Northern Nigerian Muslim clerics in politics: Shaykh Pantami, the lessons from the two Wazirayni of Zazzau (1935 – 56)


By Ibraheem A. Waziri

For a starter, a large part of the territories of now Northern Nigeria, seized by the colonialists in 1903 and later merged with other territories Southward to form the Nigerian state in 1914, were before, under the administrative control of the then Sokoto Caliphate; a state founded by Islamic Scholars, clerics and led by their agents, the Emirs! This is why till today Islamic scholars and clerics have remained very formidable groups that define what civil advocacy means in the region as much as they anchor all shades of the discourses about meaningful development among the Muslims.

Shaykh Isa Ali Pantami, a serving cabinet Minister of the Federal Government, who also can be seen to be, symbolically, a representative of the Northern Muslim scholarly and clerical establishment, was alleged to be having links with an officially designated terrorist group, BokoHaram, and is therefore on a terrorist watch-list of the world leading country fighting terrorism, the USA. Though the newspaper, Daily Independent, which first published the story, 11/04/2021, had long withdrawn it and tendered apology to the public and the Minister Pantami; the matter continued to trend, with great effort being put to exhume his old lectures that seemed supportive of international terrorism, dating back 20 to 25 years back.

That was to say, at another period when the largely peaceful dialogue between the Northern Nigerian Muslim clerical establishment and the Nigerian nation was not near achieving reasonable compromise; and the country was held under the grip of military dictatorship or was early into the current fourth republic. Also then the conflicts in the other Muslim nations between every force that would claim Islam for its cause was finding sympathy among the Northern Nigerian Muslims uncritically.

Things have moved to a height by the year 2009, when a fringe Muslim group (Boko Haram) in the region moved the frontiers of this dialogue into the battlefield. That has proved to be an eye opener to the mainstream scholars and clerics, belonging to various sectarian persuasions, about what the possible alternative their numerous fiery preaching could open for Nigeria. They then substantially mellowed!

By 2015 Nigeria had a popular and fiery Northern Muslim preacher, in the name of Shaykh Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami for the first time in its history, accepting to serve the Federal Government in a very relevant National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) as its steering director. He later became a federal cabinet member as a Minister of Information and Digital Economy. This signalled that a reasonable milestone in the continuous dialogue between Northern Nigerian clerical establishment and the Nigerian nation has been recorded; and among other things, the establishment has symbolically reached a more malleable compromise with the idea of Nigeria as a nation with its quasi secular character.

The current imbroglio started by Daily Independent newspaper, and the subsequent revelations, which are not without valid reasons, exposed Shaykh Pantami as a potential threat to the survival of the Nigerian nation. It led him to publicly retract the said toxic opinions he once voiced out decades ago. This, good as it is, still leaves the Nigerian nation to choose between one of the two options. If the nation puts him away it will throw out the great potential seen in closing the remaining gap between it and Northern Nigerian clerical establishment, a guarantee for a more promising probable national survival and prosperity. If it chooses to retain him, it will continue to court the rage of non-Muslims and other nationalists who genuinely feel Nigeria doesn’t need its reformed detractors in place of authority for it to survive and thrive.

However the chief concern of this piece is the opinion that is not so prominent in the current controversy but has long been in the public space and largely shared by and among Northern Nigerian Muslim intellectuals, publicly or in private. That Pantami has long made a compromise not with the idea of Nigerian nation alone but with its dirty game of power and politics. He had since abandoned his constituency of Islamic scholarship and clericalism that is known with the principle of telling truth to power since before and after the 19th century Jihad.

Examples are being disentombed from his past clips where he spoke often fierily against politicians and public servants about their lack of consistency, honestly and accountability in discharging public responsibility. The points are constantly made that he still holds study circles – now that he accepted to serve in a federal public office – as he used to hold before; but he has not maintained the character of such circles that used to tell the truth to power. Instead they have become platforms where he tells how some governors sewed for him clothes he needed to wear round the year or how they provide him with large number of sheep to slaughter during Eids!

