DR. ISA ALI IBRAHIM (PANTAMI)
One of Nigeria’s finest technocrats, he’s a poster boy for Africa’s most populous nation. Studious and systematic, he drives Nigeria’s digital ecosystems. With professional training at Harvard and MIT in the US, IMD in Loussaune, Switzerland, and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen in Scotland, he underlines perseverance and perspicacity. As a member (first Nigerian) of faculty at Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, he was a professor and head of Technical Writing. Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, is a man of many parts. Patriotic, passionate, patient, pragmatic, and pious, that’s Pantami, writes Funke Olaode
His six daughters sit around him as he shares an interesting narrative with them. ‘Grrrnnnng!’ his cellphone chimes on a coffee table some meters away. He hops out of the midst of the girls like a fleet-footed footballer. They giggle. As he picks the call, he tells his daughters to “shush!” putting a finger playfully to his lips.
“Good morning, His Excellency!” he bellows. “Yes, His Excellency. OK sir, Mr. President. Thank you, sir! I’m always ready to serve. It’s an honour, His Excellency!”
That is all that filters into the girls’ ears. They have never seen their father’s face so animated. The glint in his eyes at that moment is different. That was last year.
At less than 50 years old, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, brings with him panache, precision, and purposefulness to the service of his fatherland. His countenance exudes the perspicacity with which he has settled down to work since he assumed office in 2019.
His demeanour offers hope and commitment with a friendly gaze that shimmers behind the spectacles. He offers a warm smile and his happy to talk about his life, family and fixation.
If you’re meeting him for the first time, a knowledge of five famous personalities in the world will offer you a glimpse of his persona.
“I would like to be a player with the characteristics of a minimum of five players combined: a goal-machine like Cristiano Ronaldo, as skillful as Lionel Messi, as intelligent as Mohamed Salah, a dribbler like Neymar Jr., and very active like Sadio Mané,” Dr. Ibrahim, fondly called Pantami, beams with a smile as he responds to the question what player he would want to be if he were a footballer.
“Those five players describe the footballer I would like to be!”
Pantami embodies humanity and that’s reflected in his worldview whether it’s about racism or gender equality. As a champion of women’s rights, he has helped not a few women to break the glass ceiling.
“Women have a lot to offer to society. They are our mothers and they train us,” the communications minister intones with respect.
His conviction is not unexpected as he discloses that “my first teacher was my mother.” He gives her significant credit for who he has become today. There’s more to that.
“I am also a father of six daughters,” Pantami acknowledges. “It is important to ensure that they are given the support that they require to succeed. Some are already studying sciences at the university and one is studying medicine. We try to inspire them to contribute to society.”
The minister breaks the mould of stereotypical northerners even further.
“I also use the opportunity I have to support women to succeed in their chosen careers,” he modestly admits when asked for he’s done to promote Nigerian women.
To his credit, Pantami was the one who appointed the Chief Executive Officer of Main One, Funke Opeke, as the chair of the committee that developed the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020-2025).
Also, as the director general of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Pantami appointed Dr. Amina Sambo Magaji as the National Coordinator of the Office for ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIIE).
A handsome man, suave and shrewd, Pantami will pass for a model; he’s always spick and span, dressed to the nines. Even marriage hasn’t changed that about him. The minister, however, says marriage has made him a better man.
Pantami proudly says, “It has made me a complete man. It has taught me sacrifice, patience, kindness, and generosity and enabled me to be more accommodating.”
Few men are poster boys for fatherhood but Pantami stands out. He relishes being a father because fatherhood has enabled him to be an excellent observer, including discerning what has not been said. He admits also that he’s become more sensitive.
“Children are the leaders of tomorrow and they determine our Human Capital Index (HCI). I really want my children to achieve more than I have achieved,” says the minister.
At 40-something, Pantami’s life is panning out beautifully. His life’s episodes have been filled with intriguing and interesting moments.
He sums that up in a few words: “The most beneficial of mankind are those who want to be beneficial to others. My primary aspiration is a willingness to serve humanity.”
It’s that strong desire to make a positive difference in Nigeria and also ensure that “my Lord is pleased with me” that keeps him awake sometimes at night. It’s Pantami’s belief that every Nigerian has a role to play in nation-building.
“There’s strength,” he notes, “in unity, justice and fairness.”
For those who know Pantami well, they’ll admit that he’s both cerebral and conscientious.
Born in Gombe State on October 20, 1972, he spent at least four years at Tsangaya School, where he memorized the Qur’an. Thereafter, he attended a primary school in Pantami, and from there went to Government Science Secondary School in Gombe. At Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi, he obtained a Btech and Msc in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
He had further professional training at Harvard, MIT in the US, and at the Institute of Management Development in Loussaune, Switzerland. He also spent some time at Cambridge University.
The Nigerian minister was also at Madinah University, Saudi Arabia following an invitation by the institution, shortly after obtaining a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods from the prestigious Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom.
Besides being the first Nigerian to work as a member of faculty at Madinah, he was a professor and head of Technical Writing. He was the secretary and member of the University Accreditation Committee, Staff Training and Development Committee, and the Information Technology Committee.
Last August, he was appointed, as illustrated at the outset, by President Muhammadu Buhari as a minister. Since becoming the communications minister, Pantami has never looked back.
Explaining the reason, he says: “My target is to ensure that the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy plays a key role in the implementation of the policies of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. We will do this by focusing on the vision of NDEPS which is ‘to transform Nigeria into a leading digital economy providing quality life and digital economies for all.’”
