Inside Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Nigeria trip

A royal visit with a difference saw the Duchess of Sussex explore her West African heritage.

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Image : Kola SULAIMON /AFP

In early May Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, made a three-day visit to Nigeria. The couple are no strangers to the African continent – prior to his marriage, Prince Harry carried out much humanitarian work including the launch of Sentebale in Lesotho, a charity that assists children orphaned by or living with HIV/AIDS. He joined a team of volunteers in Malawi to carry out elephant relocations. Meghan Markle had travelled to Rwanda for the clean water campaign as global ambassador for World Vision Canada. They last visited the African continent in 2019, for a Southern African tour of Malawi, Angola, South Africa and Botswana. 

Since stepping back from the monarchy in 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan have continued engagements abroad from their home in California. Their visit to Nigeria was at the invitation of the country’s chief of defence staff, General Christopher Musa, who stressed that they were invited in a “personal, not official, capacity” as the couple are no longer “working royals”. 

The visit was planned in connection with Prince Harry’s role as founder and patron of the Invictus Games Foundation, which supports wounded, injured and sick servicepeople, both serving and veterans. Nigeria, which joined the Invictus “Community of Nations” in 2022, was the first African country to do so. 

On the face of it, this visit by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle featured many of the hallmarks of a tried-and-tested royal tour, including visits to a school and a hospital, speeches, musicians showcasing local culture and an evening dinner reception. Over the 72 hours of the trip the Duke and Duchess met people from all walks of life, including schoolchildren, diplomats, and servicepeople. 

Meghan’s ‘motherland’ 

Yet this was a unique visit by royals. The last royal tour of Nigeria was in 2003, by the then Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, now King Charles and Queen Camilla. Yet unlike her parents-in-law, Meghan Markle, who is the first biracial member of the British royal family, has a personal connection to Nigeria. In an episode of her podcast Archetypes in 2023, Meghan revealed that she is ethnically 43% Nigerian, based on a genealogy test she had taken, which led to her desire to further explore her Nigerian roots. Indeed, as Meghan Markle stepped off the plane hand-in-hand with Prince Harry, she became the first member of the British royal family with an ancestral connection to Nigeria to visit the country. 

Unlike most of the British royal family, Meghan Markle does not claim high-born ancestry. Her father is descended from Dutch, German, English and Irish immigrants to the United States. On her mother’s side, her American family were, only several generations ago, indentured slaves in North Carolina, with, as she has now discovered, Nigerian origins. While co-hosting a Women in Leadership panel with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization, Meghan described learning about her heritage as “eye-opening”, and called Nigeria “my country” and “my motherland,” and thanked the people of Nigeria for “welcoming [me] home.” 

Unlike all the royal tours which have come before, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s visit to Nigeria was first and foremost rooted in themselves, rather than an institution they represent, making it perhaps the most sincere and heartfelt of all royal tours on the continent to date – of which there have been many.  

The British royal family has a long and complicated relationship with the African continent stretching back centuries, which is firmly entwined with Britain’s history of colonial rule in many African nations. 

Royals’ complex Africa history 

The first official tour by a member of the British royal family to the continent was in 1860, when Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, visited South Africa on HMS Euryalus. It was during his mother’s reign that the European “scramble for Africa” grew in earnest.  

It saw European nations colonise many African countries, some of whom would not gain independence until close to the next millennium. In 1928, King Edward VIII undertook an “official Imperial tour” to East Africa, which saw him shoot what was then known as the “big five” – a lion, an elephant, a rhino, a leopard and a buffalo. 

Towards the middle of the century sub-Saharan African countries began to throw off colonial rule, starting with Ghana, which gained independence from Britain in 1957.  

The late Queen Elizabeth II was staying in Kenya when she was told that her father had died and that she was now Queen. Over the course of her reign she visited the African continent 21 times, and oversaw the independence process for many former British colonies.  

Her first visit to Nigeria was in 1956, four years before its independence, and she received a pledge of loyalty upon arrival on behalf of her then Nigerian subjects. In a marked contrast, her second visit in 2003 was to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Nigeria having joined as a member in 1960. 

Several royal visits to Nigeria followed over the years, including a tour by the former Prince and Princess of Wales in 1990, but Prince Harry and Meghan’s recent visit to the West African country strikes a completely different tone – that of authenticity. A widely-derided Jamaican tour in 2022 by Prince William and Kate Middleton saw the failed optics of Jamaicans cheering the royals from behind fences and led to accusations of colonial-style arrogance. In contrast, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle struck all the right notes in Nigeria. 

Human touches  

From Harry donning a Nigerian scarf and joining in a game of volleyball, to Meghan – who, after being presented with a bouquet of roses by a young girl, offered her one of the roses to keep as a memento – the trip was peppered with human touches. Their itinerary was packed with promotion for causes dear to their hearts, including mental health, women’s empowerment and sports; and their enthusiasm was clear to see.  

The visit was lauded in the Nigerian press as a success, with Punch describing Kaduna State governor, Senator Uba Sani, as “delighted to receive Harry”, and Vanguard stating that “Harry and Meghan’s visit to Nigeria carried a lot of symbolisms which must not be lost”, describing the couple’s visit as “a true reflection of the populist activities of [Harry’s] late mother, Princess Diana, fondly known as the ‘Queen of Hearts’.” 

After their return to America, the couple posted on their social media, thanking “the Nigerian community for their tremendous hospitality” and said they hoped it would be the first of many memorable trips to the country, as they continue to carve out their own unique role outside the royal family.   

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Emily Allen

Emily Allen is Arts and Culture correspondent at IC Publications.