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Take off those comical hats, look presidential and get the job done

By Makau Mutua | June 29th 2014

There is an epidemic of hat-wearing African Big Men. As we speak, three African presidents – Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni Uganda – can’t seem to appear in public without “pith helmets”.

What I can’t fathom for the love of me is why an African president would don a ridiculous-looking hat at state functions. Unless of course they were hiding something hideous that would be unsightly. Except none of them has anything unsightly on their heads. President Museveni has a bald pate, but that’s not a reason to hide his noggin. Both President Kiir and President Jonathan have full heads of hair. So what logic has driven three powerful men to veil their heads?There is a historical legacy between power and the pith helmet. The pith helmet was invented for European colonial rulers in hot tropical climes. It’s a sister of the safari helmet worn by white tourists to ward off the African sun.

But my earliest memories of the pith helmet aren’t fond ones. I still remember stories about a stern-faced pith helmet-wearing British colonial district officer (DO) in Kitui who was said to “cane” Africans for the pleasure of it. These colonial “gods” were omnipotent.

They were intimidating and unapproachable. You could be sanctioned for just meeting the gaze of the white DO. When Kenya became an independent state in 1964, African DOs took the place of the British overlord.  As we know, the African post-colonial state inherited intact the machinery, mores, and garb of the colonial state. The only difference was that a black face resided at State House while the head in the pith helmet was now black.

African Provincial Commissioners, too, wore the pith helmet. It didn’t matter whether a DO or PC was male, or female – a pith helmet and khaki fare were the uniform. Watching the African DOs and PCs one could be forgiven for thinking that they were born with the pith helmet on their black heads. That’s because they wore them with authority and pride – as if they had invented the funny-looking hat. They didn’t see it as a symbol of oppression.

Today – over 50 years after independence – the relics of the district and provincial administrators still wear the pith helmet. Never mind that the 2010 Constitution abolished provincial administrators.

This is my point – the African has an uncanny penchant for holding onto the most ridiculous artefacts of European colonial culture. That’s why they wear the pith helmet – a colonialist’s funny hat – without any hint of irony or sarcasm.

Reminds me of Kenyan advocates – learned members of the LSK – insisting their professional “dignity” would be compromised if they didn’t wear the horse’s wig on their African heads. Why do we want to forever be dumb copies of the European original? Why do we have this racialised and malignant complex of inferiority?

Back to my three comical presidents. Let’s start with the Nigerian. A scientist and one-time academic, President Jonathan can’t be described as a “regular guy.” You will be hard pressed to find many people named “Goodluck”. I don’t know what his parents were thinking.

Boko Haram, the Islamic terror group, has exposed the dearth of wisdom underneath Mr Jonathan’s black hat. The man is like deer caught in the headlights. How can he allow “Africa’s giant” to be brought to its knees by a primitive rag tag militia?

I remember a poignant picture of President Jonathan and President Barack Obama at the White House. President Jonathan – with his funeral-like oversize black hat – looked like a cartoon character beside Mr Obama.

I’ll take Mr Museveni and Mr Kiir together.  Mr Museveni is perhaps the most awkward hat-wearing African president. His suits don’t fit particularly well, but his hat – which is several gallons big – only makes matters worse. How do you dress in a full suit and then carry such a heavy object on your head? I can understand a hat, shirt, and jeans at a cattle ranch in Naivasha or Texas, but not at a State House press conference beside President Kenyatta.

Mr Kiir, the inept President of South Sudan could be mistaken for a cowboy in his humongous black hat.  He wears it all the time, even when he’s sweating.

Presidents – whether African or other – are supposed to have image-makers. If I was President Jonathan, President Kiir, and President Museveni I would fire my image-makers pronto.

Come to think of it – why have their spouses allowed them to wear such strange-looking hats in suits? Are our dear presidents secretly yearning to be the pith-helmeted all-powerful colonial governor?

Perhaps channeling the despotic mien of the colonial administrator? I don’t get it because these clownish “presidential hats” don’t work as a fashion statement.

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