Nigeria’s ferocious anti-Intellectualism: Isa’s “Pant Army” as a case study

Well that didn’t last long did it?

In October last year in this column, I announced my retirement from frontline investigative journalism citing my belief that my presence was actively hurting my stories regardless of their quality. By February, after 4 months without actively chasing a hidden story, this stance had changed slightly. In an interview with NewswireNGR, I said that while I would remain retired, I would jump back in if a story showed up that could not be ignored, or which I did not trust anyone else to tell the right way.

One of each category showed up within a matter of weeks. First was the story of Itunu Babalola, the 23 year-old Nigerian unjustly sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence in Cote d’Ivoire on trumped-up charges – unignorable. I jumped in and the response from the Nigerian state, especially the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) blew me away. Maybe this created encouragement because shortly after came the story that I did not know I needed – the story about a serving Nigerian cabinet minister who has clear and historically evidenced links to the dark world of Islamic terror. Here is how that went.

Nigeria – A country or a secondary school debate society?

I have written in the past about the link between the faulty and unexamined system of debate that we have in Nigerian schools, and a direct link to the type of national discourse we suffer from after school. My theory was that Nigerian school debate systems do not in fact teach people to objectively search for truth via Hegel’s Dialectical method of philosophical inquiry, but instead merely teach them argument hacks with which to pre-empt the entire purpose of objective debate.

The person who shouts loudest or speaks with the most conviction is not necessarily the person who actually has a point to make. The person who uses the most words or engages the audience most impressively with gesticulation, anecdotes and entertainment could well be blowing out hot air. The purpose of discourse should be to arrive at the truth of a matter – not merely to reduce it to an “argument” which is decided by who uses the above things best to carry public opinion.

Throughout my experience of the Isa Pantami controversy, this basic problem has been all too evident. From the initial retracted story which had nothing to do with me, but ended up becoming my albatross because some people had an agenda; to the eventual “counterattack” that I spearheaded after being dragged into the story almost against my will, it was clear at all times that several people on both sides were arguing in bad faith. The object of inquiry – whether a serving Nigerian federal minister with access to key information and IT infrastructure linked to Islamic terror – was almost secondary in the ensuing melee.

It was my experience for example, that after writing the initial exposé on Sahara Reporters – a heftily researched and referenced 2,000-word piece that comprehensively dissected Isa Pantami’s pro-Jihadist background and utterances – the pro-Pantami brigade simply refused to engage with the content of the story. Taking full advantage of the fact of the audience’s ignorance of the Hausa language, Pantami himself put out a disgraceful lie, claiming that the translation of his 2006 “Suwaye Yan Taliban” speech contained in Dr. Andrea Briggaglia’s 2019 paper “Debating Boko Haram” was inaccurate.

Disingenuous and deceitful as always, Pantami carefully avoided engaging with me directly or attempting a direct rebuttal of any points raised in the story. It was “deflect, deflect, deflect.” Imply that you were a teenager when you said those things even though it is on public record that you were a 34 year-old man. Claim that you no longer hold these views even though you have never at any point actually renounced these views. Keep bringing up the retracted story about the terror watchlist and use it to subtly imply that this story is not true.

Turning the table on gaslighters and dissemblers

This being the case, I realised that this story would have to involve more than just carefully researched words and documentation proving that Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami is a dangerous and profoundly dishonest human being who should not be sitting on a federal cabinet under any circumstances. I myself would have to dabble into the dark arts and fight fire with fire.

The first thing I did was to get hold of a Hausa-English translation of the audio recordings from a native Hausa speaker. After getting the translation, I then sat down with my laptop and video editing software to painstakingly subtitle the file in English. I then broke the translated visuals up into bite-sized chunks for easy social media virality. After this, I then started a slow social media drip-feed of these videos, starting from the least controversial extracts.

The purpose of this was to get the pro-Pantami types and hopefully Pantami himself to seize on the non-controversial videos and claim that there was nothing objectionable therein. In so doing, they would inadvertently admit that the person speaking was indeed Isa Pantami, which was my aim. It happened exactly as I planned it. The properly objectionable stuff then followed, swiftly silencing the pro-Pantami argument-havers and in a few moments swinging the entire momentum of the discourse against the jihadi minister.

In other words, I branched out from simply being a journalist, to structuring the makeup and release of my journalistic content in the manner of a social media “influencer” or content strategist. I saw that Nigerian school debate tricks were being used to obfuscate by Pantami and his hordes, so I counterattacked with an amped up version of their own strategy. Instead of letting a 2,000-word article that most people are too lazy to read be the centrepiece of my argument, I made myself the centre of the story – it was unavoidable.

It worked in this case, because as it turned out, Kabir Kabo and the myriad other Pantami Defence Brigade hordes who attempted to take me on were woefully inept and under informed. It was a rout, regardless of the presidency’s decision to dig in its heels and drag out Pantami’s inevitable departure for as long as it can. However ,this may not always be the case. In future, Nigeria may have to contend with an administration that is significantly more competent than this one at being disingenuous. What if a group of crazy, fearless journalists who get emotionally involved in their work are not around at that time to spearhead the necessary counterattack?

Let us hope we never have to find out.

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