Today, Friday, May 4, 2018 Nigerian fashionista Noble Igwe shared a photo of his outfit of the day. Normal business.
However, the striking thing about his outfit was his t-shirt which features the image of late Nigerian dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. The brazen display of dictatorship was followed with the caption “T-Shirt week. I’m wearing the Abacha T-shirt by @itsjustmode has a picture of a former Military head of state whom after his death became the country’s saving account in diaspora.”
There is a fine line between making a fashion statement and a fashion faux pas, then there's lending a dictator's image to pop culture iconography. Noble Igwe has done the latter.
For context, the consensus is that General Sani Abacha was Nigeria's most brutal military dictator. Widespread allegations of corruption, assassinations and human rights were hallmarks of his regime.
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During his stay in power, journalists were locked up, political opponents were killed and statesmen were jailed. History will also not let us forget that Abacha ordered the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and his Ogoni comrades.
A dark time in our history
After half a decade of stifling dictatorship and a bevy of human rights abuses, General Abacha died on June 8, 1998. Ask anyone above a certain age to recount the events of that day and you are more likely than not to hear sigh of relief.
As if to make a statement that Nigeria could never afford to experience such rule, his death led to the return of democracy nearly a year later.
As part of his caption, Noble Igwe refers to the former head of state as one who "after his death became the country's saving account in diaspora".
To narrow down Abacha’s regime to his stashed loot in Switzerland is not fair to the millions who lost their lives, livelihoods and access to basic necessities under his regime and years after.
Rocking an Abacha T-shirt is ignorant, to put it mildly. While it may look harmless on the surface, wearing the image of Abacha threatens to trivialise the gory details of his time in power and the lack of freedom for which he is remembered by most Nigerians.
In recent years, we've been lucky to see just how important pop culture can be and how it can determine influenece our perception of individuals, places and just about anything. Associating certain fashion trends and styles with an individual can change the way future generations percieve them and consequently, whitewash their image.
Putting Abacha on a T-Shirt is tantamount to glorifying him and putting him on the kind of pedestal that only fashion can afford.
It's really just another step on a very slippery slope. One minute, Nigeria' educational system is taking history out of schools , the next minute, young people are falling over themselves to cop the new Abacha shirt. It's a short distance between that and elevating a dictator to being a pop culture icon.
Attempts at creativity do not excuse such insensitivity.
Are we turning dictators into Pop Culture icons?
As someone who has built a reputation as a fashion icon, and who lived through the Abacha years, one would expect that Noble Igwe would understand the implications of wearing a dictator's face in a nation where many still reel from the effect of his misrule.
Imagine wearing this shirt in Ogoniland, where tears still fall at the mention of any reference to the Ogoni Nine.
Imagine wearing this shirt with pride in front of the sons and daughters of M.K.O Abiola whose stolen mandate and subsequent death in detention still hurts the millions who believed they had put the right man in power.
Just this week, Nigeria's President Buhari entered an agreement with the government of the United States for the return of millions of dollars in loot which Abacha had stashed in foreign countries.
That is his legacy, not fresh boy fashion, not urban wear or a good look. Abacha's legacy is a stolen commonwealth, dictatorship and a mess that has taken us decades to clean up.
It should be said that expression in all forms should be encouraged, but a better way to represent Abacha in fashion would be to add some context to his persona and make some reference to his legacy and what he is remembered for millions around the world.
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Even at that, it is still a sensitive topic and one wouldn't blame any designer who would rather stay away from the subject than be inspired by it.
As obvious as this is, it would only be fair to consider opposing arguments. The case could be made that nearly everyone has worn a shirt that glorifies one revolutionary or criminal at some point or the other.
Shirts that carry the image of Che Guevara and Pable Escobar, for instance, are popular items that the average person wears with a sense of risque and eclecticness.
What makes it different is that they are not Nigerians; Escobar and Guevara left bloodied bodies in their wake but none of us felt the direct or indirect impact of their actions in the way that Abacha's misrule trickled down to Nigerians.
For the severity of his faux pas, Noble Igwe has not done something new in any sense.
As 2017 wound down, Derin Fabikun, a Nigerian fashionista was recently at the centre of the ethical crossroad. She recently shared a photo of herself rocking a white T-shirt with General Sani Abacha's face on it.
Other urban wear brands such as Garbe Life and Wafflesncream have produced and marketed various shirts with Abacha's image on them.
It speaks volumes that there is a larger problem to address, one that centres around how much knowledge we have of the past and to what lengths we will go to make weak attempts at eclectic fashion without understanding the context or implications of such choices.
We know what we remember Abacha for. Noble Igwe would do well to juggle his memory too.