We maintain our rights if we know the law and ignorance of the law is no plea for our transgressions.
But how can this be when only the few learned men and women know the law? The truth is that for most wrong-doings, we have an inkling that what we do is not right. On these doubts and more intricate matters, it is sensible to consult especially, a lawyer.
Society is, therefore, right to hold that responsible citizens should have reasonable knowledge of the law. And as the world grows smaller and complex and society more intimate, this knowledge becomes more complex. State institutions should, therefore, help the public to know the law. In this regard, the press has a major role to play. Free speech should not be allowed to pollute the minds of the reading public with wrong notions about the law.
The recent happenings about corruption in Parliament should be seized as an opportunity to educate or remind the public on utterances on the floor of the House. Can a member of parliament be taken to court for what he says in Parliament? And can corrupt practices within Parliament be questioned in the courts? In my time as a civil servant, we asked the Attorney-General’s office for advice on such matters. Perhaps, such and other questions are trivial but they help the government from embarrassing postures and assist to educate the public.
In colonial days, administrative officers who later became principal secretaries and chief directors took courses in the and legal processes. It was suggested to President Kwame Nkrumah that principal secretaries should be qualified lawyers. It was argued that it was the practice in Canada and other countries. I opposed the proposal and argued that officials in the administrative service should in a similar vein take courses in Education, health, agriculture, economics, finance and so on. I argued that administrative officers should have knowledge of the subject matter and policies of the ministries where they were posted. If they have not, they should endeavour to acquire the knowledge as they assume the position.
Even the chief director of the Ministry of Trade should have knowledge of the law on trade matters. To show how important this is, I will recall an incident in the Acheampong regime when our little foreign exchange had to be carefully managed, Mr Akwasi Kuma of the GNTC warned me that sugar stocks were dangerously low. I, therefore, asked Trade Commissioner Larkai in London to order some sugar. Later, Akwasi Sarpong informed me that he had taken the initiative to order some sugar. I found that Mr Larkai had not made his order in writing and I asked him to cancel his verbal request. I was, however, later informed that a verbal order on the floor of the London Market was binding. We therefore, had two orders for sugar and no money to pay for both. Fortunately, we had a competent Foreign Service Officer, Mr Gbeho as Deputy High Commissioner in London and I asked him to try to persuade the Firm EDF and Mann not to insist on their pound of flesh. Mr Gbeho, the good diplomat, succeeded in arranging a meeting in London which I attended when a mission in Bulgaria. It was agreed that EDF and Mann would not demand payment for our order by word of mouth. Ghana would, however, agree to buy sugar from the Firm for two years. EDF and Mann would, however, agree to sell sugar to Ghana at the lowest price we obtained on the market. I agreed to the proposal but some in Accra believed that we had agreed on the arrangement for personal gain. The ministry, therefore, consulted the Attorney-General’s office and it was agreed that Ghana should plead sovereign immunity. I argued that the Bank of Nigeria had taken a similar case to court as had been reported in the London Times. It was then ruled that when the sovereign power descends to the market place it automatically submits to the rules of the market. Ghana however went to court and was found guilty. We lost a few thousand Pounds Sterling!
General knowledge of the law is therefore a must for those who conduct the affairs of the state. Such knowledge indicates when to consult the Attorney-General’s office. These days, there are attorneys in most Ministries and institutions and the interests of the state and the freedom of the individual should be enhanced.
The high official should however have enough feel for the legal structure of the state so that the law promotes the freedom of the individual. These sensitivity and knowledge should permeate other disciplines to promote the wellbeing of the individual and the state.
We live in difficult times and wrong information can spread to the discomfiture and interest of the individual and even the state. As already suggested, the media has a duty to assist citizens to understand what is happening. And at a time when the integrity of those who make the law is in question, the media and relevant institutions should promote that true and disinterested knowledge of the law which upholds freedom.