Bola Tinubu

By Olu Fasan

TO be honest, I’m not looking forward to the 2023 presidential campaigns that officially started yesterday. Why? Well, I really dread the thought of the likes of Festus Keyamo, Femi Fani-Kayode, Bayo Onanuga, Dino Melaye, Reno Omokri invading the airwaves and mouthing off on behalf of their principals.

These otherwise smart people are Nigeria’s most prominent sophists and dissemblers, with enormous capacity for political doublespeak! But their sophistries diminish the political process and subvert democracy’s first principles.  

In a country where character and integrity are not on the list of leadership credentials, where politics is devoid of truth and accountability, the political campaigns won’t be based on issues, facts and evidence, but, rather, on half-truths, deliberate misinformation and outright lies.

The prevalence of unprofessional spokespersons, who act as proxies and mouthpieces for the presidential candidates and represent them aggressively, will lead to arguments being presented falsely in order to make weak cases appear strong.

The Electoral Act 2022 attempts to sensitise campaign conversations. But while the act prohibits abusive language and hate speech and requires the media to give “equal” airtime, coverage and visibility to “all” political parties – unenforceable provisions – it says nothing about lies, false statements, deliberate untruths intended to deceive the electorate. In other words, the electoral act is not interested in ensuring that campaign statements and claims, made by the candidates or their proxies, help the voter in making an informed choice. 

That said, you and I know that no electoral act can legislate against campaign lies. The task of ensuring that politicians and their aides tell the truth falls professionally on the media, whose tough questioning can reveal and contradict rhetorical fallacies. Unfortunately, although Nigeria has experienced TV journalists, hardly any possesses, in my view, the forthright, tough and incisive interviewing style that would expose sophists and sophistry.

Now, this is partly because of the seeming cosy relationships between journalists and prominent political figures unlike the professional detachment one sees elsewhere. For instance, whenever Fani-Kayode appears on TV, there’s often an air of familiarity and informality between him and the interviewer. The other factor is cultural: there’s too much deference to political and public figures in Nigeria. Yet, as the Economist magazine famously said: “A sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform.” 

But let’s address some definitional issues: What is sophistry, who are sophists and why are they unhelpful to electoral democracy? Well, sophistry is the unscrupulous use of rhetoric. To be sure, rhetoric itself is not bad; it’s the art of persuasion. But when rhetorical tricks are used to make fallacious arguments, rhetoric becomes sophistry. Thus, as Oxford Dictionary puts it, a sophist is “a person who reasons with clever but false arguments”.

Plato hated sophists with a passion. In The Republic, he argued that sophists corrupted and debased Athenian democracy by “prizing rhetorical success over philosophical truth”, and, even worse, doing so for money. Plato found sophistry and sophists ethically objectionable, and devoted much of The Republic to attacking them. 

In his book The Tools of Argument, Joel Trachtman says that “lawyers are the modern heirs of the ancient Greek sophists”, because in wanting to represent their client zealously they try to make the weaker argument appear the stronger.

But lawyers are constrained by three factors. First, as “officers of the court”, they must act honestly; second, the sharp tool of cross-examination can puncture false arguments; and third, a judge’s power of questioning and intervention will put any lawyer mouthing rhetorical fallacies in his or her place.  

Sadly, political sophistry is not subject to the same constraints as legal sophistry. Which is why Keyamo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, can indulge in verbal incontinence and dissembling as a campaign spokesman. In 2002, Keyamo pursued up to the Supreme Court a case of certificate forgery against Bola Tinubu, then governor of Lagos State.

But now, as Tinubu’s presidential campaign spokesman, Keyamo says the case, dismissed on a technicality, was a “storm in a teacup”. Really? So, he pursued a vexatious or frivolous case and wasted court time! Credibility is all the lawyer has to sell; well, apparently not when the lawyer is a campaign spokesperson!

What about Fani-Kayode, the quintessential sophist? He makes changeability and political nomadism seem virtuous. He once viscerally opposed Tinubu; today, he supports him with the same zeal. In May last year, he tweeted: “If anyone tells you that Tinubu is 69, tell him that FFK said he’s a liar,” adding: “BAT is closer to 100 than he is to 69.”

In 2020, he issued a statement titled “An open letter to Jagaban”, asking Tinubu to retire from politics, saying: “Conclusion: it is over for Tinubu.” Of course, Fani-Kayode is entitled to make his choices, but where’s the integrity of his now overzealous support for Tinubu’s presidential ambition? 

Well, the opportunism goes both ways. In 2015, when Fani-Kayode was appointed Director of Media and Publicity of the Jonathan/Sambo campaign organisation, Tinubu issued a statement through his then media aide, Sunday Dare, saying: “That Fani-Kayode is the best a ruling party can present as a spokesman speaks volume about the PDP”, adding: “They are bereft of talent and character.” Yet Tinubu recently appointed the same Fani-Kayode as Director of New Media for his presidential campaign. It’s called politics without principle, one of Mohandas Gandhi’s “Seven Social Sins”!

This subject of sophists and sophistry matters because, with Tinubu avoiding live interviews like plagues, the faces and voices you will see and hear ad nauseam on TV stations would be those of his official and unofficial spokespersons. Keyamo, Fani-Kayode and Onanuga will go into overdrive to whitewash Tinubu. Of course, Melaye and Omokri will do the same for Atiku Abubakar and the “Obi-Dients” will fight Peter Obi’s corner on social media. 

Yet, the 2023 presidential campaigns are too important to be left to sophists. The media should promote the search for the truth by identifying and countering sophistry. 

Subscribe for latest Videos

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.