About 20 minutes after presidential spokesman Femi Adesina announced President Muhammadu Buhari’s appointment of r as Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), I wrote a Facebook status update that called attention to Fowler’s bogus honorary doctorate, which went viral and became grist for the mills of several Nigerian news platforms.
But defenders of Mr. Fowler have said that the man is supremely qualified and competent. I have no reason to doubt that. They also say his acceptance of a fake honorary doctorate from a fake university does not detract from his competence and impressive record at the Lagos IRS. I also have no quarrel with that. Still others say he isn’t a fraud but the victim of a well-orchestrated international fraud. Well, I am not sure about that.
First, it helps to know that “Irish International University” is neither a university by any definition of the term nor is it located in Ireland. It never had a physical presence anywhere at any time; all it has is a website, a web of intricately woven but easily detectable fraud.
It has been in the news as a scam operation perpetrated by dodgy Malaysians with UK collaborators. As early as 2005, the Irish ambassador to Malaysia called the attention of Malaysian authorities to the scam that was Irish International University. “They do not offer any courses or conduct any classes in Ireland. I find the name is itself a deception because they are neither Irish nor a university,” the ambassador wrote in a July 24, 2005 letter, according to the New Strait Times. “I think the Malaysian authorities are aware of this and I hope they will take action to prevent people from being deceived into thinking they have qualifications from an Irish university.”
Fowler’s “honorary professional doctorate,” as he called it in his edited Wikipedia profile, was awarded in June 2007, two clear years after the Irish ambassador warned that Irish International University was a scam.
Fowler isn’t some dewy-eyed rookie; he is a well-educated 60-year-old man. If a university writes to tell me it will award me an honorary doctorate, the first thing I would do is to search the university on the Internet. (Google searches were already mainstream in Nigeria in 2007 when Irish International University “awarded” Fowler its “honorary doctorate”). He would have found the letter the Irish ambassador to Malaysia wrote to the Malaysian government.
Let’s even assume that Fowler didn’t have the presence of mind to Google the “university.” But there are other red flags about the “university.” For instance, why would a university that bills itself “Irish” not operate in Ireland but in the UK? (Fowler accepted his “award” on the campus of a well-known UK university, not in Ireland, although Ireland, where the university is supposed to be located, is a mere 610 kilometers from England). Would it make sense, for example, for a university that calls itself “Ghanaian International University” to award degrees in Nigeria on the campus of, say, the University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka? Why isn’t an “Irish International University” awarding degrees in Ireland? If that’s not a prima facie red flag of a scam, I don’t know what is.
But there is more: The Irish International University invariably demands huge sums of money from people as a precondition for “awarding” them their “honorary doctorates,” according to BBC’s investigations. Fowler got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the US and should know enough that legitimate US and UK universities don’t demand money from people they confer honorary doctorates on. If his entire educational and work experiences had been limited to Nigeria I would be prepared to cut him a slack because I have been told that many legitimate Nigerian universities demand financial gratification from people before they award them honorary doctorates.
Well, if Fowler didn’t know that Irish International University was a fake university that awarded fake, worthless degrees, he should have known this fact by 2008 after a BBC report exposed it. Sahara Reporters also did a report on the university in the wake of the BBC report, and named Bola Tinubu, Bisi Olatilo, Alistair Soyode, Timi Alaibe, Tunde Fashola, etc. among people who accepted IIU’s fake degrees at a ceremony in London. Given Fowler’s closeness to Tinubu and Fashola, it’s reasonable to assume that he at least became aware that IIU was a scam-if he wasn’t smart enough to see the red flags from the beginning.
So while I am prepared to be persuaded that it was his gullibility that caused him to accept a fraudulent honorary degree from a non-existent university, it will stretch the credulity of any intelligent person to insist that it was the same gullibility that caused Fowler to continue to flaunt the degree (and even include it in the resume he submitted to the president!) seven years after it has been exposed to be fraudulent.
As I said earlier, if Fowler didn’t know IIU was a fake degree in spite of ample evidence to suggest this, then he must be either mentally subnormal or recklessly remiss. If he knew it was fake but went ahead and accepted it- and even swanked it- anyway, his ethical judgment is suspect at best.
What he did isn’t criminal, of course. But things don’t have to be criminal to be condemnable. His action, at the very least, betrayed a grave lapse in ethical judgment. And in a government that stakes the social, political and even symbolic basis of its legitimacy on its intolerance of corruption and its promotion of transparency, it is legitimate to question the moral judgment of a man who is appointed to superintend over the affairs of a crucially important government agency like the FIRS.
I studied the psychology and rhetoric of scams. Award of fake degrees, especially fake doctoral degrees, falls in the category of what I call scams of ego. Perpetrators of scams of ego, such as diploma mills of which International Irish University is a prime example, prey on the status anxieties of insecure, ignorant, and fraud-prone people. Fowler seems to fit that bill.
If Fowler was a victim of IIU’s scam, he was a willing victim or, to paraphrase the title of my master’s thesis, he was robbed with his active consent. I won’t be comfortable with that sort of person as my country’s chief’s tax collector. But the choice is ultimately President Buhari’s to make.