[The Presidential Blog]: How To Get Away With Plagiarism

“If anything goes wrong, I will take responsibility, and I will fix it. That is what it means to lead”.

This is my premise. It is where I start this admonition/reproach/plea – probably-the-most-conflicted-passage-ever-written.

Yesterday, Adeola Akinremi revealed that President Muhammadu Buhari lifted chunks off President Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. It is extremely heart-breaking. And not just because this is a real scandal against the President’s person, but also because the speech in question was delivered to launch a campaign against indiscipline. Plagiarism is indiscipline at its very core.

This passage is conflicted because on one hand, I recognise that this is a big deal and it is okay for it to be inflamed but on the other, I do not think it is not so big a deal that it invalidates the whole ‘Change Begins With Me’ campaign.

“Plagiarism is not a trivial matter” Adeola Akinremi’s article starts. That is true. It is not the thing that a President does and not a thing that President Muhammadu Buhari should be associated with. Certainly not through a speech given to encourage Nigerians to live above board in a bid to see us through these difficult times.

Having said all that, I cannot imagine that many of the journalists who will write about this scandal including those who have already written about it with a view to further discredit the ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign have never ‘plagiarised’. Plagiarism is not a trivial matter, but it is not an uncommon one either.

See how I have plagiarised Adeola’s first line in my last sentence? As opposed to how I gave him credit for the same words in the previous paragraph. If I hadn’t been writing about the subject-matter, I probably would have continued writing without acknowledging where I got the line from. To my mind, it would have registered as ‘inspiration’ and not ‘copying’ because I had just read his article before writing mine. It happens. So I might as well acknowledge in advance every writer whose article I have read today and in recent times whose words might sneak their way into mine unnoticed.

I acknowledge Adeolu Akinremi; the writer of this Premium Times Opinion piece, Samuel Ogundipe who wrote about the intellectual property theft that Minister Lai Mohammed might be guilty of. I also acknowledge Michael Kinsley, from whose Vanity Fair article about Fareed Zakaria I have borrowed inspiration on how to write with empathy about those accused of plagiarism.

On the 8th of September, the President launched the ‘Change Begins with Me’ Campaign. The campaign is intended to motivate Nigerians towards attitudinal changes which should help reinforce the impact of the economic and political changes being effected from the top. Quite laudable in my opinion; although not many Nigerians seem to be on board judging from the amount of pessimism the campaign has met with to date. This plagiarism thing might actually be the proverbial last straw.

It should not though. If properly handled. And no, I am not unaware of Special adviser Garba’s tweets. At best, those tweets are dismissive of the gravity of the allegation and this is where my premise comes in.

When President Buhari was campaigning, he promised us that if something went wrong, he’d take responsibility and fix it. We believed him. I should think so; seeing as he is now the President. We can all however admit that it just doesn’t seem like the President has been taking a lot of responsibility lately. If it’s not “the elements breaking pipelines” that are “robbing the nation of much-needed resources” then it’s the past administrations that bequeathed a recessed economy.

It is not that all that is not true, dear PMB, it is just that we’d like to see you take responsibility for some of the things that have happened under your tenure too. Like the alleged harassment of the #BBOG campaigners or the fact that subsidizing FX was a very bad idea. Almost as bad as fuel subsidy.

I digress. What I’m trying to say is that this is as good an opportunity as it would get for the President to make good on one of his lofty campaign promises. For him to accept responsibility.

It is true that many Heads of States do not write their own speech and so it is possibly not really the President’s fault. The plagiarism. He simply read what he was given. But you see how that makes him look? Not too good, in my opinion. And that is exactly where we are with the response that the President’s aide has offered via Twitter. That’s not where we should be.

It is also true (as I pointed out earlier) that plagiarism not uncommon. In fact, it is quite a thing with political speeches. Apart from the Melania Trump/Michelle Obama episode that left us in stitches, there have been many other instances; inluding those that affected President Barack Obama himself. Yes, the smooth talking, brilliant lawyer has been guilty of plagiarism too.

On more than one occasion in 2008, Americans outed Senator Barack Obama plagiarising the Governor of Massachussets, Deval Patrick. His campaign managers dismissed them claiming they were “just words”. It worked for Obama.

I do not think that is the approach President Buhari should take though. This is a campaign intended to unlock a new phase of positive behavioural patterns amongst Nigerians. It will be a shame for something like theft (of words but theft still) to mar the same campaign.

What I think will be proper is for The President to tender an apology. Plain. Sincere. Admission of guilt. And the Prwsident himself should write this one. It need not be long or anything. Just a few paragraphs. First, thanking Adeolu Aderemi for making it a point to draw our collective attentions to a misnomer. And then, apologising to Nigerians, he should admit that it was certainly unusual that he did not notice the similarities his words had with Mr. Obama’s rather popular Victory speech.

That simple. If the President likes, he can even make it a point of reference while meeting with President Obama next week. Now that will be amazing! Apologise directly to President Obama. We can all agree the White House has probably heard of it already. So why not address the elephant? Start the bilateral meeting with a funny reference to the “coincidence”.

And that will be the end of it. Or should. Nigerians can sometimes be unforgiving.

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