D URING the tenure of one of our past presidents, I was given a publication to distil some of its content for use in another publication. The publication, a “Mid-term Report” of the president’s administration, featured inputs from various ministries, departments and agencies. It was meant to project the goals and achievements of the government of the day. And, not surprisingly, its foreword was signed by the then incumbent president, an indication that his government endorsed it at the highest level.
Unfortunately, the caption of that foreword signed by that president, thereby adopting it as his own, was spelt “forward.”
Now, the WordWeb dictionary, defines “foreword” (a noun) as “a short introductory essay preceding the text of a book.” It also renders the meaning of “forward” (which can be a noun, a verb or an adjective) as “at, near or directed toward the front,” among other definitions. In fact, both words are homonyms and their meanings are totally unrelated.
But I could not bring myself to think that the president in question did not know the difference between “foreword” and “forward” as the caption suggested, being aware of how the error could result from putting one’s faith in aides one believes to be competent who turn out to be the opposite.
A competent proof-reader should have spotted the error before the publication was passed for the signature of the president in question or went to press. And one would not blame him for not playing the role of proof-reader for those behind the publication, in addition to that of a president overseeing many serious matters of state, which is what it would amount to if one were to insist that he should have spotted the error himself.
In fact, a president should have such aides, and such faith in their capabilities and integrity, that he should be able to adopt or sign off on any document they present to him without undue anxiety about any untoward consequences.
Yet I found it inexcusable that a president who approved an annual education budget running into billions could be exposed to such risk of being deemed ignorant of the difference between both everyday words, whereas the thousands of citizens who benefit from that budget should be more than enough resource he can draw on and avoid such embarrassment.
But I was not surprised that he could not, knowing the types of incompetents that surround our men of power, who they choose as aides often based on primordial considerations rather than merit. Such are the pitfalls of our nation having degenerated into a shrine for the worship of mediocrity, where glorified square pegs strive to fit into round holes in most public offices.
And as we can see with the case I have cited, involving the former president, and the more recent charge of the plagiarism of President Barack Obama’s speech levelled against President Muhammadu Buhari, the victims of such institutionalisation of mediocrity can also be presidents, and their reputation can be threatened as a result, which necessitates their taking the lead in reversing the negative trend.
But suffice it to say that President Buhari is not the plagiarist. He would have been if he personally wrote the speech. And it is noteworthy that his media team has issued a statement identifying the culprit with a promise of appropriate sanctions, and by implication acknowledged the moral breach with regret.
In fact, the origin of this plagiarism being wrongly attributed to President Buhari by some commentators may not be different from that of a similar charge levelled against the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), now Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. One Victor E. Dike, a Nigerian university don based in the United States, once sued Sanusi for allegedly plagiarising his work.
But as Farooq Kperogi noted in his column entitled “Issues in Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s plagiarism allegation,” published in a national newspaper in 2012, Sanusi “wasn’t personally responsible for the plagiarism” because “the speech was written for” him “by some intellectually slothful CBN employee.” Kperogi’s explanation reinforced that of the CBN’s Director of Corporate Communications, Ugochukwu A. Okoroafor, that “Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi did not write the said paper” and that it was “prepared by professional researchers in the relevant departments of the Bank.”
The point, which applies to both cases involving President Buhari and Sanusi, is that one cannot plagiarise another’s work by proxy. Also, that the blame for the offence should be placed on the individual directly involved.
However, there are various lessons President Buhari can learn from this experience to deepen the wisdom he needs to run the country effectively.
One is that the wrongs ascribed to people in power are not always committed by them, though they may be required to take responsibility or be impacted by the consequences as in his plagiarism case. I hope realising this makes him more empathetic towards those who have travelled the difficult path of leadership before him.
It also shows the quality of some of the people President Buhari may have chosen as aides, that one of them could believe they can steal from a speech delivered by someone as prominent as President Obama and not get caught in the age of the internet. I hesitate to call such theft foolish, as well as the hope of escaping detection, because anyone knowledgeable about the use of words and ideas, as a presidential speech-writer should be, should know that plagiarism never goes undetected.
Incidentally, I believe that whoever pads a speech with someone else’s ideas, believing that they will benefit from the fraud and that it will go undetected, as every plagiarists does, will similarly pad anything else, including a budget with false projected expenditures, and payrolls with names of ghost workers, if possible.
- Oke is an Abuja-based public affairs analyst.