On Maiwada’s Foray in Plagiarism

The problem is not that Ahmed Maiwada has complained of the similarities in ‘Bombay’s Republic’ and ‘Burma Boy.’ It is the manner in which he has done so — choosing to make a hurried conclusion before a logical argument, and choosing to, despite being a Lawyer and critic, assert his position non-evidentially. And what is more, he has done so in informal terms, in a manner that borders on vindictive desperation. But that cannot be a primary grouse, as I wish to clearly avoid lapsing into bouts of sentimentality. My interest is in laying bare larger concerns that he seems to have unintentionally (or abusively) raised. Since his Facebook profile is public, and since he graciously accepts friend requests, I believe the diligent reader will consider visiting his profile for an introductory session.

The accusation is simple — Rotimi Babatunde, author of the Caine Prize shortlisted ‘Bombay’s Republic’ plagiarized, ‘Burma Boy’, by Biyi Bandele. Two general statements are to be made. First, plagiarism cannot be proved aside the ‘intent’ of the plagiarist. And two, plagiarism, is not, on its face value, a tort (in fact it is referred to as a crime against morality, and not necessarily an illegality). To prove plagiarism, one has to hinge the offence to the offence of copyright infringement — a case of stealing someone’s work or idea, passing it off as an original, and making gain through this act. Each of these elements, I emphasize, must be taken independently. Each of these elements must be proved.

But supposing Mr Maiwada was unaware of this — which is highly unlikely, considering his pedigree — what point could he have been trying to make? Or better still, and more deferentially, what errors did he (un)intentionally commit by making such allegation? I should state, at this point, that I am witness to the fact of Mr Babatunde’s ‘innocence’ (since we stand before the Maiwada Panel of Inquiry). I have received up to five emails, forwarded by the ‘accused’, showing clear evidence of a story written before the novel (in danger of plagiarism, according to the ‘charge’ before us). I should equally state that having the evidence of innocence at my disposal, I am infuriatingly surprised at the baselessness of the attack — for I am in the know that the only passage being quoted by Mr Maiwada as evidence of plagiarism (Bombay as a mule driver) was written way before ‘Burma Boy’ was published.

So, returning to Mr Maiwada’s errors. He made the mistake, first, of making hurried conclusions. If the insightful reader has made effort to look at the first post, this will be clear. This hurryness is scary because we are dealing with language here, and I think, just as Prado Amadeu in Night Train to Lisbon, that words are much more important than things. To accuse a writer — nay, a ‘colleague’ — of plagiarism, hurriedly, without evidence, is to mock the transcendence of words, the infinity of language. Because words and language, and the stories conveyed through them, are to be treated as sacred. Plagiarism is a literary crime; as with a crime, one must prove beyond reasonable doubt; as with proving crime one must allow a hundred plagiarists to go free than a guiltless writer to be dragged to the mud of hurried speculation.

Clearly, this accusation borders on mocking language because a writer spends so much time honing the words, shaping the sentences. The writer in question, as I am aware of, spent not less than five years on the story, and Mr Maiwada knows that writers spend even more time. Has he failed to consider the implications of such activity, the sacredness of a writer’s duty? Does he not consider that a hurried conclusion is a slap in the face of the words carefully chosen, and not merely the writer who wrote those words?

The second error, which was expressed with malicious arbitrariness, is the certainty Mr Maiwada expressed of Mr Babatunde’s intent. I find this particularly awful because intent is a difficult thing to prove. One who judges intent, being unaware, sits on the threshold of action and makes careful analysis. By all rational standards, the action must overwhelmingly point to the intent — but even then the judge of intent is convinced ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. The parameters of this reasonableness exist outside the terrain of the accused, and so the judge (of intent) cannot be completely certain of intent. A conclusion of this-or-that motive, therefore, can only be based on a high degree of speculative certitude.