Worst still some portions from the canons he reads and interprets risk being manipulated to attack perceived political opponents as it happened few years back when he took down the former governor of Kano State, Dr. Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, from his study session, in what many saw as purely a political compromise of the pulpit to serve some personal or partisan agenda. These charges of course one cannot affirm with certainty, because they involve motives that cannot be easily discerned, but they risk dragging not only his reputation but the integrity of the institution of the scholar-cleric to question, when obviously there are ways to avoid such while serving the Nigerian state comfortably.

The Examples of the two Wazirayni, Malam Umar Muhammad (1935-39) and Malam Muhammadu Lawal (1953-56)

In 1935 in the old Zazzau Province of the then colonial Northern Nigeria during the reign of Sarkin Zazzau Ibrahim Dan Kwasau, a notable Islamic scholar and a Chief Alkali (Judge) of the province, Alkali Umaru, was single out for appointment as the Waziri (grand Minister/Vizier) of the Emirate. Seeing that on accepting the appointment he will now be deep into the affairs of the government instead of his then role as a, scholar, public intellectual and leading custodian of justice in the Emirate, and a nightmare to influential Princes and Knights of the Emirate at that time; he gathered his family members and students and informed them of his decision to now concentrate on his new job of the Waziriship. Therefore he would leave the job of telling the truth to power to his unwavering trained mentees to continue from where he stopped. They should do their job with him also as their target since he has become part and parcel of the power now.

Malam Muhammadu Lawal succeeded Malam Umaru in the position of the Chief Alkali, a distinguished Islamic scholar also and a public intellectual. He was much later in 1953 during the reign of Sarkin Zazzau Jaafaru, to experience the same elevation to the office of the Wazirin Zazzau. He too who was known, while as Alkali, to have been walking into the palace during court sessions with his shoes on and extending his hands to shake the Emir while sitting on his throne. At a time when even leading public figures and popular influential politicians like Sir Ahmadu Bello Sardauna could not dare do same to Emir Jaafaru.

Dan Iyan Zazzau Nuhu Bayero recorded in his autobiography, My Life, launched in 1990 after his death, how a case he took to Alkali Lawal was thrown away to his face just because he is a close relative of the Emir and Alkali knew that; and so he feared that what he knew could influence his verdict so he chose not to oversee the hearing of the case. It was Alkali Lawal who Aminu Kano remarked on, saying, he taught them early how to protest against power in favour of the truth.

However when Alkali Malam Lawal got appointed to the office of the Waziri, his public attitude to the Sarkin Zazzau Jaafaru was reported to have completed changed. This change was not because, like his predecessor, they have altered their principles on getting closer to power, but for, as it can be safely assert, the trajectory of their responsibilities to the Emirate and the people have changed. They had the moral consciousness to see that they had now become confidants of the throne and sharing its most intimate secrets. As such they could not go into a meeting with their respective Emirs, where they are given the opportunity to bare their minds on thorny issues and subsequently take tasks to accomplish on behalf of the Emirs; only later hold study sessions that could open possibilities of questions raised that are critical to the decisions of the Emirate council. And in such situations public trust in terms of scholarship would demand them to fully ventilate through the questions sincerely thereby forcing themselves to betray what they discussed in private with the Emirs, in the course of their jobs, or hide them from the public – during study sessions they anchor – with the view of protecting state secret.

It is the conviction of this piece that Shaykh Isa Ali Pantami either, can do better, for the integrity of the institution of the Northern Nigerian Muslims clerics by adopting this same strategy drawn from our historical and cultural memories and used by the former masters. Holding twin public stools of teaching and public intellectualism on one hand and that of trust as an executive cabinet member on the other, are not mutually exclusive. But being a principled and effective cleric from the pulpit and at the same time being top federal government official is in all purposes, morally repugnant. The first tells truth to power publicly and the second keep confidence and never betrays secret agreements or seen publicly to go against government action plans shared exclusively with whomever.

Therefore Shaykh Pantami and many Northern Muslim clerics to follow as public office holders, in their new chapter of this compromise with the idea of quasi secular Nigeria, must learn to find a way of holding from being clerics anchoring Tafsirs and other religious social lessons sessions while in office. They have to help guard the institution of the cleric and its pristine teachings from the stench of the institution of the government they have taken a vow to protect. Let it be that clerical stools can continue to have defined character as they used to in our history and culture, not to be fluctuating between power praise singing and being ports of justice, depending on where their occupier is in the government of the day!

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