Since August 21, 2019, Pantami has found superintending over the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy challenging and rewarding. He was faced with a plethora of challenges militating against the development of the ICT sector. “I was really concerned about these challenges and was determined to reverse the trend,” admits Pantami.
However, in less than one year, the technocrat’s “modest efforts” have yielded “remarkable results.” For instance, the recent Q1 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Report released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that ICT contributed an unprecedented 14.07% to Nigeria’s total real GDP.
It’s also to Pantami’s credit that a National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) (2020-2030) for a Digital Nigeria and a National Broadband Plan (NBP) (2020-2025) was developed to give policy backing to efforts geared at developing the sector.
The perennial issue of Right of Way (RoW), was resolved under his watch following a meeting with the governors in January. Today, several governors have pegged RoW fees at a maximum of N145/linear metre.
Pantami explains, “Some now collect just N1 per kilometre of fibre and others have waived the fee altogether. Examples of amounts charged per linear metre in the past include N4,500 and N5,500. To give a better illustration, for a particular state, the estimated cost of connecting two local government areas was a staggering N650m before the implementation of the resolution and now it costs just N150,000!”
Following his request, President Buhari identified telecommunications equipment as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).
A delighted Pantami says his ministry is in the process of creating three NIPOST subsidiaries that will improve its efficiency, namely NIPOST Microfinance Bank, NIPOST Transport & Logistics Services Ltd and NIPOST Property & Development Company Ltd.
“We have promoted synergy amongst government institutions responsible for ICT and improved collaboration with the industry stakeholders. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown everyone how important digital technologies are to the sustainability of the economy,” he explains.
As part of the implementation of the NDEPS and the NBP, Pantami and his team encouraged all sectors of the economy to integrate ICT into their operations.
He adds, “For instance, during the recent lockdown period, we have taken advantage of digital platforms to train around 30,000 Nigerians so far on ICT and emerging technologies.”
Has he always prepared himself to serve his fatherland? His answer isn’t far-fetched.
“Yes,” Pantami states matter-of-factly.
“However,” he admits, “I really did not expect to serve in this capacity. Nigeria is my only country and I am passionate about my commitment to the development of my country regardless of whatever level of sacrifice that may entail. I have had opportunities in the past to serve my country and I always see it as a privilege and I put in my best.
“As a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a member of the Federal Executive Council, I am leveraging my previous experiences in the business environment, academia, private sector, government and in other spheres to contribute towards the success of my current assignment.”
Little wonder, he wasn’t hesitant to incur the wrath of a terror group.
Recalling what happened, he says “Let me start by saying that technology is an enabler. It can enable things that support the development of the economy as well as things that seek to have a negative impact on the economy. Terrorism falls under the latter.
“We formulated policies to checkmate criminals, bandits and kidnappers in order to bring about stability through technology. I believe that this is one of the factors that led to the threats.”
Upon realizing that criminals and bandits used SIM cards to commit a crime and that SIM cards were not properly registered (about 9.4 million), and in less than 40 days in office, Pantami ensured that the SIM cards were either properly registered or blocked.
The narrative of the North is that of abject poverty and extremism. But that’s not the primary trajectory of the region. History speaks of a thriving northern region and Pantami personifies that.
Speaking on the issue, the communications minister says, “There are positive and negative stories from the North, like any other community and section of the country. I am deeply concerned about issues like poverty, instability and moral decadence.”
Pantami further says, “I believe that the North has a lot to offer the country in every sphere and I do not subscribe to the negative labels that you just mentioned because there are many positive stories to counter the negative news.
“I agree with you that there is a renaissance championed by the younger generation to change the narrative. Efforts like those of my good friend, the Executive Governor of Borno State (Prof. Babagana Umara Zulum) and many other young northerners in the academia, private and NGOs are very commendable.”
Those are facts and Pantami is more than happy to serve as a mentor and role model to the younger generation from the North. He wants them to know that if he could rise to a top level in his career, they can do it too.
He has a beautiful dream for the North.
“My picture of northern Nigeria,” he intones, “is a region that takes advantage of technology to significantly improve all facets of society and one whose indigenous content is a leading contributor to the economy of the country.”
His ministry, along with its parastatals, are actively promoting the development of ICT in the entire country, including the northern part, deploying ICT hubs, digital job creation centres, digital capacity building centres. A number of these centres are in the North.
“Our Digital Nigeria programme targets the entire country and a good proportion of the 30,000 beneficiaries are also from the North. The whole idea is to prepare the youth to be leading players in the Nigerian tech ecosystem. This is in tandem with NDEPS,” says the minister.
A recent study shows that 92% of the broadband and network connectivity access gaps are located in the North but Pantami discloses that the issue will be addressed through the National Broadband Plan.
Considered a bookworm by friends and admirers, Pantami has worn his intellect and academic exploits as a badge of honour, thanks to his dad and mom.
“The upbringing that I received from my late father and late mother, along with the sacrifices they made, created the right platform for my academic success,” says the minister with a glint in his eyes.
Pantami loves to push himself, challenge his own success by striving to do more.
“I treasure hard work and always seek to be proactive. As a student of Islam and an academic, I realize that I am a role model and a mentor. As a result, I push myself to raise the bar of success. From experience, this serves as an inspiration to others, and it motivates me to do more,” Pantami.
His personal experience confirms that Islamic education and Western knowledge complement each other and he believes both shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. “I am an avid reader and I place a premium on time management. These have helped me in a great way,” says the minister, who has authored more than three books.
And like a compelling book, the episodes of Pantami’s life remain unputdownable. The world is watching him.