s favourable disposition to activities of insurgents and terrorists paints him a misfit in a government, which had almost all through its time in power has been battling terrorism on the homefront.

The Controversial Views
SINCE the revelations broke, some of Pantami’s past views with supporting documents/videos have kept appearing online. While audio and video recordings of his fiery prayers and sermons at different stages of his career as an imam emerged, some documents, purportedly from a 2010 meeting he chaired at the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), a top Islamic body, where it was agreed that Christians should be prohibited from building churches in city centres across northern Nigeria, also surfaced.

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In one sermon, the minister volunteered to lead a force of the Sharia police, Hisbah, to Shendam in Plateau State, where there had been a deadly religious conflict, to fight in defence of Muslims. In a 2006 speech, he publicly offered his condolences after the death of al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In an audio clip, where he talks about the Nigerian army’s war against Boko Haram, he appeared to be drawn to tears while describing the militants as “our Muslim brothers who did not deserve to be killed like pigs.” Yet, in another audio recording, he declared he was always happy when infidels were massacred.

Questioning Screening Agencies, Process For Potential Public Officials
ASIDE from the Pantami case, references have also been made to another incidence from a not-too-distant past in the life of the current administration, in which a former Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, was found to have procured a fake National Youth Service Corps’ ‘Exemption Certificate’ to pre-qualify her for public service. Just as with Pantami now, Adeosun was, until the media report regarding the authenticity of the NYSC ‘Exemption Certificate,’ cruising in office at a dizzying speed with her noticeable sartorial elegance and aplomb.

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Before now, there were cases of former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari, and former Senate President, Evans Enwerem, who brought public opprobrium to their respective offices.

Buhari claimed that he was born in 1963, but was born in 1970. He also claimed he graduated from Toronto University when he had not even attended the university, not to talk of graduation. All these lies backed up with forged documents slipped through the system and he not only got elected to be a federal lawmaker, but he also became the number four citizen of the country as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He probably would have served out his term if not for the report of The News Magazine that exposed him.

With the revelation of Pantami’s past comments and disposition, and similar cases which many consider being very weighty and sensitive in the light of Nigeria’s struggle with insurgency, considering that insurgents are even believed to be enjoying some sort of funding from foreign terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and with the country being a multi-faith society, there have been questions as to how the minister got cleared through the screening process for potential public officeholders.

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Specifically, many Nigerians have called to question the place of the State Security Service (SSS), self-styled as the Department of State Services (DSS), in the entire process of conducting background checks on nominees for public offices and certifying them fit for office, just as the National Assembly was labeled a mere rubber-stamp and allegedly using its confirmation process to cover and protect persons whose nomination should have been rejected. 

‘DSS Not Guilty In Pantami Saga’
A retired Assistant Director with the Department of State Services, Mr. Dennis Amachree, had in a media interview averred that the DSS informed the Federal Government and the National Assembly of the past radical pro-terrorist views of the embattled minister before his confirmation in 2019.

Explaining the role of the DSS in the entire screening process, Amachree told The Guardian that the DSS maintains a full department responsible for vetting and background checks of people that are of security interest.

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“Firstly, note that the DSS keeps records of all politicians, top civil servants, notable persons who have done positive or negative acts, captains of industry, and all religious leaders in this country. These records are kept for future use. The records are referred to as positive vetting, to keep track of these individuals. Some countries even maintain records of foreigners within their borders, including students and businessmen.

“For prospective public office holders, their records are brought out, reviewed, and upgraded. In the vetting report, all positive and negative points are listed for the requesting authority. The vetting report does not recommend or suggest a line of action for the decision-maker. Only facts are laid out,” he noted.

Amachree pointed out that the DSS does not clear public office holders, stating that the requesting authority, be it the President, Federal Executive Council (FEC), or Senate, make the decision to hire or fire. He said that in some cases, the requesting authority could decide to engage the prospective public office candidate despite negative findings.

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According to him, this is done when the decision-maker considers other variables like Federal character, gender issues, preferred political affiliation, or other factors known only to the decision-maker. The case of the former acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is a case in point. Despite a negative report on him from the DSS and subsequent rejection by the Senate, the President decided to keep him.

Reacting to suggestions of possibly engaging private background check companies in the screening process, Amachree disclosed those could only be engaged by corporate concerns and individuals because “the official secrets act does not allow private organisations to do the vetting for government officials.”

He added that vetting of officials for public office “is only in the purview of the DSS. That is one of the reasons it is called a Secret Service.”

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The ex-DSS Assistant Director, however, tasked the National Assembly to up its game by looking at all candidates squarely in terms of competence, devoid of ethnicity, religion, or political affiliations. “They should not ask candidates to take a bow and go. There is a need to question the candidate on any negative aspects that come up in the DSS report,” he said.

We Got No Negative Report On Him – Senate
PIQUED by the public backlash with regards to its culpability in the clearance of Pantami for office despite his disturbing inclinations on terrorism and indeed, negative reports on him from the DSS, the Senate has declared that it did no wrong in confirming his appointment in July 2019.

