Supporters of Communications and Digital Economy Minister Dr. Isa Ali Pantami bewailed that my April 17 column titled “Pantami is My Friend, But He Can’t Be Defended” threw him under the bus and that I’m a “fake friend” and a snitch who isn’t even a “real Muslim.” But his critics said I wasn’t hard enough on him and that I gave him a wiggle room to extricate himself from his past toxic utterances because he is my friend.
At the core of these mutually opposed reactions to my column is a deeply transactional conception of friendship. Nigerians have been primed to understand “friendship,” particularly with powerful politicians, as a relationship that is lubricated by the dispensation of favours.
So, people who said I “betrayed” Pantami probably think I failed to defend him in spite of the patronage I got from him, and people who said I was mild in my rebuke of his rhetorical embrace and promotion of wildly exclusivist rhetoric and terroristic incitements probably think I did so because I had a need to justify the patronage I got from him.
But let me make this clear: I have never physically met Pantami in my entire life and have never asked for nor received a single favour from him since he has been in government. My relationship with him started on May 29, 2011 when he sent me a friend request on Facebook.
When I accepted his friendship, I had not the faintest clue who he was. His first message to me on June 25, 2011 was an expression of admiration for my writing. “I really appreciate your pen in most cases,” he wrote. “I hope you will try and maintain the tempo of your objectivity. May Allah continue to albarkate your life. Ameen.”
As a linguistics aficionado and a connoisseur of lexical inventiveness, I loved the word “albarkate” because it made an English word out of “albarka,” the Hausa word for blessing, which is itself derived from the Arabic “barika” (ultimately from the Semitic root berakhah).
Even when our interactions morphed to the phone, I still had no idea who he was—to my shame, I admit, because he was a consequential cleric in the Hausaphone Muslim North at the time. Sometime in 2013, I got a little curious and decided to search his name on Google and came across a Facebook page dedicated to him. It had at least 150,000 likes at the time and featured his Hausa-language homilies.
I was struck by the number of likes the page had because social media hadn’t quite taken off in Nigeria as it has in the past few years. I later asked him if the page was his and he said it was set up and maintained by his students. His students? I was even more piqued.
So, I called a few friends I knew from the Gombe/Bauchi axis and asked what they knew about a Sheikh Isa Ali Pantami. I learned from them that he was an infant prodigy who memorized the Qur’an before he was 13 and who was also a math whiz kid.
A Hafiz (as Qur’an memorizers are called) who is also a mathematical wizard? That was interesting. But why did he not tell me who he was? Was he being modest? Or did he think I should have known?
Interestingly, he hardly discussed religion with me. Our conservations often centered on family and occasionally on my writing, and he was almost always the initiator. I saw him as someone who genuinely admired my work.
In 2014, he received his PhD in Computer Information Systems from UK’s Robert Gordon University and moved to Saudi Arabia as an assistant professor of Computer Science and Information Technology at the Islamic University of Madinah. When he would call me from Madinah, he would give the phone to his son, Abdulrahman, and his wife to say hello to me.
When Muhammadu Buhari offered him a job as Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) in 2016, he sought my opinion. And before his name was formally announced as minister, he called to tell me I was one of 10 people whose approval he wanted before accepting the position. Of course, I was flattered, but I knew my opinion wouldn’t change anything.
In spite of being close to Buhari, he had never requested that I stopped criticizing the government in which he served. He only appealed to me to use a milder tone in my criticisms if I could. I promised I would try but never delivered on my promise.
One day he called and said he had just come to terms with the fact that I was like Caliph Umar Bin Khattab (who was nicknamed “Farooq,” meaning one who distinguishes truth from falsehood, and after whom my dad named me). He had a reputation for brutal, unsparing fierceness in his truth telling. Pantami promised he would never again ask me to be whom I am not.
People who are familiar with my relationship with him have asked why I’ve never derived any material benefit from it. Well, I don’t think friendship should always be transactional. He initiated friendship with me out of his appreciation for my writing, and I admired what struck me at the time as his humility in spite of his fame. Not much else connects us.
In 2016, during a conversation while he was still in Saudi Arabia, I told him of a half-brother of mine who wanted to get married but had no job, and he offered to reach out to his friends to help. He did make two attempts, and carbon-copied me in his email communications, but none worked out.
When he became DG of NITDA, my brother pressed him but didn’t have any success. And when his name was announced as minister in 2019, my brother pleaded with me to talk to Pantami on his behalf, believing that he didn’t help because I didn’t request it. I didn’t.
As a rule, when people I know get into government, I give them a wide berth both to avoid compromise and to not be one extra burden they have to deal with. This principle has alienated me from family and friends. But I’d rather have it that way.
I am bringing all this to light to let people know the nature of my relationship with Pantami so they can understand the context of my relationship with him. I was never aware of his previous extremist views that became public knowledge in the last few days. I am not indebted to him for any favour of any kind. I am only privileged to know a side of him that most people who heard and watched his incendiary homilies don’t.
As I told an interlocutor a few days ago, every human being embodies a multiplicity of personas. For example, Black America’s Malcolm X was a fierce, fiery, electrifying, and uncompromising orator who gave white folks the jitters, but he was timid, almost diffident, even-tempered, and overly polite in private, according to his biographers. Who was the real Malcolm X? The hothead in public or the quiet man in private?
People who know me only through my public commentaries also think I’m a grouchy, fire-eating hulk with an intemperate rage, but people who know me in private know me as a slight, compulsively smiling, mild-mannered introvert, and can’t reconcile my public persona with my private one.
Of course, I didn’t bring up Pantami’s other side to obscure his clearly condemnable past utterances in support of terrorism (because nothing at all can attenuate that), but to show why I could be on friendly terms with him in the times that I’ve known him.
An otherwise acerbic critic who took issue with my last column for not being hard enough on Pantami expressed his disagreements with me in the mildest and pleasantest tone I’ve seen him deploy on Facebook when he disagrees. I asked why he didn’t curse me like others were doing, and he said, “it’s because you’re not just a friend, but a brother.”
I have never met this person in real life and he actually deployed “brother” as an affectionately fictive kinship term (because we don’t even share the same ethnicity). So, I asked why he expected me to be different to Pantami in my criticism of his past. He got the point.
As Oscar Wilde says, “I write because it gives me the greatest possible artistic pleasure to write. If my work pleases the few, I am gratified. If it does not, it causes me no pain. As for the mob, I have no desire to be a popular [writer]. It is far too easy.”