Kenyan President William Ruto is changing his wardrobe, and has adopted the Kaunda suit, which was in vogue in the 1960s and 70s. His admirers love it.
By adopting this colonial vintage Safari suit as an ideological statement, Dr Ruto is sending a message: He wants to appear different on the local and global stage.
The Kenyan President is not only adopting a new style — actually he is adopting some radicalism — on the global stage, to the surprise of those who associate him with conservative politics.
He wants the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank reformed, and, in their place, there should be a body that treats all nations as equals.
He has also been lobbying for the expansion of the UN Security Council.
The question that many observers are asking is: What is the Kenyan President up to politically, and what statement is he sending through his new attire?
Dr Ruto is not the first leader to adopt unique attire when appearing at some global meetings.
The safari suit, and Mao-inspired suits, albeit with some modifications, were adopted by, among others, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who always wore “Communist” attire.
Also, Uganda’s Idi Amin adopted the khaki safari suits. For his part, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko adopted “abacost,” which was inspired by the Mao suit as he embarked on the Zaireanisation mission. Abacost was borrowed from the French phrase ‘a’a ba le costume (meaning down with the suits) and was picked up by Mobutu after his 1973 meeting with Mao.
Besides the attire, which makes Dr Ruto stand out in a sea of Western suits, the Kenyan President appears to be crafting an anti-Western hegemony rhetoric, perhaps hoping to position himself as a pan-Africanist.
He has been mimicking the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Nyerere, Thomas Sankara, Muammar Gaddafi, and Robert Mugabe, whose fiery speeches on the global stage earned them mileage and criticism from some capitalist quarters.
More so, he aims to retain the image of a subaltern, the political rhetoric that won him the race to State House last year.
Still, Ruto’s new cloak of Pan-Africanism is getting questioned at the home front: “Like many others, we are tempted to praise Ruto as the new eloquent, bold pan-African hero. But how can Ruto be a Nyerere or a Nkrumah when his top ranks stink to the high heavens with corruption case after another?” asks former MP Kabando wa Kabando.
While national populism earned him mileage in Kenya after passing himself off as the champion of the helpless who had suffered under the dynastic leadership of Uhuru Kenyatta, global populism might be a different ballgame. Dr Ruto is accused of using the international stage to prop up a waning image at home.
As American political scientist Philippe Schmitter has argued, “populist leaders use foreigners and foreign powers as scapegoats for their own failings.”
For instance, when Dr Ruto addressed a climate conference in Paris, he called for creating a non-aligned Global Green Bank and argued that the current Bretton Woods institutions were held “hostage” by the rich nations.
However, the idea of a green bank is getting attention in Western think tanks.
Commenting on Dr Ruto’s call for a global green bank, Kenneth Rogoff, a respected professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, called it a “thoughtful and important proposal” and argued that “rich countries must consider if they are serious about tackling climate change, fostering peace, and promoting prosperity in Africa and the rest of the developing world.”
Dr Rogoff has advocated the forming a World Carbon Bank over the years.
Interestingly, Dr Ruto’s idea is gaining acceptance, and he is set to host the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi in September this year.
Another radical suggestion from Dr Ruto was the ditching of the dollar by African countries to allow the African nations to trade better.
It was unclear whether the Kenyan President was pushing for a single currency for Africa – a suggestion started in Nkrumah in the 1960s as he called for the United States of Africa.
The idea was picked up later by the Libyan leader, the late Muammar Gaddafi, who in 2009 asked African leaders to revisit the pan-African agenda of a single currency espoused by Nkrumah.
While Dr Ruto may not possess Nkrumah’s passion, he is part of a group now pushing for reforms within the World Bank and the IMF.
"We want another organisation of equals," he told the Paris meeting during a round table discussion.
Ruto is one of the leaders supporting the so-called Bridgetown Initiative, which is pushing for a loss-and-damage fund to help the most climate-vulnerable countries and to deal with climate justice. He believes that IMF and World Bank lack the drive to handle the climate change ideals.
On the Bretton Woods system, Dr Ruto is also pushing for fairness in the financial architecture of these institutions, arguing that African nations end up paying “eight times more,” as he told Financial Times - “because they are profiled as risky.”
“Some people do not want a mechanism where people are equal; they want us to continue this conversation where we are looking for help," Ruto said.
But back at home, some of Dr Ruto’s critics think he is looking for fame on the global stage while still dealing with IMF in Nairobi.
Rasna Warah, a commentator, asked recently on her Twitter account: "Mr Ruto, why did you let the IMF draft the 2023 Finance Bill?"
Dr Ruto is aware that the IMF has been on his neck in Nairobi, and he had to abandon some of the promises he had made during the campaigns, including lowering the cost of living.
How far Ruto’s new mojo will take him remains to be seen. But as he stylishly adopts a new image and some new radicalism, it will be interesting to see the kind of identity and image that he wants to shape for himself both locally and on the international stage.