Ali versus uniform

If you have stood close to Hameed Ali, you will see two things that collide. The air of an aristocrat and the mien of an army officer. In between, you observe the impulses of an entitled man. So, if you are the Senate, you cannot expect the man to simply cave in when you ask him to wear a uniform.

Ali will not say it, but he believes he is done with the uniform. He was done when he retired as a soldier. To him, when you say “old soldiers never die, they only fade away,” it also includes the uniform. His army uniform, in all its imperial glory and starch, is fading away, and that is just fine with him. For him to put on the uniform of the Customs officer, he sees as degrading. You cannot be a soldier, where you rose to an elite rank and became military governor, and stoop to an inferior garb.

After all, as military governor and senior officer of the Nigerian Army, the Customs was a subordinate agency. Its comptroller-general could not puff beside a colonel during the military era.

The army officer sneers. But then he is also an aristocrat in bearing. He believes he belongs to a power elite in ethical and ethnic senses. With such double-barrelled accolade, he did the Senate, with the Oloye snorting, a rare privilege by appearing in the chamber to answer their questions.

Ali thus represents the irony of power in our democracy. He imbues the hauteur of an army officer and emblem of a feudal elite, and why did he agree to be the comptroller-general? Because he can, and he can get away with such contradiction. He sees himself as superior and saviour. In his special way, he has stooped to conquer. By asking him to wear uniform, they are trying to conquer him into stooping. Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century play, She stoops to Conquer, fits into this narrative. Except that the play’s principal actor disguises to conquer. Ali is too patrician to hide under any cloak.

That is why he is defying calls to wear a uniform. He knows no law court can compel him to do so. No law asks him to wear it. Decency is the only reason, and who is to tell an aristocrat what is decent? Decency is for the common pool, and we don’t tell the big man what to wear and how to dress. As Mokokoma Mokhonoana, a South African writer and philosopher noted, “what to wear: an employee chooses. How to dress: His employer chose.”

Ali does not see himself as an employee. He sees himself in the mould of an employer. If you come from the vault of power, how else can you think? Enough has been said about how the fight between him and the Senate betrays the fissures in the APC. But for me, it is a far more symbolic thing.  Wearing a uniform was a way to make the strong-head Customs head conform.

The man is known to be doing well on his job. He is raking in money. He is a sort of corruption czar in a cocoon known as the Customs. The top brass of that agency must be nervous to have him around. The agency is, by common consent, the most corrupt in the country. Those who work there live the peacock life, the sort their legitimate incomes can never even dream of.

It seems the real peacocks of this democracy somehow fell into the shadows of the Customs bear. They wanted a bear hug, instead the beast pounced on them. The animal has them in their claws. I am referring to the Senate and scandal of Senate President Bukola “Eleyinmi” Saraki, the extant Oloye of the upper chamber of Nigeria’s legislature.

Every member of the top class wants a big car into the country one time or another. We have learned that Oloye has fallen into the man’s net with a big, armoured vehicle. Oloye is denying ownership of a Range Rover impounded by the Nigeria Customs. Saraki’s spokesman says it is a matter of the supplier. But they have not been able to clarify why his name was not inserted in it. Well, we now know that the Senate intervened not because of the outcry over NCS impunity on the streets by impounding vehicles with antiquated papers, but because it touched their bones. What a selfless Senate and its leadership. Oloye had to fight back, and he wanted to put the man back in line by wearing uniform.

It’s clear now, this is no trivialisation of uniform. The Oloye has a keen sense of symbolism. Politics has always used uniform or sartorial markers for effect, either for good or ill. It’s not for nothing that presidential candidates changed their clothing from region to region during campaigns. Goodluck Jonathan was adept at this. The stiff Buhari, who never cared to change his habiliments, was compelled to do so in the last presidential hustings.

Appearances are too important in politics to be left in the hands of stylists. Key political actors are their own aesthetes. Hitler had his tuft of beard. Mahatma Ghandi looked grand in his half-cloth, and defied Churchill who called him “a half-naked kafir” in the heat of the Indian’s anti-colonial maelstrom. Abacha loved his goggles. Trump’s turbulent toupee is gaining notoriety. Charles de Gaulle had his cap and so did Churchill. Nyerere had his French suit.

Yet these men knew that the hero was not about the uniform, but about the man, as Andrea Randall wrote: “Heroes don’t always have capes, badges, or uniforms. Sometimes they support those who do.”

Ali believes he is supporting those who wear uniforms. Saraki and co. want to force him to don one.  The uniform, for the point of view of Oloye, is not the stuffy khaki. It is obedience. Ali gets it and that is why he is kicking. Uniforms are about obedience. Individuality is about sacrifice. Ali would not sacrifice his individuality, though, to an institution. The reason is that he has come as a messiah. Messiahs in history have tended to be humble. But they have also been individual without alienating their folks. Jesus whipped the money changers in the temple. What do you expect when a combo of soldier and patrician takes over a can of worms like the NCS? Perhaps, Ali may have the moral bona fides for the job. He does not seem to have the humility. Just like his boss, Buhari, the fight against corruption calls for men of integrity. But history tells us that winners triumph with other weapons as well, including cunning and strategic flexibility. Sentiment, sometimes, supersedes principle, when appropriately harnessed.

Ali would not wear the uniform, and that is wrong, not in law but in optics. As Apostle Paul noted, all things may be lawful, but they may not be expedient. If he can stoop to fight the corruption war, he should respect the men by donning their clothing. He becomes their leader in and out, in and out of uniform. It does not make him less of soldier or patrician. It makes him a better man.




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