Fashion Politics: The Who and Why Pt. 1

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By Titilola Adeoti

Dressing for African politicians has always been more of a political than fashion statement. No African politician embodied this statement than the former late Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but, before Gaddafi was Haile Selassie. As Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie was said to be the most bemedalled ruler in the world at the time of his reign. Saving the stylish Selassie for the last episode of this edition on Fashion Politics, we begin with two modern African leaders. One – Gaddafi – is dead, and the other, a former dictator, just turned President of Nigeria. The difference in their fashion style was that while Gaddafi was bold and dressed for self, Buhari was simple and dressed for the electorate.

Muammar Gaddafi the Fashion King

Muammar Gaddafi ␣ the Fashion King
Muammar Gaddafi ␣ the Fashion King

The late Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was never one to be boxed into a suit as he often leapt free, taking fashion risks his counterparts wouldn’t ever imagine. He was a man who had maintained his individuality and understood the use of fashion to convey his staunch beliefs. While he was more recognized for his fight against western imperialism, it is worthy of note that he was an aesthetically inspiring statesman, and quite popular for his fashion choices amongst his other character traits which earned him the nickname “the mad dog of the Middle East”. He would often show up for events dressed to suit the occasion in his own unique way.

His attires were often an extension of his strong belief for African Nationalism as he proclaimed himself “The King of African Kings”. He wore African inspired outfits, map of Africa badges, prints and brooches. No other African leader expressed love for Africa like he did with his bold fashion statements. He pushed for the African state above other continents and could be said to have worn his beliefs literarily on his sleeves.  The only time he wore military garb was to endorse his projection of a powerful image for public appearances in Libya and even these were a display of bold fashion choices, because they were always accessorized with various ornaments. The colonel had many big fashion moments but perhaps the most striking was when he made his first visit to Italy, Libya’s former colonial master. He greeted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with a photograph of Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan resistance fighter who was hung by Italian forces in 1931, wearing it to his chest like a medal with an extra bit of effrontery.

The twist however lies in the fact that he was quite vain, changing attires up to three times in a day. He once boasted that whatever he wore became a fad but in actual fact although in his earlier years his attires complimented his features, as he grew older he lost touch as to how to dress his body and being the dictator he was, nobody dared question his austere choices.

Muhammadu Buhari  Dress for Votes

Muhammadu Buhari  Dress for Votes
Muhammadu Buhari Dress for Votes
Muhammadu Buhari  Dress for Votes
Muhammadu Buhari Dress for Votes
Muhammadu Buhari  Dress for Votes
Muhammadu Buhari Dress for Votes

In Africa’s giant, fashion works as one of the symbols of ethnical affiliation and even though younger Nigerians generally tend to copy the west in their outfits, politicians (many of whom are in the class of the older generation), during a well thought out campaign, use fashion to pass out the subtle message that they are no different from the electorate. As a former military dictator, Buhari’s fashion style, for the greater part of his older life, were in Khaki, until he was deposed in a coup by former military president, Ibrahim Babangida. When out of power, he simply dressed in his native attire, the Jalabia. That changed when he decided to contest a fourth time for Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election. When Buhari won the Presidential ticket of the All Progressives Congress, he released promotional photos of himself adorned in different ethnic attires to correct the image some electorate had of him as a tribalist. With those attires and photos, Buhari launched his campaign. The photos echoed a story that he was a changed man and more receptive and relatable. This was the starting point of the journey to accepting “the new Buhari”.

This trend of politicians campaigning for votes by dressing to appeal to particular ethnic groups also has its disadvantages. For instance, Buhari during his campaign, dressed in the Igbo native attire but, his desire to relate with the Igbo’s as one of them was rejected because he committed a sacrilege. Some Igbo groups frowned seriously because the Ozo and Nze red cap he wore is reserved exclusively for free born Igbo chiefs.