The Senate had, at its plenary session of Tuesday, 30 July 2019, confirmed all 43 persons nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari for appointment as ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 

During the screening that preceded that confirmation, the Senate acknowledged and recognised the performances of some of the nominees, who had served in various capacities as public office holders by according them the privilege of taking a bow without rigorous questioning. 

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Others, including Pantami, were grilled on issues of insecurity across the country, policy reforms, administration of criminal justice, and foreign policies and programmes.

Lawmakers had sought the nominees’ views on the development of critical sectors of the economy, such as the oil and gas sector, Nigeria’s educational systems, healthcare services, improvement in job creation, and gender inclusion/women participation in governance.

In the light of ongoing criticisms, however, some lawmakers, particularly the spokesman of the Senate, Ajibola Basiru, have risen in strong defence of the screening and confirmatory processes of the Senate. Basiru told The Guardian that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the confirmation given to Pantami’s as requested by President Muhammadu Buhari. 

He disclosed that when the Senate screened Pantami in 2019, no report was received concerning all that the minister had admitted to. According to Basiru, “It is unfair to begin to blame the Senate for confirming a minister because of what he has admitted to at the moment when such information was never made available to the Senate at the time of the screening and confirmation. In fact, the report we had at the time the minister was screened did not include all that he has now admitted.”

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Senator Basiru also lamented that not a single petition was received from any quarter against the appointment of Pantami as minister. “I can tell you that no petition was received from the public against the appointment of Pantami as minister. No petition from the political sector, civil society, and even the media against the minister when we screened and confirmed him.”

Another Senator, who spoke with The Guardian, also suggested that the President be mandated, by law or the constitution, to always attach detailed security reports of any appointee as part of the requirements for confirmation. 

The Senator from one of the states in the Northeast geopolitical zone, who preferred anonymity, said it is the view of some of his colleagues that it might be necessary to amend the Constitution to compel the President to accompany his list of ministerial nominees with detailed security reports of all persons nominated for appointments.

He noted that all the Constitution asked the President to do was simply make appointments and send the list to the Senate for confirmation. 

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“So, it is only when a petition is sent to the Senate against a nominee that we begin to investigate and seek document from relevant quarters. The point must also be made that it is not compulsory that security agencies must send reports to the Senate on any nominee. If they want, they can but it is never mandatory. So, we need to get this very clear,” the lawmaker stressed. 

Blame Nigerians For Minister’s Appointment – Rep Gagdi
MEANWHILE, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Navy, Mr Yusuf Gagdi, has said that neither the National Assembly nor the DSS should be held responsible for not doing enough to stop the appointment of Dr. Pantami. This is because, for him, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Nigerians who failed to draw the attention of the National Assembly to the antecedence of Pantami as a Muslim cleric over the years.

According to Gagdi, the National Assembly and DSS is not God, as every information concerning all nominees may never be got during confirmation. “You don’t have the capacity to know everything about me. It is what the DSS know that they put forward and it is equally what the National Assembly saw that they recommended. You want to hold DSS and NASS responsible, what of you as individuals, over 180 million Nigerians? The announcement was made, the man was presented to the floor of the senate, he was screened and no individual out of over 180 million Nigerians was able to remember the comments made and deem it fit to write a petition to the NASS for them to act or not to act. 

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“The people of this country should equally be held responsible because they were unable to do their job by bringing the information to the NASS. Until and unless you bring the petition that this man has done this and that in the past because of the incapacity of both DSS and NASS to know everything about everybody prior to screening, then you cannot hold them responsible,” Gagdi said. 

While the House of Rep member acknowledges that Pantami’s retention in the Federal Executive Council could affect the country negatively, he said the decision to relieve him of his appointment lies squarely with President Muhammadu Buhari.

“The prerogative of appointment and removal is vested solely on Mr. President. So, it is left for the executive arm of government. The information has come, the man has also apologised. If it is true that the information is there and the man apologised, it is not within our power as a parliament to say go or not go. But the president also has the prerogative of mercy to say, ‘since you have shown remorse, everybody could make mistake in the past, stay on.

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“What is more important is what value is he adding to the Nigerian economy. What value is Pantami adding to curtailing the issue of insecurity in Nigeria? Every politician has his own enemy and every politician has his own past. After his appointment as a minister, the same person has confronted Boko Haram with SIM card registration in such a way that the man was declared one of their major targets. I think his life has put him in a very critical position that he is neither here nor there because if the insurgents see him now, they will not spare him,” he said.

Gagdi, however, noted that the fears of those calling for Pantami’s sack were founded. “In fairness, in terms of the security of this country, for a Minister of Digital Economy to have made statements in the past that seems to undermine the present security commitment, it has great security consequences on the security perception of the country. I can tell you that without mincing words,” he added.

Reps Minority Caucus Say Minister’s Continued Stay In Office A Security Threat
ON another hand, the minority Caucus of the House of Representatives has insisted on the resignation of Isa Pantami over his alleged links with global terror groups. In a statement in Abuja, the caucus said it stands behind the Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, on his call for the minister’s resignation.

