From Kenya to Nigeria to South Africa, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked an avalanche of condolences from African heads of state praising a leader “extraordinary” and sharing the memories of his frequent visits to the continent in 70 years of reign. But the monarch’s death has also rekindled a sensitive debate about the colonial past in English-speaking Africa, including the queen’s role as head of state during British rule.
When Elizabeth was born in 1926, the British Empire (link in English) spanned six continents. During his reign, which began in 1952, most of the 56 countries that make up the Commonwealth gained their independence, including many nations on the African continent such as Ghana, Kenya or Nigeria. His death comes at a time when European countries are under pressure to come to terms with their colonial history, atone for past crimes and return stolen African artefacts kept for years in museums in London or Paris.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were among those who expressed condolences over the loss of a “icon”, but many Africans also spoke of the tragedies of the colonial era of his reign. Like in Kenya, where the Mau Mau revolt, which took place from 1952 to 1960 against colonial rule, claimed at least 10,000 lives in one of the bloodiest repressions of the British Empire. Britain agreed in 2013, more than half a century later, to compensate more than 5,000 Kenyans who had suffered horrific abuses during the revolt, in a deal covering nearly 20 million pounds (23 million euros).
“The Queen leaves a mixed legacy of brutal repression of Kenyans in their own country and mutually beneficial relationships,” wrote The Daily Nation (link in English), Kenya’s leading newspaper, in a weekend editorial. Elizabeth was visiting Kenya in 1952 when her father died and she became queen. “What followed was a bloody chapter in Kenyan history, with atrocities committed against a people whose only sin was to clamor for independence.”
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, President Muhammadu Buhari honored the monarch, saying his country’s history “will never be complete without a chapter on Queen Elizabeth II”. While some have praised the role she played until Nigeria’s independence, others have pointed to her as head of state when Britain supported the Nigerian military during the country’s civil war. . Over a million people died in the Biafran War between 1967 and 1970, mostly from starvation and disease, during the post-declaration conflict by ethnic Igbo officers in the southeast from the country.
If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.
— Uju Anya (@Uju Anya) September 8, 2022
“If anyone expects me to express anything other than contempt for the monarch who oversaw a government that backed the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family (…) you are dreaming” , Nigerian-American scholar Uju Anya tweeted, sparking a heated debate on social media.
In South Africa, reactions are also divided, between President Cyril Ramaphosa who deplored the death of a figure “extraordinary”, and part of the youth who refuse to celebrate it. Like South Africa’s radical left party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which wrote in a statement: “We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because for us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in the history of this country and Africa”. “During her 70-year reign, she never acknowledged the atrocities her family inflicted on the peoples Britain invaded around the world.”added the party, referring in particular to the slave trade and colonialism.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi, son of world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and himself a novelist as well as a professor at Cornell University, has also questioned the Queen’s legacy in Africa.
If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad. As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theater is absurd.
— Mukoma Wa Ngugi (@MukomaWaNgugi) September 8, 2022
“If the Queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their name, then perhaps I… would feel bad”he wrote on Twitter. “As a Kenyan, I don’t feel anything. This theater is absurd”.