Nigeria’s presidency says it “stands behind” an embattled minister facing calls for his resignation after extreme Islamist views he held in the past recently came to light.
Isa Pantami, minister of communications and digital economy, and also a renowned Muslim cleric, expressed views sympathetic to groups such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
In one sermon from the 2000s he said he considered al-Qaeda founder, Osama Bin Laden, a better Muslim than himself, and in another, he said he was happy when infidels were massacred.
Recordings of him expressing these views began circulating on social media last week, leading to calls for his resignation or sacking by President Muhammadu Buhari.
But in its first reaction since the saga began, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said the minister was being “subject[ed] to a ‘cancel campaign'”.
“In the 2000s, the minister was a man in his twenties; next year he will be 50. Time has passed, and people and their opinions – often rightly – change”, the statement said.
The minister also attempted to renounce his past views at the weekend, telling a local newspaper that some of 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”.
But that has not stopped calls for his sacking or resignation with many using the #PantamiMustGo hashtag on Twitter to express concerns over his access to sensitive data as the minister of communications.
He has also been defended under the #PantamiMustStay hashtag as the issue exposed the religious and ethnic lines in this multi-ethnic country.
Nigerians had been waiting for a reaction from the government and it came via a presidential spokesman on Thursday.
Garba Shehu, who speaks for President Buhari, said the administration “stands behind Minister Pantami.”
“The Minister has, rightly, apologized 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,” he said in a statement which he also shared on his Twitter account:
But critics have pointed out that the minister was already in his 30s when most of his controversial statements were made and so, was fully aware of the ramifications.
The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) tried to debate Mr Pantami’s views in the House of Representatives on Wednesday but it was blocked by the ruling party.