Pantami is a stark reminder of Senate’s oversight failure [Topnewstv Editor’s Opinion]
Senators failed in their job to properly scrutinise Pantami before approving his ministerial appointment.
It started with a terribly-reported rumour that he was placed on the terror watchlist of an American intelligence agency.
Pantami gained the upper hand in the first act as the couple of news organisations that reported the story retracted and issued an apology, weighed down by threats of litigation from a furious and influential figure.
Sensationally, that false start re-energised interest into Pantami’s past, and has now opened a floodgate of revelations that have changed quite a lot.
Over the course of the past week, Nigerians have heard, with documentary proof, that Pantami was, in his cleric days, a sympathiser of terror groups, especially Al-Qaeda, and renowned terrorists like Osama Bin Laden.
Nigerians have heard how Pantami in the past got into trouble at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi for inflammatory preaching, according to a United States diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks in 2009.
They have heard how he has in the past hoped for the erasure of ‘idolatrous image’ from the Nigerian currency, in his faithful adherence to the Islamic religious law called Sharia.
Nigerians have also heard how Pantami has in the past said, “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed, but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.”
Most crucially, Nigerians have heard how Pantami’s ultimate wish in the past had been to infiltrate the secular system with the aim of dismantling it to enthrone Sharia as a more fitting system for Nigeria.
What makes this flurry of revelations especially troubling is that Isa Pantami is Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, one of the most sensitive cabinet positions anyone could possibly occupy.
So how did a well-educated and well-travelled man like Pantami with such a colourful and unsettling past make it this far with very little scrutiny?
A lot of factors is responsible for this, but the most crucial one is the Nigerian Senate.
Section 147 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) empowers the Senate, a chamber of 109 lawmakers, to confirm every ministerial appointment made by the president.
This typically involves a screening process that allows lawmakers to examine an appointee’s competence for office, putting everything about them into consideration.
This process is considered an important gatekeeping function to check the executive, and ensure only the best of the best rise to the most important positions.
Essentially, it’s a really big deal because such appointment decisions can shape the fate of a country of an estimated 200 million people, so you’d expect the process is handled with the most pressing seriousness.
Isa Pantami’s Senate screening on July 26, 2019 took all of 33 minutes when he faced a full plenary of lawmakers whose sole job on the day was to determine if he was fit for office.
He answered questions on ICT development in Nigeria, how to explore the digital economy to create opportunities, the Abuja technology village, and even how to use technology to solve Nigeria’s harrowing troubles with out-of-school children.
But not a single one of the seven senators that questioned Pantami during his screening brought up his unsettling past, one in which he had generously called non-Muslims (roughly half the country’s population) ‘infidels’.
All of the questions focused on his technical competence for the job, which he aced, but completely failed to subject him to a character test, out of ignorance of his past conduct, or an erroneous determination that it wasn’t as important.
But one is just as important as the other, and the failure to bring it up at all before such a man with Pantami’s past is allowed to occupy a sensitive position is a massive oversight by the oversight committee of lawmakers.
What makes this omission even more curious is the fact that all of the revelations that Nigerians have heard over the past week have actually really been open secrets over the years.
The same claims and evidence of his questionable past have been circling over him in the public sphere especially since he was first appointed in 2016 as the Director General and CEO of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).
For his supporters, there are legitimate claims to be made for Pantami being one of the best ministers currently serving on President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet.
And those same supporters, and the minister himself, have made the argument that his current woes are actually manufactured by detractors because he’s doing his job too well and stepping on the necks of Nigeria’s enemies.
These supporters have even alleged that Pantami is only targeted because he’s a Muslim northerner, forgetting recent history that a Christian southerner left Buhari’s cabinet in disgrace after her fraudulent past was exposed just three years ago.
But it is important for everyone to ignore the arguable motives for the current sustained backlash against him, and do a close examination of the facts of the matter.
There are public records of Pantami saying incendiary things that are unwelcome in a plural state such as Nigeria – things that some have even claimed have directly led to loss of life in the past.
And despite his protestations of growth from those years, there are no properly-documented public records of him acknowledging his rather grave error.
His strongest attempt at damage control was a feeble defence last week that he was too young at the time, even though some of the comments were made when he was already in his 30s.
“I have changed several positions taken in the past based on new evidence and maturity,” he told journalists, but he has mostly avoided the media throughout this whole mess, perhaps wishing everything would die down at some point.
The truth is that Pantami’s lame defence of his controversial extremist comments should have been done on the floors of the Senate during his screening if lawmakers had done their assignment, or taken to their task with just the tiniest bit of dedication.
Instead, the 48-year-old has simply coasted up the public ladder especially due to the inexcusable failure of the country’s legislature to function as it should – as a vanguard to always ensure the nation’s best interests.
Half the nominees were not even questioned, beneficiaries of a ridiculous “Take a bow and go” policy to not closely examine nominees that are former lawmakers, and whoever they want to grant that privilege.
The nominees that were questioned at all, like Pantami, were also rushed through the process, especially due to the volume of nominees to be screened within a short time.
In fact, four more senators were billed to ask the minister questions during his screening, but other senators preferred to cut the process short so they could move on to the next nominee.
It’s not then the least bit surprising that someone like Pantami slipped through the cracks because lawmakers simply moved through the motion of the process.
And it is because of such ineptitude that Buhari would later attempt to get the Senate’s approval to make his current personal assistant on social media, Lauretta Onochie, a national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a non-partisan organisation.
The latest revelations have made Pantami’s position increasingly untenable, and the calls for him to step down or be sacked by Buhari has grown ever louder.
But there’s no guarantee that he’s interested in willingly relinquishing the position, or any indication that Buhari, back in Nigeria fresh from his London trip, has even heard about this whole thing.
And the reason why Nigerians are now at the mercy of Pantami and his absent boss is because lawmakers, who were elected to represent the interests of the people, failed a simple task.
*Topnewstv Editor’s Opinion is the viewpoint of an Editor at Topnewstv. It does not represent the opinion of the Organisation Topnewstv.