By Masara Kim
In many countries, ignorance of the law is never an excuse for an offence. Simply put, a person who does something without realizing its legal implications could still be punished if such an action is against the law.
A slight exception in West Germany, based on the Federal Court of Justice’s 1952 verdict, states, if a person engages in criminal conduct but is unaware of its criminality, that person cannot be fully charged with a criminal offense. Such a position might apply, maybe not directly but even in countries that still punish for wrongs committed with ignorance of law. However, this is restricted to a number of circumstances.
It is a universal practice that persons suffering from serious mental disorders should be relieved of the consequences of their criminal conduct. Similarly, persons below adult age are sometimes absolved of criminal responsibility.
In Algeria for instance, children under the age of 13 can only be sentenced to protection and education measures. In Angola, no person can be held criminally responsible for an offence allegedly committed while under the age of 14. In Cameroon, children younger than 10 years old cannot be held criminally responsible. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bisau have a slightly higher age for criminal responsibility. Persons under the age of 16 cannot be held criminally responsible. Malawi, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania probably have the lowest age for criminal responsibility in Africa. No one under the age of seven in these countries can conclusively be presumed to have the capacity to commit a criminal offence.
In Nigeria, the federal Children’s Rights Act 2003 does not specify a minimum age of criminal responsibility, but it defines a child as under 18 and states that a child in conflict with the law must be dealt with under the Act. The Children and Young Persons Law defines a child as under 14 and a young person as aged 14-16. It sets the minimum age of criminal responsibility at seven but states that children below that age who have allegedly committed a crime must be brought before the Juvenile Court. It provides for special measures for persons under 16 in conflict with the law, but persons older than 16 are tried as adults.
Nigeria’s Minister of Information Communication Technology, Mr. Isa Pantami has owned up to his past comments and actions, including meetings and preachments in support of, and/or encouraging terrorism. The Muhammadu Buhari Government has also confirmed the acts, which, it says were committed by its Minister when he was in his 20s, a cheering news regardless of one’s standpoint on the controversy.
Supporters of the Minister will celebrate the Federal Government’s position as standing with him, because he has “rightly apologized for what he said in the early 2000s.” But the statement backing the Minister as released by the Media Adviser to President Buhari, Garba Shehu admits that the Minister’s views were “absolutely unacceptable”, only that he has “publicly and permanently condemned his earlier utterances as wrong.” The question is, does an apology make up for a serious crime as terrorism and murder?
Section 4 of the Terrorism Prevention Act 2013 as ammended says Any person who – (a) arranges, manages, assists in arranging or managing, participates in a meeting or an activity, which in his knowledge is concerned or connected with an act of terrorism or terrorist group, (b) collects, or provides logistics, equipment, information, articles or facilities for a meeting or an activity, which in his knowledge is concerned or connected with an act of terrorism or terrorist group, or (c) attends a meeting, which in his knowledge is to support a proscribed organisation or to further the objectives of a proscribed organization, commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than twenty years.
Section 5 of the same Act says (1) Any person who knowingly, in any manner, directly or indirectly, solicits or renders support – (a) for the commission of an act of terrorism, or Terrorist (b) to a terrorist group, commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than twenty years.
An attached clarification to subsection (1) defines “support” as – (a) incitement to commit a terrorist act through the internet, or any electronic means or through the use of printed materials or through the dissemination of terrorist information; (b) receipt or provision of material assistance, weapons including biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, explosives, training, transportation, false documentation or identification to terrorists or terrorist groups; (c) receipt or provision of information or moral assistance, including invitation to adhere to a terrorist or terrorist group; (d) entering or remaining in a country for the benefit of, or at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group; or (e) the provision of, or making available, such financial or other related services prohibited under this Act or as may be prescribed by regulations made pursuant to this Act.
All these fit the person of the Minister based on available records which he has owned up to. His “apologies and renouncement” of the actions are the only reasons he is getting away with the crimes, because “he will not repeat it” as the officials claim. But had he not been in government now, would he really not repeat it? A recent video likely recorded in 2014-2015 shows him raining curses in a public prayer against the former ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, suggesting that had the Party still been in office, Pantami would have remained who he is because there is no record of him renouncing his earlier views except a debate he had with the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf before the group turned violent and Yusuf was executed.
If age, duration, repentance and apologies make for one’s crime, what then are former Governors Jolly Nyame of Taraba State and Joshua Dariye of Plateau State doing in jail? They were young and inexperienced at the time they committed the crimes for which they are being punished, which are far lesser in gravity to Pantami’s.
A recent U.N. report warned about both the continued threat posed by Islamic State fighters and the challenges related to the effective prosecution of RETURNED FIGHTERS and those who are financing terrorism. Emma Broches and Julia Solomon-Strauss (2020) in lawfareblog.com report that “the U.S. Department of Justice continues to prosecute individuals involved in terrorism in a number of ways. These new proceedings included charges against an individual who is already incarcerated and a successful push to denaturalize a man convicted of terror charges in advance of his release late last year.” This implies punishing even people already undergoing incarceration, who would have not just learned their lessons and changed but paid for the crimes committed. Some of these convictions were even secured after decades of committing the crimes. Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and several others are classical examples.
In nearby Burkina Faso, former president Blaise Compaoré, now in exile in Ivory Coast, will stand trial for the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara, a pan-African icon, during the 1987 coup in which he took power, AFP reports. On April 26, 2012, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was found guilty of abetting horrific war crimes, including rape and mutilation in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. His conviction came over a decade later.
Isa Pantami, having encouraged many related crimes as an adult in his 20s, few years younger than General Yakubu Gowon when he became Head of State in 1966, should not be exception. But Muhammadu Buhari himself is not totally innocent.
In 2011, the then opposition leader was quoted as saying if he didn’t win the then Presidential elections, “dogs and baboons would swim in blood.” Anywhere he went for political campaigns at that time, which repeated itself in 2015, violent thugs brandished swords and other deadly weapons behind him. And when he lost the elections to the then sitting President, Goodluck Jonathan, there were killings in at least ten Nigerian states.
Buhari was also quoted in 2003 as saying Muslims should only vote for Muslims, a likely encouragement for religious fundamentalism. That perhaps explains why Boko Haram allegedly endorsed him before the 2015 Presidential polls.
Buhari’s inability to end corruption and terrorism as promised before coming to office is also denting his image. To maintain clean record as “man of integrity” therefore, anything that exposes him as a weak and untactful leader is buried with excuses, justifications or direct affront on whosoever is behind it.
Thus, his former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babacir Lawal was accused of corruption but was protected until irresistible facts were unveiled. His then Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun was also accused of forgery but was protected until daring revelations came through. His Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi has owned up to corrupt practices in the past but is still Minister, despite petitions to the National Assembly before his appointment. Same thing applies to former service chiefs and other officials hiding under the President’s “integrity” to escape the law.
President Buhari should however know that even if he succeeds in planting a successor, he will not be influential forever. The law remains the law and the media does not forget, especially in this era of rapid technological advancements. Whatever he buries today, under whatever guise, being politics or ethnicity, will someday germinate. The law he is using his privileges to suppress today will reclaim its power and hunt him back. Even if it doesn’t come for him directly, a direct or indirect party to a crime is as guilty as the criminal, even if not punished, and reference will always be made to the role he played while in office.