Yet, returning to the facts before us, we find that our Mr Maiwada hastily concluded of the act, and hence the intent. He has since insisted, if one follows his responses closely, that he is certain of this. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. By his analysis, Rotimi Babatunde intended in 2005, and thereafter since, to plagiarize Biyi Bandele’s work, published in 2007. There are no cheap points to be scored — forwarded emails are my proof (which I have no burden to prove their existence). And were we to score cheap points, I will put up a post tomorrow that mindlessly concludes that Biyi Bandele plagiarized Rotimi Babatunde — my argument will be that given Bandele’s status, he must have had access to Babatunde’s work sent to prestigious literary outfits. Even more, I will call the world’s attention to Mr Maiwada’s questionable declaration — claiming he has not encountered ‘Bombay’s Republic’ or its author before now. Was the story not included in Houdinin and Other Marvels, Babatunde’s collection that won the Cyprian Ekwensi Prize for Short Stories (Manuscripts and Published Fiction), as far back as 2009, which Babatunde went to Abuja to collect? Is Mr Maiwada unaware of this? Why did he not cry foul then? Yet, supposing he is unaware, how come the fact of plagiarism escaped the panel of judges that awarded Babatunde the Prize? Recall, however, that we are not given to cheap points.

What is more, I am still learning the Law, still researching to find examples where he who asserts does not have the evidential burden to prove. If Babatunde’s intent is in question, is questioned, the questioner must come forward with clear evidence. And this is not achieved by a mere ‘textual parade’, lifting passages from both works — it will be Mr Maiwada’s prerogative to show that the historical allusion to Burma is the ‘imaginative right’ of Bandele, and that the events that necessarily follow that historical fact cannot be alluded to by other writers. Put simply, Mr Maiwada does not seem to realize that history is a common pool. Should we be blind to the fact that both stories issue widely differing queries of the history they navigate? I need not be worried — I suspect that the intelligent observer has already, in the wake of this campaign of calumny, read both stories.

What, even, is imagination? What do we ascertain when we have visited the country of imagination? Do we return without stealing from reality? Do we return to reality without creating replicas of the characters we left in it? Is it impossible that if we travel together we would not return with the same images in our head? For, supposing we admit that Bandele has an exclusive right to any story he imagines, and supposing Babatunde equally has such right, how do we concede to the right of one without abusing the right of another? And because every right supposes an existing obligation, whose obligation will it be to respect the right of the other? The one who is older, and publishes the produce of his imaginative field first (as with Bandele)? Or the one who is younger and is at the threshold of his break? I hope Mr Maiwada has satisfactory responses to all of this.

Perhaps Mr Maiwada will insist that the story was stolen, plagiarized, whatever. How does he ascertain that the story in Burma Boy originally belongs to Bandele? I am exhilarated by what this question suggests — that even Bandele can be accused of plagiarism! The prosecutor should investigate the crime to its logical beginning. My thoughts are that if we are able to ascertain the originality of the idea, we can ascertain the ‘originality’ of the theft. Given that the act of plagiarism is only as valid as the originality of the idea. So the concerned purist, the one at whose name future plagiarists must shudder, should consider the inevitable option of questioning the originality of the story that was plagiarized. I suggest that he begin with investigating the moment (the nanosecond, the right spot, etc) when the idea struck Bandele that he can write the story of Ali Banana.

Or may I suggest that, convinced of the impossibility of proving such intangibility, Mr Maiwada could derobe himself of the cloak of responsibility he has hastily worn? May I suggest that he become interested in the multiplicity of narrative that is celebrated in less contentious spaces? May I suggest that he come to terms with the globalism of Imagination, a country which needs no visa, which has no boundaries — a non-attributive colony? A country where writers do not have to meet before they tell the same stories, as they do not have to meet to tell different stories.

I am convinced that if Mr Maiwada understands the larger context of his recent foray in plagiarism, he will make less hasty generalizations and inhabit the country of imagination, full time.