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“The minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, should resign or be removed by President Muhammadu Buhari, as his continued stay in office poses a great threat to our national security,” the statement read in part.

Relying on matters of privilege, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu, had asked the House to cause a debate on the issue, particularly demanding Pantami’s exit from office.

“In the past few days, I have been inundated with calls from my constituents and Nigerians seeking the resignation of the Honourable Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Mr Pantami, who was allegedly accused of having links which seems to support Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram knowing very well what we are facing with issue of insecurity in the country,” Elumelu had said.

Ruling on the matter, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, who presided over the plenary, said that the matter had been noted.

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But the spokesman of the caucus, Francis Agbo, in the statement, noted that insecurity is blind to creed and party colourations, which is why the caucus will resist any attempt to politicise a clear existential threat to the nation’s security.

The caucus, standing with millions of Nigerians, demanded that the speaker should immediately act on the prayers of a motion earlier moved in plenary on Thursday to the effect by the minority leader by conveying same as the position of the House to Mr. President, having accepted the appropriateness of the procedure and taken legislative note of the prayers therein.

Besides, the caucus, berated the house’s spokesman, Benjamin Kalu for claiming that Elumelu did not properly present his motion under an appropriate rule, saying his position is completely “dumb, frivolous and exposes his poor knowledge of the legislative procedures.”

The caucus warned that it would not condone any unwarranted attack on any of its colleagues, let alone the Minority Leader, whom it noted, “is doing very well by speaking the mind of the silent majority of Nigerians, who have no platforms to speak out.” 

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In a related development, the House has said it would not condone any act of terrorism in the country.

Spokesperson of the House, Mr. Benjamin Kalu, in a statement, while faulting the notion held in certain quarters that Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila did not allow deliberations on the controversy surrounding the alleged link of Pantami with the al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist network.

Kalu explained that the House acknowledges the severity of the issue and its nature as a matter of public concern.

Kalu was reacting to the claim by the spokesperson of the minority caucus, Mr. Francis Agbo that Mr. Ndudi Elumelu was blocked from raising the issue on the floor of the House.

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“As always, the House stands ready to give audience to Rep. Ndudi Elumelu or any other member of the House on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House,” he noted.

He further stated that the House rules allow for Motions on Notice, Motions without Notice, and Motions on Matters of Urgent Public Importance adding it was unfortunate that the minority leader, Ndudi Elumelu, chose to present the matter on Thursday last week by way of privileges.

Continuing, he noted: “It is, therefore, pertinent to inform Nigerians that the House has not acted in error, but in line with the provisions of its rules. All insinuations that the House did not allow democratic debate to take place on the important issue of Pantami’s resignation are simply untrue.

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“As always, the House stands ready to give an audience to Rep. Elumelu or any other member on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House.

“The leadership and membership of the ninth House of Representatives do not, and would never support terrorism or its sponsors in any form.

“That the House stands by these positions as they are in line with the House rules we made to guide us and should not be seen breaching it as every good law applies to both principal officers and first-time members in the spirit of equality before the law. How can we breach the laws we made for ourselves and expect Nigerians to obey the ones we make on their behalf.

“That the house will not be apologising for properly guiding a derailing senior member of the house, hoping that the minority caucus should scout for a knowledgeable spokesman, not just a prose writer. The job of a good spokesman goes beyond literature.

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“That to continuously misrepresent the house before the public will attract the actual invocation of the spirit of Privileges that might lead to an invitation by the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, on why the spokesman should be allowed to be destroying the image of the House of Representatives.”

Defence For Under-fire Minister
FOLLOWING initial indifference to the raging debate across the nation, with the Federal Executive Council (FEC) even failing to discuss the allegations against the minister during its weekly meeting on Wednesday, the Presidency, in a reaction by President Buhari’s spokesperson, Garba Shehu, on Thursday gave an all-clear verdict on Pantami.

Shehu said the Buhari administration “stands behind Minister Pantami,” while also disclosing that the administration would commence investigation into allegations that some businesses were behind the attacks on the minister. “The government is now investigating the veracity behind these claims of attempted inducement, and – should they be found to hold credence – police and judicial action must be expected,” he added.

According to Shehu, “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. 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.

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“The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami is, currently, subject to a ‘cancel campaign’ instigated by those who seek his removal. They do not 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.

“The minister has, rightly, apologised for what he said in the early 2000s. The views were absolutely unacceptable then and would be equally unacceptable today, were he to repeat them. But he will not repeat them – for he has publicly and permanently condemned his earlier utterances as wrong.”

Shehu reiterated that the Buhari administration was committed to improving the lives of Nigerians – and that includes ensuring they are not over-charged or under-protected for those services on which modern life depends. He added that the Minister had been leading the charge against illegal data deductions and pricing and has revolutionised the government’s virtual public engagement to respond to COVID-19 and save taxpayers’ money.

Reacting many groups, opposition parties, civil society organisations, and notable individuals have however cautioned the federal government against protecting the Minister, saying it might portray President Buhari’s government as complicit in the s activities of terrorists.

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