A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Salva Kiir's Black Stetson

The man who is about to become, by all estimates, the President of Africa's newest nation, dismantling an Arab state in the process, rarely appears in public without his trademark black cowboy hat. Salva Kiir Mawardit, the President of Southern Sudan and First Vice President of Sudan, whose region recently held its week-long referendum on secession and which, by unofficial reports to date, may have voted by 90% or more to leave Sudan, wears the hat indoors as well as out, even when meeting the UN Secretary-General, above left. In my post last month on the Khartoum Summit I identified him in the picture as "the one in the cool hat," but didn't explain. As we approach the actual secession, it may be time.

Now, not everybody can pull off the cowboy hat image. Ronald Reagan made it work (right), but he'd played cowboys in the movies, and for Lyndon Johnson it came naturally. Calvin Coolidge (left), on the other hand, left something to be desired, though it's not as embarrassing as the rather famous one of him in a full Sioux headdress. Part of it is the 1920s suit: rather like when Richard Nixon showed up on the beach in a suit, tie, and leather shoes, it just doesn't quite work. Either go all the way, or don't try. (I can't pull off a Stetson myself: too short and fat. I can do justice to a kufiyyeh, a baseball cap, and certain other hats, but not the Stetson.)

Salva Kiir, on the other hand, makes it work, even with a business suit. I think it helps he's a Dinka, and they tend to be tall. I once saw the late Manute Bol ("the Dinka dunker") in a restaurant when he was playing for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards), and he was the tallest human I've ever seen at over seven feet. Height helps pull off a Stetson,though I don't think Salva Kiir has that kind of height. (Reagan and LBJ of course were both tall as well. I have no clue about Coolidge.)

By most accounts, the black stetson, or at least his first one, was a gift of President George W. Bush at a meeting with Sudanese leaders back in 2006. Some say the last official hatless portrait may be this one (left) from that 2006 meeting. In any event, by the time he met with Bush next, in 2007, he was wearing the black stetson even inside the Oval Office, as the next picture shows. He obviously likes the hat, which has become his trademark.

Now, Salva Kiir faced a major problem when he took over the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the wake of the death of SPLM leader John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005. Garang had a rather curious resume for a liberation movement leader (BA from Grinnell College in Iowa, Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Iowa State, did some military training at Fort Benning), but also had enormous charisma; southern Sudanese always referred to him as "Doctor John." When Garang died, there were divisi0ns in the SPLM which Khartoum was delighted to encourage. Salva Kiir lacked the charisma of his predecessor. I suspect that the hat is part of his attempt to give himself a clear image.

Oh, and despite the George W. Bush connection, and some neocons' efforts (especially on the Christian right) to claim credit for secession, Kiir has other hats, not all of them from Republicans. Here's Senator John Kerry offering him a Stetson (surely not from Massachusetts?).

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