One more distraction for the president

THE revelations on plagiarism concerning President Muhammadu Buhari could not have come at a worse time, a time when he was scheduled to appear before his colleagues, heads of government, at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, United States of America. I could imagine how awkward he might have felt sitting in the same room with President Barack Obama, part of whose intellectual work was xeroxed for him to claim as his in the “Change Begins With Me” campaign launch address.

Even if President Buhari did not feel anything going into his sessions with other leaders, there could have been some individuals who might have been constantly reminded of the reports on the plagiarism which were not only replete in local media but also saturated the international news outlets. The story did nothing to add value to the president’s international standing at this point in time.

Since last year, when he assumed office on the back of fighting terrorism and corruption, he has been a shinning star somewhat among world leaders, some of whom had been known to scramble for photo opportunities with him at international fora like this. Even though he was still expected to attract attention, there was the likelihood that the damage done by the plagiarism accusation would have weighed heavily on his mind. A few persons might also have exchanged glances when Buhari pulled out his speeches to read. Were they clean? Could one or two things have been smuggled in without appropriate attribution? It has now come to that, regrettably.

The President has been unjustly treated by whoever is behind this heinous act of intellectual theft. Beyond the May 29, 2016 inaugural address which also contained unattributed snippets from Charles de Gaulle original quote, we must thank heavens that nobody has done a deeper analysis of the president’s speeches. Who knows how many more infractions could have been discovered.

The way things work has changed a bit in the presidential villa, not surprisingly in tune with the Buhari change mantra. In the past, there were known presidential speech writers, one at least, sourced from the academia, a community where plagiarism is considered a sacrilege. The tendency therefore is that if a competent academician were to write Buhari’s speeches, he would have been more circumspect about what finds its way into those speeches.

Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President who offered an apology and attempted to deflect criticism from the president, laid the blame squarely on the doorstep of a faceless deputy director in the presidency. His account would suggest that this fall guy is a civil servant possibly seconded from one of the ministries. His hunger for presidential recognition and plaudits could have driven him into producing a copy of flowery language spiced with stolen verses but unaware of the consequences if caught.

I am not convinced that this preventable embarrassing episode has anything to do with a nameless deputy director though. If that was the case, he would have been kicked out after his supposed admittance of guilt as claimed by Shehu. The presidential spokesman’s assertion is therefore just an exercise in damage control. We have heard that a seemingly untouchable and influential politician very close to the president is at the heart of it. This is not certain but more plausible and probably explains why nobody has been kicked out of the presidency since the story broke. But here’s the thing. That a non-expert could be allowed to tinker with the president’s speech raises questions about the type of characters Buhari is prepared to entrust with some basic administrative assignments.

If the presidency’s account is to be believed, an investigation has been launched to determine the circumstances surrounding the ignoble act even though many will wonder what sort of inquiry is required when the culprit is said to have already confessed to the crime. Just like other glaring cases of official negligence or incompetence that have been brought before the president, I don’t expect any action beyond what has been said already. But if the suggestion to install anti-plagiarism software on presidency speechwriters’ computers to detect cloned work is implemented, it will spare the president such further embarrassments. This case of plagiarism is an unwarranted distraction for a president who is saddled with an economy in recession and all its concomitant consequences.

President Buhari needs to concentrate all his energies on efforts to revive the economy, tackle corruption, insecurity and create jobs like he said he would. Nigerians are yearning for better days and are therefore not in the condition to stomach silliness such as the one offered by whoever the culprits in this plagiarism case are.