Pantami in the Eyes of the Law
By Yunus Abdulsalam
The labyrinth of accusations and counter-accusations surrounding the uproar over the hitherto sympathetic gesture of the Honourable Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami for Al-Qaeda is another classic example of how objectivity always become the sacrificial lamb in the alter of our inordinate sentiments.
One of the saddening features discernible from virtually every issue of national discourse is the recurring decimal to see reactions and commentaries being tailored along ethnic, religious, political or other primordial sentiments. And honestly speaking, this Pantami furore is not an exception.
My focus here will be on the legal and moral implications of what Pantami did or said about 20 years ago as a private citizen.
In a country notorious for public interest litigations against public office holders suspected to have committed even minor infractions of the law, such as the cases of Ibrahim Magu erstwhile EFCC Chairman, former Ministers Adebayo Shittu & Kemi Adeosun and recently the immediate past IGP Abubakar Adamu, is it not surprising that we are yet to see any lawsuit seeking for declaration that Pantami is unfit to hold public office? Or is this just another case of some fringe elements with ulterior motives doing as much as they can to damage the integrity of the Honourable minister?
This writer is not unaware of the contention from some quarters that the call for Pantami’s resignation is premised on breach of some moral codes. However I am curious to know how morality becomes superior to the law. The unassailable truth is that legality takes precedent over morality that is why lawmakers often take the moral standard of the society into consideration before arriving at any law. In fact, law remains the best standard of determining the moral standard of any society.
For instance, despite the prevalence of same-sex relationship all over the world and the facts that Nigerians love imitating anything associated with foreigners, our law criminalized such practice despite the oppositions by western countries. Thus, law is the substratum upon which an egalitarian society is built upon.
It would therefore be safe to conclude that unless what Pantami did was in breach of the law as at that material, then the call for him to resign based on the misplaced logic of him having breached an undefined moral code is not only misguided, ungrounded but mischievous.
It is pertinent to emphasize that the above should not be misconstrued as admission that Pantami might have breached any moral code because he has not in any way. But I only made such comparison of law and moral code to establish the unsoundness and illogicality of the arguments of those calling on him to resign purely for alleged breach of a phantom moral code.
Under our criminal jurisprudence, the intention to commit an offence technically referred to as mens rea which is very essential among other ingredients required for an accused person to be criminally liable, is much stronger than having a mere sympathy for the perpetrators of an offence. It is inconceivable to see and I am yet to be told of any law in which sympathy is the required mens rea.
Besides, the existence of mens rea without the requisite actus rea, which in this case will be the taking part in the planning or execution of an act of terror,will be insufficient to convict an accused person. In other words both the guilty intention which is not present in this case of Pantami and the guilty act which no one has alleged against him must co-exist before Pantami could be deemed to have committed any offence. This position of the law has received judicial blessings in plethora of judicial authorities. See the cases of Abeke vs State (2007) 9 NWLR (PT. 1040) 411, Ibikunle vs State (2005) 1 NWLR (PT. 907) 387.
Assuming without conceding that the sympathetic gestures 20 years ago was an offence, then for the fact that Pantami has purged himself of that controversial statements and beliefs long before this public outcry to the extent that he had an open debate with the founder and former leader of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf and which put his life under threat by the present leader of the group Abubakar Shekau who declared his blood ‘halal’ or ‘lawful’, the position of the law is that Pantami will be exonerated by Section 25 of the Criminal Code pursuant to defence of mistaken belief in a state of affairs.
The import of that section is that where a person acts under a mistaken belief as to some state of fact he honestly believes to exist, and in the process an illegal act is committed, the defence of mistake will avail such a person. See Board of Customs & Excise v. Barau (1982) 10 SC 4. The point is that if the law can avail a person for an offence committed under a mistaken belief, how magnanimous would you think the law would be on Pantami who did not commit any offence at that material time but merely made a sympathetic gesture under a mistaken beliefs which he had divested himself from in a manner that has made him subject of target by deadly Boko Haram?
For once let us pretend to be objective as the law. Can one call Sheikh Gumi a bandit because he believed the bandits terrorizing some communities could have some justifications for their nefarious activities? Rev, Fr Mbaka recently called Nnamdi kanu, a wanted fugitive his anointed son; will that be sufficient to link him to the series of crimes and atrocities alleged committed by kanu and his group IPOB ? Let not forget that IPOB has already designated a terrorist organisation under the Nigerian law but the group has been receiving tacit support from eminent personalities from their region of extraction, yet no one is calling for the heads of those sympathizers.
Pantami is another victim of how our toxic perspective to national issues strays public discourse into our artificial fault lines. The Honourable Minister should however be consoled by his unprecedented and incontrovertible giant strides in his ministry and the exculpatory position of our law in his favour.
Abdulsalam, a legal practitioner writes from Abuja