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Sunday, 25 September 2016

Plagiarism: An inherent albatross in political speech writing

In this piece, TOLUWANI ENIOLA reviews speech plagiarism scandals involving top politicians and reports that few lessons have been learnt

Two major reactions trailed last week’s inauguration of the ‘Change begins with me’ campaign by President Muhammadu Buhari.  The campaign was aimed at instilling in Nigerians values such as honesty and integrity.

The campaign, despite its well enunciated objectives, failed to delight Nigerians, many of whom are groaning in hardship owing to the economic recession.

But the news that President Buhari’s speech was lifted from the speech of the United States President, Barack Obama, further caused outrage and made the campaign looks dead on delivery.

Many Nigerians were surprised when ThisDay columnist, Adeola Akinremi, revealed in his Friday column that President Buhari’s speech bore semblance with Obama’s 2008 presidential election victory speech in Chicago.  Chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party and other opposition leaders swiftly took to social media to mock the President and his speech-writers.

According to them, the plagiarism scandal confirms their stance that the All Progressives Congress-led Federal Government is not credible enough to champion the cause of change.

A foremost critic of the President, Femi Fani-Kayode, wrote on Twitter, “He knows no history, plagiarises other presidents’ speeches and reads only the cartoon section in the newspapers.”

It was not only Buhari that received a barrage of criticisms. Two Nigerian writers, Akin Fadeyi and Omor Bazuaye, also accused the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, of stealing the “Change begins with me” idea.

Bazuaye had claimed that the new campaign slogan was a replica of their campaign titled ‘Not in my country,’ which they formulated in 2006.   Mohammed however denied the allegation and said the campaign was aimed at encouraging Nigerians to shun lawlessness and embrace values such as honesty and integrity.

Plagiarism in the political sphere is not new in Nigeria. Shortly after former President Goodluck Jonathan declared his intention for re-election, SaharaReporters had reported that Jonathan’s speech, which he read at the official inauguration of his campaign, was partly “lifted from a 2006 address given by former Vice-President Abubakar Atiku, when he announced his interest  in  the 2007 presidential election.

Jonathan’s speech partly read, “Our country is at the threshold of a new era; an era that beckons for a new kind of leadership; a leadership that is uncontaminated by the prejudices of the past; a leadership that is committed to change; a leadership that reinvents government, to solve the everyday problems that confront the average Nigerian.”

This resembled a paragraph of Atiku’s speech, which partly read, “Today, as we stand on the threshold of a new era, Nigeria requires a new kind of leadership, a leadership committed to this change process. We need a leadership that is not hampered or constrained by the regressive politics of the past or the unproductive ideologies of the present. Nigeria deserves a proven, committed and experienced leader who knows how to reinvent government to help solve the real problems facing our people today.”

Several other public figures have been involved in speech plagiarism scandals. Even Obama had been accused of plagiarising phrases from his friend, Deval Patrick.

It will be recalled that in 2008, the Hillary Clinton campaign group accused Obama of plagiarising  a campaign speech delivered by Deval Patrick while  the latter was contesting to be governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. Just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ — just words. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’— just words. ‘I have a dream’ — just words,” Patrick’s speech partly read.

During one of his campaign outings in 2008, Obama  had said, “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words, just speeches,”

Obama ,  according to a New York Times report, had said he should have given credit to  Patrick for using phrases from the latter’s speech.

The most recent plagiarism scandal was the one involving Melania Trump, the wife of the controversial US Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and US First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Trump’s wife, in a speech she delivered in July while campaigning for her husband, was accused of lifting part of a speech by Michelle Obama. The speech-writers of Trump’s wife have since owned up to the accusation.

The Nigerian Presidency’s response to the recent plagiarism scandal was not sufficient to calm frayed nerves on the matter.

Reacting to the issue, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, in a statement, said the similarities between certain paragraphs in Buhari and Obama’s speeches “were too similar to be coincidental.”

Shehu blamed the action on some overzealous workers and apologised on their behalf.

He also said a deputy director in the Presidency had accepted responsibility for the action and that the oversight would be investigated and the appropriate punishment meted out to the official.

Shehu urged Nigerians to look beyond the error and not allow the gaffe to distract them from the core message of change.

The statement read in part, “President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered that prompt and appropriate disciplinary action be taken against those responsible for a wrongful insertion in his speech delivered on September 8, 2016, at the launch of the ‘Change begins with me’ campaign.

Although President Buhari had apologised for using an excerpt of Obama’s speech and promised to impose sanctions on whoever was culpable, some analysts are of the opinion that the scandal further exposed the inefficiencies of government officials, especially in the formulation of public policies.

In an interview with SUNDAY PUNCH, the Assistant Secretary, Epe branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Aremo Oladotun, said it was unfortunate that the President’s speech-writers never learnt from history.

According to him, while observers have mocked Trump’s wife for plagiarising her speech, the President’s speech-writers should have been more careful and heeded the subtle warning.

“The speech delivered by the President during the inauguration of the ‘Change begins with me’ campaign is a colossal embarrassment; it further soiled the integrity of President Buhari who has been trying to fight corruption.

“The plagiarised speech is a breach of intellectual property rights of President Obama. It’s a grave error on the part of the Ministry of Information. Beyond this, it is very unfortunate that Nigerian politicians seem not to learn from history,” he said.

Buttressing Oladotun’s views, the National President, Civil Liberties Organisation, Igho Akeregha, said the speech plagiarism scandal, despite the embarrassment it caused Nigeria, drove home some lessons.

According to him, the scandal teaches Nigerian politicians to be thorough and honest.

Akeregha said, “Nigerian politicians must learn to be very thorough and must realise that we are in the Internet age where the Internet plays a very dominant role.  Those who are not ready to go to school should do so. Many lawmakers in the National Assembly don’t even use Internet facilities and social media.

“They must learn to cross-check facts. They need to learn to be honest. Honesty plays a key role here because when Donald Trump’s wife plagiarised Michelle Obama’s speech, she owned up to it and apologised.”

Also reacting to the scandal in an interview with SUNDAY PUNCH, a Professor of History, Siyan Oyeweso, said it had become imperative for the President’s speech-writers to subscribe to a code of conduct.

Oyeweso, who described the scandal as a national embarrassment, said any of the speech-writers who breached such code of conduct should be sanctioned.

He said, “Plagiarism is a serious offence not only in the academic circle but in other spheres of life. Speech-writers have a duty to say the truth always and to acknowledge their sources of information. It does not take any credit away from a speech-writer or any author who acknowledges his sources. Materials are neither sacred nor divine and not the property of anybody.

“It is intellectual robbery for any persons to lay claim to authorship of materials, content, patents that do not belong to them. We are all part of the main. Nobody is an island. We must borrow ideas but when we do so, let us accept and acknowledge the original source. It takes time to think critically. It is very lazy for anybody to lift from other others without acknowledging them.

“The problem is not the President; it is a wake-up call for him to ensure that his speech-writers must sign a code of conduct that whatever they are giving him must have emanated from their intellectual resources and not be a product of plagiarism. I think the speech-writers should subscribe to a code of conduct with the President and if anyone is found guilty, he should be thrown out. Plagiarism is an international embarrassment for Nigeria.”

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