The credibility crisis, which President Muhammadu Buhari has run into over the plagiarism that his speechwriters have been foisting on him readily reminds us of the tyranny and misrepresentation that people necessarily face when they allow someone else to think for them. Speechwriting, by its very nature, is about playing with ideas and stringing them together with words. It is, therefore, the prerogative of the speechwriter to indulge in what in literary parlance is called poetic licence. The speechwriter is at liberty to impose his thoughts and diction on whomever the speech is meant for. That is why tutored minds shun speechwriters like a plague.
I recall here the experience of Professor Theo Vincent during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt. Vincent, a literary scholar and first-rate professor of English, was one of my most valued lecturers in the Department of English of the University of Lagos. Prof Vincent’s scholarship was never in doubt. He was at home with literary flourishes and fine phrases. I remember him fondly for his deep intellect. He was one of the few that products of the department will always be proud of.
After his tour of duty as vice chancellor, Prof Vincent returned to UNILAG to continue what he knew how best to do. But he did not forget in a hurry some of the disorienting experiences that he had in Port Harcourt. One of them was the imposition of a speechwriter on him. Vincent said he was scandalised by this. He could not understand how someone whose hold on the English Language is at best tenuous could be his speechwriter. He could not come to terms with that tradition. And he bulked at it. Prof Vincent wrote his speeches himself throughout his tenure, as vice chancellor of UNIPORT. He did so because he did not want any imposition or misrepresentation. That was circumspection at work.
Prof Vincent’s experience is not an isolated one. Those who are properly schooled are always suspicious of speechwriters. Even when they have to adopt any speech written for them, they do not swallow everything hook, line and sinker. They make adjustments where they must. But not so with the not so literate. Those who do not have the privilege of good learning are always canon fodders in the hands of speechwriters. They regurgitate whatever they are fed with. They have neither the idea nor the language to supplant what the speechwriter has foisted on them.
This is what has been happening to Buhari. On the day of his inauguration as president, they gave him a very fanciful speech to read. They told him to tell us with gusto that “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” He loved the lyrics to the extent that he never bothered about the import of the statement. And so he told us what was on the piece of paper without batting an eyelid. The president had spoken. That was the president that just came into power through popular acclaim. Nigerians were not in the mood to doubt him. They, therefore, went to work with the fanciful delivery. The fact that the president they knew was incapable of such deep speech did not matter.
More than one year after, the scales are beginning to fall off their eyes. Nigerians have gone into the archives to discover that Buhari plagiarised Charles De Gaulle of France, who once said: “I am a man who belongs to no one and who belongs to everyone.”
But then, it wouldn’t really matter if Buhari copied the words of De Gaulle. What should matter here is whether the Nigerian president believes in the statement he made to Nigerians. Weeks after Buhari declared that he belonged to no one, he reversed himself unapologetically while in the United States when he told the Nigerian audience there that he would give 95 per cent attention to segments of the country that voted for him. By that, the president meant that he belonged to someone. He belonged to those that voted for him. The president did not just say it. He has been acting it out faithfully. In the end, the declaration he made on May 29, 2015, turned out to be as good as the paper on which it was written. Can you now see the tyranny and distortion of the speechwriter? He made Buhari say what he did not believe in. That is an imposition, isn’t it?
What about the latest plagiarism that has exposed the more the lack of originality of the State House speechwriter? That speechwriter, whoever he is, freely copied aspects of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. He passed them on to Buhari on the occasion of the launch of “Change Begins with Me” campaign.
While addressing Americans in 2008, Obama had urged them to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long…” In the same vein, Buhari, on the occasion of the Change campaign, asked Nigerians to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our country for so long…”
Here, I am not too concerned about the transplantation of words that our speechwriter has regaled us with. That is why I left out the rest of the text of the plagiarised work. What should matter here now is the content of the speech.
Buhari, according to the speech, is asking Nigerians to shun partisanship, pettiness and immaturity. This is the kernel of the issue. Then we ask: Can Buhari, in all conscience and in all seriousness, preach this gospel? The answer is that that gospel does not sound like Buhari. It does not sound like the president we know. The Buhari we know is the one that promotes and revels in partisanship and pettiness. That is why he has elevated vendetta to state policy. His partisanship is so deep-seated that members of his political flock have become angels on earth. They are infallible. It is for the same reason that corrupt Nigerians can only be found among the opposition class.
The truth is that Buhari did not mean to say what he said. It is even possible that he did not bother about the content of the message. He just delivered it because he has a job to do. Apparently because the gospel of change has become jaded in the hands of government, the president thought there was something to run away with in the statement. He threw it at us with all its rawness and distortion.
This State House speechwriter must be an expert in word-lifting. Maybe, he is specifically employed to research into the speeches of world presidents and transplant them into our own president’s speeches. If that is not absolute lack of imagination, I wonder what else it is.
The embarrassed Presidency is clearly ill at ease with the copious plagiarism that it has been inundated with. It has asked Nigerians to ignore that and focus on the message of the president. We agree. But the real snag here is that the message, that message, does not belong to the president. It runs against the grain of everything our president stands for. Therefore, in both words and action, the Presidency is treading on a strange path. The odds are simply irreconcilable.