IIt has been nearly two weeks since arguably the world’s most famous monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died at her Scottish estate, Balmoral. Since then, the inks have not stopped flowing to celebrate her life and her reign, even as she rests permanently today.
Most of what has been written about her, and the institution she has led since then, has centered on two flanks. On the one hand, she is remembered by many for her grace, humor and longevity in service. On the other hand, however, some people have had more conflicting views on the relevance of the British monarchy and its colonial past. Who is who for us here in Nigeria?
Overall, the late Queen’s life and reign was celebrated here too, with tons of articles in the print media, more positive reviews of her reign on radio and television, and of course, memes of all kinds on various social networks. Yet it was a Nigerian, Dr Uju Anya, who fired one of the first critical salvos against the Queen and the monarchy in a tweet that has since been taken down. Just a day after the queen’s death, Anya tweeted: “I heard that the head monarch of a genocidal thief and rapist empire is finally dying. May his pain be excruciating.
It immediately caused a Twitter storm with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and controversial British TV host Piers Morgan joining in the condemnation of his tweet. Even in Nigeria here, Dr. Anya has been roundly condemned. But of course, thousands of others also praised his tweet and wrote in his defense. Anya’s point is rather personal. His grouse against the Queen was more about the support the British monarchy and government gave to the Nigerian side during our unfortunate civil war in the late 1960s, which Anya says led to the ‘genocide’ which killed members from his family.
But quite frankly, taking the side of one side in a post-independence civil war from a former colony is not exactly what most people in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean think or talk about when examining or criticize the legacy of Britain’s colonial past. The most important cause of the civil war in Nigeria was the coup in 1966. Anyone who cannot feel what happened in that brutal coup and could not see the connection between this one and the unfortunate war that followed, and indeed the sad history that has been Nigeria since then, should probably not wish others “excruciating pain” at the time of their death. It is time that this simple fact be accepted and rested, so that we can all move forward as a nation.
The broader questions of the violent form in which British colonial disengagement in southern Africa in particular – in places like Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa for example – as elsewhere in the world, and of the extraction of colonial cultural and material resources for the benefit of the empire are legitimate. A tweet in poor taste by an individual need not necessarily prevent us from acknowledging that, for all the so-called gains of Africa’s colonial experience, the pains were far greater.
But away from all these debates, there are at least three other lessons that I think recent events in the British monarchy can teach us here in Nigeria as a former colony. The first is the speed of the transition from Queen Elizabeth II to King Charles III. In almost the same breath as the announcement of her death, her successor was also named and proclaimed, so that the end of the Queen’s era and the beginning of the King’s era was only seconds away. As King Charles mourns the death of his mother, he has also played the roles of the reigning monarch: creating his son as Prince of Wales, his wife as Queen consort, and meeting parliament and heads of government in each of the the four nations of the United Kingdom.
All of these simultaneous actions speak volumes about the continuity of the British monarchy from generation to generation and the roles it plays in their cultural and political life. This is a lesson for us in Nigeria: we must codify succession processes in our own monarchies in a way that no one, no governor or president, and no kingmaker can trample on. The loss of stature of our monarchies and the cultural and traditional role they play in our own society is partly due to the ambiguous and vulnerable rules of succession that allow anyone with the power and the intention to play with them. I think we need to reverse that.
The second is the constitutionality of the British monarchy which has imposed itself in recent weeks. Two days before her death, the Queen “granted permission” for new Prime Minister Liz Truss to form her new government. She was also scheduled to attend a Privy Council meeting with the new cabinet, which was ultimately scrapped due to poor health and eventual death. King Charles III will attend this meeting in due course and assume all governmental functions of the monarch. Despite all the talk of a ‘ceremonial’ head of state, the reality is that the monarch in Britain is deeply involved in government and wields vast governmental and political powers which are backed by their unique unwritten constitution.
Personally, I see no reason why our own Emirs and Obas should have no official role in our constitutional arrangement. Indeed, if there is one lesson to be learned from the British, or even European, colonial experience in Africa, it is that it was based on the false imaginary that our own traditional rulers and institutions are bad for a “modern” government, whatever that means, while rigidly clinging to their own monarchy and traditional institutions.
After 60 years of independence, I don’t see why we still wouldn’t have the courage to reject this false imagination. What has been highlighted over the past two weeks is how culture, tradition and religion are so central to British political and constitutional life. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t learn this lesson as well. There is no reason, for example, for us to subordinate an Emir or an Oba to the fragile whims of a governor or a local government president, simply because we want to restore our image in a “modern” government. . There is absolutely no reason why an important figure in our own cultural framework like the Sultan of Sokoto should have no formal role in our constitutional framework.
All of this brings me to the third lesson: there is no separation of culture and tradition from politics and government in any human society. Notice all the events and proceedings from the announcement of the Queen’s death, to her resting at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, to her removal to Buckingham Palace and her laying down in Westminster Hall, to ‘at his funeral today at Westminster Abbey. , and of course the announcement and proclamation of King Charles III, to all the offices he has performed thus far for his mother’s farewell or to the State, to the role of the Church of England all along, all of these things were steeped in a longstanding culture and tradition that goes back centuries, which they then subsumed as aspects of their “constitutional monarchy”.
In contrast, in Nigeria, we deliberately threw away all these things in the name of a modernity that is neither here nor there. I think it is not too late to retrace our steps and claim what is good in our culture and our traditions, and give them constitutional support. We must do this if we are not to continue groping in the dark.