There is something about power and caps in Nigeria. An unwritten law seems to state that Nigerian power wielders at national and state levels must wear caps as part of some traditional attire, an indication of the rootedness of the individual politicians in the traditions of their roots. After all, all politics, it is said, is first and foremost local. In these parts, then, through their caps, you shall know their locality.
The semiology of caps in our political life assumed a life of its own even from the First Republic. Then, the cap was mostly a means of individual authenticity and self-validation. Akintola’s cap quickly told you he was first an Ogbomosho man. Dr. Azikiwe’s adapted Malaysian cap was more of a fashion statement than a badge of Igbo nativity. Okpara occasionally donned the Zikist cap but was more comfortable in the rainbow coloured war cap of Bende warriors.
Chief Awolowo wore a much simpler but different cap from Akintola’s more elaborate Abeti aja (ear of the dog) topping. So you couldn’t possibly put a pan- Yoruba commonality on Awolowo and Akintola simply based on their caps. Chief Awolowo either wore his signal cap straight up or slightly slanted it in a direction decidedly different from Akintola’s, I suppose for political effect. If anything, their differential caps signaled a latent ideological chasm and deep political divide. May be the shapes of their caps had nothing to do with the political upheaval that later enveloped the region and subsequently the nation, leading to conflagration and the civil war. We may never know.
Ahmadu Bello’s cap was almost similar to Akintola’s normal fare except when Ladoke Akintola decided to go grassroots native. But the Sardauna’s cap was somewhat non-flamboyant in many ways and was quite different from that of Tafawa Balewa, whose mostly simple white cap suggested a Sahelian ancestry more akin to Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso than something suggestive of a pan Northern Nigerian solidarity. So basically, in the First Republic, the cap as part of political costume was not an ethno national badge. It was either a fashion statement or a stamp of individual cultural authenticity. Sometimes, it became an emblem of ideological solidarity as in the case of Chief Awolowo and Dr. Azikiwe. For both men, it was an emblem that their ideological followers would adopt to differentiate themselves from the crowd of other political flock.
With military rule and the civil war, a new more sinister cap came into pre-eminence. Just take a look at the National theatre in Lagos. It was deliberately shaped to mimic the army general’s cap a la Yakubu Gowon. The internal differences within the formations of the military told you whom the cap fitted. Army Signals had a distinctive beret with the feathers of some strange birds sticking out in front. But basically, the military wore a uniform cap, thereby neutralizing somewhat the diversity and divisions among the politicians they surmounted and replaced.
When under Ibrahim Babangida, ideology became a preoccupation of the government, the cap became an unstated ideological symbol. In normal non-ceremonial uniform, Babangida loved the beret of his beloved armored corps. But he tilted it always to the right. When he was challenged on his imposition of a two party system on the country by fiat, he defended the decision by insisting that the dominant ideological tendencies in the nation’s politics were either ‘a little to the right’ or ‘a little to the left’. When the SDP, which was a ‘little to the left’ was about to win the presidential election, he annulled the results.
People forgot that he preferred his beret slanted a little to the right!
In the post military era, the cap again moved center stage to the national level. A new language of the cap accompanied the rise of an almighty federal government. Political struggle in Nigeria became an open warlike contest for control of the federal government with the oil cheque book. In a rather subtle way, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a quintessential gentleman, who related to federal power from the perspective of a colonial bureaucrat, perhaps unconsciously inaugurated the era of the cap as signpost of supreme political power. He came from Sokoto with the conical hand woven Shagari cap and an appropriate nationalist slogan –‘One Nation, One Destiny’.
The flowing Sahelian three-piece Agbada with the Shagari cap to match became the distinguishing costume of the ruling NPN all over the country. That costume was the passport to huge federal contracts and all manner of patronage in a rampaging assault on the national treasury. It was the ticket for enrollment into widespread racketeering in rice, cement, import licenses and all manner of shady deals for which the Second Republic politicians earned themselves eternal prison terms under the first Buhari. Maybe it was not the cap but those who wore it as a badge of gangsters that was the problem. The irony was that Mr. Shagari, an otherwise good man, had lent his signature political cap as a symbol of unprintable crimes. The cap had come to stay as a symbol of the new contest by ethno national ‘war lords’ for the control of the federal government in a new ‘turn by turn’ notion of power in our federation.
