Modern Nigerian presidents know how to use clothes to explain their style of governing. Olusegun Obasanjo’s rule was as colourful and as lurid as his flowing outfits. His successor, the meek and mild Umaru Yar’adua, dressed all in white. When Yar’adua fell critically ill last year, he was replaced by his vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a man whose political views were known to few. Jonathan dresses all in black.
While the colour may be dull, the accessories – wide-brimmed hat, fancy gold chain – reflect the colonial history of the Niger Delta, the often violent region on the southern coast where Nigeria’s huge oil deposits are found.
“The British brought these exotic gifts to impress the natives,” says Dele Olojede, editor of newspaper Next. “The local notables began to imitate the British manner of dressing and attached the shiny objects on their clothes. They saw them as a sign of importance and success.”
Since taking power officially in May, after Yar’adua died, Jonathan has said he plans to stand for a full term when Nigeria goes to the polls next year. An incumbent would normally be favourite but Jonathan’s background may count against him. Traditionally, Nigeria has alternated its presidents between north and south, Muslim and Christian. Northern political figures argue it is still their turn as Yar’adua died after just two years in power.
“There is certainly nothing African in that hat,” says Olojede. “It was never part of our sartorial tradition.” The wide-brimmed headwear, worn by many prominent figures in the Delta, is based on the hats worn by British colonialists who first came to Nigeria in the early 1800s. Jonathan has worn it throughout his political career.
The long tunic is popular among eastern Nigerians, particularly the Igbos, the dominant group in the south-east. Many top it off with a red fez, sometimes with a feather too. The smaller groups in the south, including Jonathan’s in the Delta, have begun to adopt it. The tunic is thought to be based on the long-tailed coats worn by 19th century British traders.
The flash of gold, seen in Jonathan’s trademark chain that adorns the top of his tunic, has its roots in the gold trinkets and glass beads that British traders gave as gifts to the Delta’s leaders when they first arrived. It is seen as a sign of importance and success.
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