Image of Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhar

What If the President of Nigeria Had Been Cloned?

In a helpful reminder that American politics are not the world’s only ongoing farce, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari felt compelled last month to deny rumors that he had died and been replaced by a clone. “On the issue of whether I’ve been cloned or not,” he said “I can assure you all that this is the real me.”

Exactly what a clone would say, no?

Although by all accounts there is (obviously) no actual evidence for what would have been a marvel of scientific achievement, what if he had been cloned? What if a sitting head of state of a constitutional democracy were replaced by a clone of himself during his tenure? Would the clone have a legitimate claim to power, or should the affair be treated as some kind of a high tech palace coup?

It is certainly a context dependent inquiry. There may be prudential reasons to trigger new elections to ensure a mandate one way or the other. People do get weird about clones. This is also, you know, not a realistic problem. But the question raises interesting issues of both bioethics and political theory that are worth discussing. The takeaway, I think, is that a Buhari clone might have a legitimate claim to presidential power.

On the bioethical side, the question will turn on whether the clone can be said to be the same person as Buhari. If the clone were the same person, he would have the same claim.

Now, much ink has been spilled in arguing that human clones would be individual people in their own right. And of course they would. Genetic identity is not personal identity. Any claim by such a clone, raised and developed as Dolly was, would have to the Presidency would be one of heredity and not identity.

But suppose that if anyone actually thought this could work, they would have to go farther than merely raising a normally developing Buhari 2.0 in some dystopian facility in rural England. Suppose that the technology were such that scientists were able to not just clone Buhari but replicate him, and suppose further that they were able to copy his brain—and the memories, thoughts, inclinations, personality and life story contained therein—into the replica(nt). This is a closer question. Sure, it’s a different body, but can we not say that from the perspective of what matters in personal identity it’s the same person?

Many philosophers would say we could. John Locke, for example, argued that memory is constitutive of personal identity. A person with total amnesia would no longer be the same person, but the same memories implanted into a different body would be. But this view has its issues. Thus far we’ve been assuming, as the proponents of the Buhari-has-been-cloned theory appear to believe, that the original Buhari has died.

But we can imagine that the replication technology does what I’ve described without harming the original Buhari, who is still out there and kicking. Which one is president? This conundrum, coupled with the assumptions that the concept of identity does not brook degrees and that the truth of your continued existence cannot depend on external facts such as whether or not you’ve been replicated, led Bernard Williams and others to argue that bodily continuity does matter to identity.

Thomas Nagel argued that in cases of two competing Buharis, the real Buhari would be the one closest to the original. Presumably this would mean whatever infinitesimally greater element of continuity original-Buhari has maintained with himself that replicant-Buhari lacks would give original-Buhari the greater political claim. Derek Parfit simply argues that there may not be a meaningful answer to these kinds of questions but that personal identity is not at any rate what matters.

Indeed, from the political theory side, there may be a colorable argument that the cloned Buhari has a legitimate claim to the presidency even if he is not the same person. We know such a thing is possible: sans clone, if the president dies the vice president becomes president without a vote. Though there are others, the two major theories of the legitimacy of the exercise of power based on popular vote are probably what might be called small-d democratic and small-r republican. Either theory could support our cloned friend’s claim.

The democratic theory is that legitimacy arises from voting for people who agree with us on ideology and policy. Under this theory, the requirement that we vote for people at all is somewhat incidental: if we could practically vote on policy, perhaps we should. What matters to political legitimacy is not really personal identity so much as political and ideological identity.

The republican theory says that legitimacy arises from voting for people of exceptional grace and good judgment. Under this theory, voters should care about the individual, but it’s not metaphysical personal identity that they care about. It’s that individual’s definable characteristics of good leadership.

Regardless of metaphysical identity, a Buhari clone would be very likely to share with the original Buhari all these concrete characteristics that political theory tells us are what really matter to political legitimacy. In the postulated replicant case, such things would be identical, and it isn’t clear that whether we follow Locke or Williams would matter to the political claim. But even in a case of more traditional cloning, a Buhari clone would probably be very similar to Buhari on the genetically influenced (and theoretically relevant) characteristics of political, ideological and religious views, and intelligence, personality, self-control and aggression. Now, it would depend a great deal on how similar, and, of course, the environment matters too. Being raised in the aforementioned dystopian facility would surely do a number on anyone. But the point is that President Buhari perhaps should be less insistent about proving that he is not in fact a clone.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter anyway.


James Toomey is a 2018-2019 Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellow

Photo via US Dept. of State/Flickr
James Toomey

James Toomey

James Toomey is a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His research focuses on bioethics, health law, and elder law. His scholarship has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the Elder Law Journal, and AJOB Empirical Bioethics.

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