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The Fashion of our Political Campaigns 

By Dr Bukar Usman


It was my good friend, Tonnie Iredia, former Director-General of the NTA, who observed in his column (Sunday Vanguard, February 20, 2011) that Nigerian political campaigns are yet to be issue-oriented. Another commentator, Moshood Adebisi, writing in Punch, three days later, likewise lamented the absence of real issues in Nigerian political debates. We are only a few weeks to the forthcoming general elections; yet, the most intense discussions are not about the nation's developmental challenges but about the sectional colouration of candidates and the dominant picture we see in our rallies are uniformed dresses, not engraved party programmes. This is worrisome.

    Party functionaries may well be clear about what they want to put across to the electorate but the reality is that it is not sounding loud enough to help us make up our minds on those issues. Many politicians seem to believe that it is the party platform that matters, hence the scramble for seats in a musical-chair fashion with no apparent commitment to any ideology or principle. Without satisfactory internal democracy, and party discipline nearly all the parties are afflicted by unhealthy claims and counter claims centred on the validity of multiple primaries, all leading to political parties flagrantly making substitutions, contrary to the results of their primaries.

      Although Mr Iredia thinks that the current pattern is not very different from the dominant trend since our independence, I recall with nostalgia that the 1979 electoral campaigns were largely issue-based. At least, there were four major easily discernible issues that dominated popular discuss in 1979. They were: education, health, housing, and agriculture. The political parties identified with and drummed these issues into our ears. You didn't need to be a member of any of the then five political parties to know where they stood on these issues. We knew which party took agriculture seriously enough to tag it "green revolution," and which party was so concerned about free education it practically became its "cardinal programme." Even school children could tell the difference!

      Alas, few weeks to the 2011 general elections, we still can't tell our political parties apart on the basis of touchstone programmes. All we get is all the parties promising us the same diet of programmes and projects, thereby sounding like each other's copycat, thereby betraying acute lack of ideological focus and group consciousness. So, to woo the confused electorate, whom they have failed to court on the basis of issues, politicians and political parties resort to mere rabble-rousing, when not out-rightly clannish or provincial.

      Our political parties are becoming more like entertainment parties in the way they dress up their campaigns. I have observed with interest, in the current political campaigns, a certain tendency to use fashion to make political statements. At campaign rallies, party functionaries appear in impressive uniforms (aso-ebi) to identify with the dominant dress style or culture of their audience. This is not entirely new, although it wasn't a very common practice in the past. The electorate should look beyond the robes. Since the hood does not make the monk, we must insist that issue-driven message, rather than costume, should be the rallying point of political campaigns. 

      I watched with admiration how Barak Obama and Tony Blair, as candidates in their respective countries, moved from rally to rally, dressed simply in shirt and trousers. They campaigned on the real issues and how their party's programme would help in resolving those issues. They articulated serious issues, which approximate the desires and wishes of their peoples. They promise to improve their standards of living in general and listed the specific steps they would take to achieve that goal within realistic timelines. Alas, in Nigeria, they speak in evasive and deceptive manner. Let's emphasize issues, not dresses.

      Mind you, party leaders can dress well and still have focus during rallies. This was so in the First and Second Republics. They made no fuzz about their dressing. Yet, that did not detract from the seriousness of their commitment to the electorates.

        Key politicians of those two eras dressed very well and, sometimes, flamboyantly, but they were certainly more frugal in the time and resource they spent on their robes. They hardly sowed uniforms but rather used their mode of dressing to brand their personality and ideological inclination. There was usually one strikingly symbolic fashion with which a particular politician was easily identified and which made him stand out from the crowd.

        For instance, Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello were always with their peculiar turbans while Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Michael Okpara, Waziri Ibrahim , Samuel Akintola, Aminu Kano, and Joseph Tarka were identified by their individually striking fezzes. Awolowo's was chequered, Azikiwe's black, Aminu Kano's red. Yet, there were others who wore similar hats but distinguished theirs by adding unique tassels to the top. And there were those who didn't wear fezzes at all, who preferred woolly hats, like Mbonu Ojike, or bowler hats, like Okotie Eboh. And these hats were reinforced by the kind of dresses they were matched with. Awolowo and Akintola matched theirs with woollen agbada or buba dress, Azikiwe's contrasted well with his immaculate white brocade agbada while Aminu Kano's socialist red cap on his simple white poplin kaftan complemented his talakawa message and orientation.

      Politicians mentored during those eras continued the hat stamp: you remember the unique hats of Anthony Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Ganiyu Dawodu, Akin Omoboriowo, Zanna Bukar Dipcharima and the still elongating cap of Solomon Lar. And we didn't just know these politicians by their hats but by how they placed them on their heads: some stood erect, others tilted uniquely to the left or to the right, to the back or to the front. The women didn't play the hat game but were generally decently dressed.  

      I think the hats and other individual dress styles helped us more in identifying the politicians than the current uniforms which lump them all together. Even today, there are politicians we can easily distinguish by their mode of dressing: people like Segun Oni, Kayode Fayemi, Olusegun Mimiko, Niyi Adebayo, all of whom appear to be carrying on the legacy of Awolowo dress code, Adams Oshiomhole, in his humble khaki French suit and Peter Odili, who popularised the "resource control," hat.

      What legacy would our other present crop of political leaders individually bequeath? Should they choose to continue with present mass fashion parade?

      However a politician dresses, that shouldn't be more prominent in political campaigns than vital issues that affect the polity. Were dresses to matter, Nigeria may well be underway to setting the pace for the world by our current practice; and soon we may see American party leaders wearing the gorgeous apparel of the American Indians while their Australian counterparts may appear in the stylish dresses of the Aborigines. 

     Let's not dress up our politicians more than we address the issues affecting our people on a daily basis. Our politicians should be more natural and place more emphasis on delivering the substance of their manifestoes. They should go for the substance and not for the form, for the latter would not help the average voter to make an informed choice. More importantly, issues should be articulated and disseminated early enough to make the desired impression on the electorate. Political parties should not wait until election time before telling us where they stand on issues. Having said little during the four-year interval between our general elections, our political parties are even now saying less by the uniformed dresses they are showing off. Let's have more addresses than dresses, please. 





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