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Many wondered why UPC’s Olara Otunnu wore the same red and black shirt three days in a row…

Dress has been influential in the political agenda and self representation of politicians whether in democratic or authoritarian regimes, so they say.


Many African leaders have been identified and judged by the statements made in their dress code. But as Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi writes, dress is not only a maker of identity and status, it also reveals how power is represented, constituted, articulated and contested.

“You can say what you want to say but I think it’s improper for Olara Otunnu, the UPC President to wear this single nice red African shirt on Saturday (during the delegates’ conference), Sunday (after he’d won) and Monday when he addressed journalists. Could this be a bachelor’s problem – considering he’s senior here?”

That’s the statement one journalist Don Wanyama wrote on his Face Book Wall that Tuesday morning. His statement triggered a lot of debate and comments on whether Otunnu was intentionally repeating the same shirt or actually had a dozen of the same print sewn for him. Nevertheless, Otunnu may now join the list of African leaders who are/have been remembered by their dress code, with some outfits even named after them:

The Mandela Shirt:

This shirt was popularised by Nelson Mandela the first South African black President. The silk shirt was given to Mandela on his birthday on July 18, 1995. It was a green, black and gold patterned shirt representing the colours of the ANC and symbolised his people’s struggles for freedom in South Africa.

The shirt also symbolises characteristics of a freedom fighter and hero. The Mandela shirt –also known as the ‘Madiba shirt’ in South Africa - is now recognised as the former President’s signature dress style. It is also associated with good leadership. The famous Presidential shirt became popular all across Africa. Local politicians like Ofwono Opondo, Eriya Kategaya and Mwesigwa Rukutana made it their daily dress.

The Kaunda Suit:
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda is the man behind the signature ‘Kaunda suit’ which was especially popular in the 1970s and early 1980’s. The first president of independent Zambia also carried a white handkerchief, a symbol of his power and humility.

Little wonder, former President Milton Obote who strongly admired Kaunda copied his dress style and even borrowed Kaunda’s slogan ‘One Zambia, one Nation’ for his UPC chant ‘One nation, one leader…’. It is also little wonder that Obote sought refuge in Zambia when he was overthrown in 1985. Lords Resistance Army rebel Chief Joseph Kony is also known to love Kaunda suits, a pair of which was seized by the UPDF in 2002.


Mobutu’s leopard print:
His look was and is still distinct. Former Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga (meaning all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph), was associated with one of the jungles wildest creatures – the African Leopard.

His leopard print Mao-style tunics and hat and pair of black, horn-rimmed glasses became his trademark look all through his reign of the Zaire forest. Along with his trademark Leopard skin cap, Mobutu always used a wooden walking stick featuring a carved eagle, a symbol of power that allegedly took the strength of eight normal men to carry.

Mobutu’s dress sense symbolised his character as similar to a leopard’s; cunning, secretive, elusive and very dangerous. A leopard does not tolerate intrusion in its own range and little wonder no one dared oust Mobutu until he was weakening in health and old age.

The Museveni look:
Our very own President Yoweri Museveni has three distinct dress codes, a trend that makes it easy to conclude that he is actually like a Chameleon – a man of different colours. His dress-code predicts his mood of the day.

If he wants to feel authoritative, he will wear the army fatigue, sometimes accessorized with an AK47. When he is in a light mood, the President will wear his casual cotton cool coloured short-sleeved shirts un tucked, in most instances complimented with a safari hat.

It is at such times that his sense of humour is high. But where presidential duty calls, the President will be clad in his designer suits and get down to business. Sometimes he wears a safari hat on a business suit! At that point it’s difficult to determine whether he will make another promise to increase the health budget or military expenditure. This shows that President Museveni is a very unpredictable man.

Gaddafi’s robe:
Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi is said to dress with strong personal style. His floor length robes, embroidered tunic and traditional cloth hat however, speak volumes about his character, ambitions and dreams.

They are similar to the ones worn by Julius Caesar, great conqueror of the Roman Empire. Gaddafi dreams of an African Union with him as King of Kings; he is also obsessed with an idea of a United States of Africa with him as Emperor.

The Libyan leader is also clearly obsessed with what’s left of African monarchs including Uganda’s Toro Kingdom being one of his favourites. By dressing like the Great Julius Caesar, is Gaddafi portraying himself as a ‘Conqueror’ of the African empire?

The Bongo shoe:
The Bongo shoe (platform) was popularised by former Gabon President Omar Bongo. Some even preferred to call them ‘Gabons’ after the name of the country he ruled for four decades. Gabons were a fashion statement in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Even when he was short, Bongo was often described as one of ‘Africa’s big men’. It is said he wore platform shoes just to boost his height. And indeed did it not only boost his height but his stay in power too, serving Gabon as president for 42 years and becoming Africa’s longest serving president.

…And now the Otunnu shirt:

New UPC president, Olara Otunnu appeared in public wearing the same red and black embroidered shirt for three consecutive days recently. We all know the shirt symbolised at least two of three UPC colours.

Some suggested that he did so because he was a bachelor and therefore had no wife to take care of his wardrobe. Others speculated that the shirt was actually ‘sending a silent signal’ because of its flowery embroidery.  But who knows, that famous shirt might finally present who Olara Otunnu really is and later get to be known as the ‘Otunnu shirt.’

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