ACCRA—We are familiar with the rhetorical fireworks and oratorical brilliance that often characterize some of the greatest speeches of our time. We know what a good speech sounds like. We also know that those who deliver those great speeches do not usually write what they say; there are people who are paid to write for them: speechwriters.
“You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” This is one of the proclamations that made Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990) an Iron Lady. She was admired for her masterful and powerful rendition of the lines, but do we know who wrote those words? Thatcher’s speechwriter, Ronald Millar (1919-1998) served the UK Prime Minister well, choosing the right words for the right occasion. He also wrote her first speech as PM.
Sam Leith, author of ‘Words like Loaded Pistols’ and former editor of the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, observes that “A good speechwriter doesn’t put words into a politician’s mouth, and an effective politician won’t let one do so: for the former, the task of writing against character is too difficult; for the latter, the risks of putting someone else in charge of your mouth are too high.” When it goes well, we remember a great orator. If it goes bad, a thousand speeches will be written just to say how bad it was.
Speechwriters, including Judson Welliver (1870-1943), the first American presidential speechwriter, appreciated this risk. Judson, the person who invented the phrase ‘Founding Fathers,’ was American President Warren Harding’s speechwriter. There were some great speechwriters after Welliver. Leith notes a few: “For every Margaret Thatcher, there is a Ronnie Millar; for every Barack Obama, there is a Jon Favreau; for every John Kennedy, a Ted Sorensen.” The next time you play back Kennedy saying ‘Ask not what your country can do for you….,” spare a thought for Ted. He wrote it.
I, too, write speeches for a living. I just finished writing one for my Country Director. What are my bona-fides for venturing into a special occupation that requires you to enter into the thinking of another, and represent their thoughts on paper or a teleprompter? A good speechwriter knows the speaker’s pet phrases and has the ability to enter into their stream of thoughts. Does he like anecdotes and aphorisms? You must know it.
Buhari’s Borrowed Lines
It is a ‘linguistic sacrilege’ and an abominable professional heresy to feed your speaker with another person’s words, as Nigerian President Buhari’s speechwriter is alleged to have done a few days ago. Launching a new campaign ‘Change begins with me’, which is aimed at instilling in Nigerians a positive attitude and behavioural change, President Buhari said: “We must resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our country for so long.”
The sentence, and a few others, bore close resemblance to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago: “Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” Now, let’s look at two more sentences that were also borrowed from Obama.
Obama 2008: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.
Buhari 2016: “Let us summon a new spirit of responsibility, spirit of service, of patriotism and sacrifice. Let us all resolve to pitch in and work hard and look after, not only ourselves but one another.”
Obama 2008: “Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.
Buhari 2016: “What the current problem has taught us is that we cannot have a thriving army of rent seekers and vested interests, while the majority suffers.”
President Buhari has promised to punish the person who made him sound like a ventriloquist and embarrassed him before the people of Nigeria and the world. Renowned This Day columnist Adeola Akinremi, who made the revelation in his column, had some strong words for the president’s speechwriter–for falling back on the same pettiness and immaturity that Buhari sought to criticize.
How Much Are Speechwriters Paid?
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the President’s nephew, Mamman Daura, is the person behind the speech. It is reported that Daura, the most powerful powerbroker in the Mahammudu Buhari administration, has hijacked the speechwriting and official communication functions at the presidency. He would not use draft speeches submitted by technocrats who know how government departments run. He determines what the President will say anytime. He must answer where the Obama lines came from.
Speechwriting is a special craft for men of letters and those who love the art of communication. Nigeria, the country that produced Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, does not lack people with skills to write presidential speeches. Like Ghana and many African countries, Nigeria imports many products, including toothpicks, but we did not expect them to import speeches from America.
How much do federal speechwriters in Nigeria earn? The salary and allowance structure of public officials in Nigeria puts the speechwriter on the same scale as the President’s special advisors, receiving in excess of N1,942,875 ($6,162) as annual salary. It comes with a vehicle maintenance allowance of N1,475,156 ($4,622), N582,862.50 ($1,848) as utility allowance, and N291,431.25 ($924) as newspaper allowance, plus lots more, totaling N7,091,493.75 ($22,494). There is enough motivation not to plagiarise Obama.
Yes We Can, But We Should Not
At the communication school, we learnt about the processes and the ethical issues involved in crafting a speech. To begin with, you must know the person you are writing for; you would need to ask some questions about exactly what they want to communicate on this occasion. You will be amazed the ideas they have. It is their speech after all, not yours. That is why I find it strange that politicians in Ghana demand a written speech a few minutes before it is their turn to speak.
While writing, you may look at other speeches–from Aristotle to Cicero to Obama–but there is no room for plagiarism. Every popular phrase, including the Lord’s Prayer, was conceived by somebody. Don’t borrow freely. But if you must, look beyond the Obamas. Melania Trump has learnt her lessons while ‘growing up as a young black woman.’
If we love the words of the Obamas, let’s ask Jon Favreau how he crafted ‘Yes We Can.’ Barack gets involved. Sometimes, he rewrites the salient parts of his speeches on Airforce One. A butterfly is not a bird. Buhari knows this too well.