Therefore, when Obasanjo returned to power as civilian president in 1999, his ascent was celebrated both as a welcome nationalist resurgence and as a ‘power shift’ from the North to the South. The new cap at Aso Rock Villa, the seat of power, was in fact variations of the Yoruba traditional cap. The new cap was christened ‘power shift’. Other Nigerians working at the seat of power had to adopt this new cap and its accompanying variegated attire to indicate that indeed power had shifted to the southern end of the nation. Obasanjo himself was the worst advertisement for any cap anyway, either as fashion statement or ethnic symbol. He was neither a fashion icon nor an ethnic bigot strictly defined, but nonetheless still unmistakably a Yoruba man.
The next watershed in the semiotics of caps at the apex of national power was the ascendancy of Goodluck Jonathan, a man who became president more on account of his origins in the Ijaw creeks of the Niger Delta than on account of his personal sagacity or political muscle. With him came the signature Panama hat of the Niger Delta and the long be-jeweled woolen gowns popularized by ancient slave traders and oil chiefs of the old Delta. The panama caps were quickly tagged ‘Resource control’ by our public, an indication that this was the costume of the rise of the Niger Delta minorities.
Buhari’s return to power as civilian president marks a confusing amalgam in the caps of power. During the campaign leading to the 2015 presidential election, I guess the APC and Buhari’s handlers realized that the country was a vastly changed place. No single cap could summarise the aspirations of the people. The adoption of any one cap by a candidate would cost the politician the election. Buhari saw wisdom in wearing as many caps as the occasion demanded. In one of the flag off portraits, his handlers put poor Buhari in the laughable straightjacket of a business suit. A patently business unfriendly Buhari in corporate boardroom suit was a sight to behold. Quite pitiable. But that was a rather tragic use of costume in the play of politics.
Then they made him several costumes depending on where he was going to campaign next. In Lagos and the South West, he donned the convenient Baba Isale Eko cap on top of buba and sokoto in garish APC colours. In the South- South, the cap of convenience was the Panama hat on top of the adopted slave trader’s jumper. In the South East, it was either the red cap on the very uncomfortable isi agu (the lion’s head as the warrior’s ultimate trophy) tweed jumper or the Bende warrior’s rainbow cap on top of some lousy wrapper and jumper. All over the north, Buhari campaigned in the Sahelian Arab flowing gown and a tempered version of the Shagari cap except in Benue where the bold black and white stripes of the Tiv warrior was an imperative, an indication that things, including political promises, must be put in black and white. It seems that Buhari’s campaign costumes were either protective colouration or statements of national unity in diversity.
Once elected, Buhari reverted to his tempered Shagari cap on top of a convenient long Tuareg kaftan. The business suit and other assorted nationalistic garb have since disappeared. Costume wise, Buhari returned to the political north. Whether that reflects in the policies he has pursued in office or the key appointments he has made so far is open to public debate. But somehow, we are stuck with the nativity of Buhari’s homegrown Tuareg kaftans and the occasional flowing agbada.
Vice President and now acting President Yemi Osinbajo is a man I am fairly conversant with. We share common friends and a similar background in the academia. But the man is a lawyer, a damned erudite one at that. He is also a fine and decent gentleman, an efficient technocrat and above all a Pentecostal pastor. But he is in a political role, an environment that is not totally strange to him by marriage, work experience and long association. The last time I saw him in his office at Aso Rock, I could not comment on his cap because I was part of a business delegation with associates from the United Kingdom.
From the inception of his current substantive tenure as vice president, I have felt some discomfort for him in his mandatory political costume, which dictates that he dons a cap. As vice president, he could don any cap and slant it in any direction. The only thing he could not do was overtly wear an Awo cap or a Tinubu cap. Bola Tinubu’s political costume is both personal and a derivative from the Awo tradition. The cap is an adaptation of the classic Awo cap but Tinubu’s has an avante garde Lagosian slant, something deliberately adorned with images of cowrie shells.
Either as substantive vice president or acting president of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo cannot wear certain caps. He cannot wear either Awo’s or Tinubu’s caps in spite of his historic proximity to both. He also cannot wear Buhari’s cap in spite of his working proximity to that cap. In whatever direction he slants his present modest non-political cap, however, there will always be a political reading. If he tries to wear Buhari’s cap, he will be regarded as a usurper in some quarters and a traitor in others.
If he calls home to fetch a cap from his political ancestry, all hell will be let loose. The only solid base for whatever power he will be wielding going forward is the Nigerian constitution on the basis of which Buhari temporarily handed him sovereignty. The constitution wears only the costume of neutrality.
Luckily, Osinbajo is a lawyer and the laws by which we are governed are essentially Western. When in political doubt, therefore, I suggest that my friend the professor of law goes to the office dressed in an attorney’s suit. His best decisions then will likely be made in strict observance of the rule of law applied according to the laws of political common sense.
––Dr. Chidi Amuta, Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Ltd., is a member of THISDAY editorial Board.