The death of Queen Elizabeth II has drawn condolences from many African leaders, who have recalled her special relationship with the African continent.
As a princess she celebrated her 21st birthday in Cape Town in April 1947, where she made a celebrated speech in which she vowed to devote her life to the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth. She was in Kenya in February 1952, staying in a treetop hotel, when she learned that her father, King George VI, had died and she had inherited the throne.
During her seven decades on the throne – the longest serving monarch in British history – she travelled extensively on the continent, visiting 21 countries. She visited South Africa one year after the end of the apartheid, in 1995, where she met with newly elected Nelson Mandela, and signalled the acceptance of the country’s return to the Commonwealth. Her last official trip to the continent was in 2007 when she travelled to Uganda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala.
However, some voices have also expressed criticism, drawing attention to the British monarchy’s association with colonial oppression in Africa, as we examine below.
Tributes from heads of state
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has expressed his “profound and sincere condolences” to Britain’s new monarch, King Charles III, and said that Queen Elizabeth II was “an extraordinary and world-renowned public figure who lived a remarkable life”.
Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana, which she visited two times during her reign, directed that all official flags in the nation fly at half-mast for seven days starting from the 9th of September. Akufo-Addo recalled the Queen’s “calm, steadiness, and, above all, her great love and belief in the higher purpose of the Commonwealth of Nations, and in its capacity to be a force for good in our world”.
President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria paid tribute to her “towering global personality”. Elizabeth II continued to be recognised as Head of State for three years after Nigerian independence in 1960 and was officially titled the “Queen of Nigeria” during this period.
William Ruto, due to be sworn in as president of Kenya on 13 September, said that “the queen’s leadership of the Commonwealth for the past seven decades is admirable,” while the outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta said the Queen “was a towering icon of selfless service to humanity”.
Hakainde Hichilema, the president of Zambia – a country which accounts for the second biggest British expat population in Africa – said he was “saddened to learn about the passing of Her Majesty,” and sent his “thoughts and prayers to the people of the UK during this difficult period.”
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda said that “the modern Commonwealth was the Queen’s legacy,” and the presidents of Gabon and Togo, Ali Bongo Ondimba and Faure E Gnassingbé respectively, whose countries entered the Commonwealth last June, also mourned the Queen’s death.
Not only politicians but also institutional leaders paid tribute to the Queen. Akinwunmi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), placed a particular emphasis on Queen Elizabeth’s “calm, poise, dignity, wisdom, and calmness,” after expressing his condolences to “King Charles III, the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, and the UK”.
The President of Senegal and Chairman of the African Union, Macky Sall, paid tribute to “the memory of the illustrious late, great, Queen, with an exceptional career,” while Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, expressed his “condolences to the Royal Family and the people of the United Kingdom and the countries of the Commonwealth”.
Critical voices put the spotlight on colonial era
However, some voices across the continent put the focus on British colonial actions in Africa.
“The fairytale is that Queen Elizabeth went up to the treetop here in Kenya as a princess and came down a Queen, because it’s when she was here in Kenya that she learned her dad had died,” said CNN’s Larry Madowo, speaking from Nairobi.
“But after that the British colonial government cracked down brutally on the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial administration. They herded more than a million people into concentration camps where they were tortured and dehumanised, and so across the African continent there have been people saying ‘I will not mourn for Queen Elizabeth because my ancestors suffered great atrocities under her people and she never fully acknowledged that.'”
Madowo gave as an example the reaction of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa, who put out a statement saying that the Queen had never acknowledged the crimes committed against native populations by the British:
“Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, reigning for 70 years as a head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanization of millions of people across the world… It was the British royal family that also sanctioned the actions of Cecil John Rhodes, who plundered this country, Zimbabwe and Zambia… During her 70-year reign as Queen she never once acknowledged the atrocities that her family inflicted on native people that Britain invaded across the world.”