Did the royal burial deliver a fatal blow to the Commonwealth?

Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on 19 September 2022 dominated much of the social media chatter across Africa. A careful reading of the content revealed three specific questions.

Why did some African Presidents attend the funeral and others didn’t?

Almost all African heads of state and government were invited to the state funeral in the United Kingdom. In the end, only about half of the continent’s leaders arrived in London. These included King Letsie III of Lesotho; Crown Prince Moulay Hassan of Morocco; President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa; Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; and Nana Akufo-Addo, the President of Ghana. Others were William Ruto, President of Kenya; Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; Ali Bongo, President of Gabon; Hage Geingob, President of Namibia; Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of Tanzania; Macky Sall, President of Senegal and Chair of the African Union; Christophe Mboso N’kodia, President of the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the Sudanese military leader.

Those who attended the funeral may have sought to take the opportunity to meet other world leaders informally, including Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss. Others may have been motivated by a desire to pay their last respects to a fellow who was the head of the Commonwealth, consistent with pan-Africanist ideals of recognition of common humanity. Some, like Ramaphosa, may have placed economic entanglements at the center of their decision-making, especially knowing that South Africa is home to the largest British diaspora in Africa.

Those who stayed away, especially if used to traveling in finery, may have been trying to avoid the “humiliation” of being “herded” onto a bus for the funeral. Others likely had more pressing and pressing domestic priorities to resolve, while some found it difficult to justify the cost of one trip to the UK and another to the US for the ongoing United Nations General Assembly in the same week.

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Perhaps what raised eyebrows and outraged many human rights groups was the invitation to Sudan’s military leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the Khartoum massacre that killed at least 40 peaceful protesters in June 2019.

Were African leaders the only foreign dignitaries busted to the state funeral?

That was perhaps the most persistent question. Along with images, several social media users wondered why African leaders attending the state reception honoring Queen Elizabeth II were transported to the venue by coach, while those from other countries were not. Some said this order suggested a form of racial hierarchy in which some people are considered more important than others. These reports, upon careful examination, turned out to be false.

The truth is that almost every visiting leader who attended the event received similar treatment. These include foreign royal houses and the leaders of India, Canada, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Norway, France and other European and Asian countries. One of the exceptions was United States President Joe Biden, who was allowed to use his armored presidential limousine, nicknamed “The Beast,” for security reasons.

American wartime adventures around the world have increased the threat to every US President traveling overseas over the years. This experience is in sharp contrast to that of most African leaders, who do not bomb their way out of problems they cannot solve peacefully or through diplomacy.

However, the reaction of many Africans to the false reports that their leaders were the only foreign dignitaries busted to the funeral suggests two things. First, the outrage of the colonial days and the suspicion of marginalization stuck in the minds of many in Africa. The history of the trauma, combined with the resurgence of dangerous right-wing populism with racist overtones in much of Europe and the rest of the world, has made many on the continent exceedingly vigilant.

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The second point is that many Africans also draw sharp contrasts between the spectacle of their guides’ willingness to use buses in Britain and the extreme pomp that characterizes their travels within their respective countries.

In the UK, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, for example, it is common for elected officials to commute to work by bus or bicycle – the same mode of transport that the majority of their citizens use on a daily basis. Traveling in luxurious and flashy entourages is generally frowned upon.

In contrast, many African leaders travel domestically with such extravagance that it seems as if their very existence is only confirmed by opulence. All along they had persuaded their harmless citizens that it was impossible for them to travel otherwise. This explains why many on the continent initially thought that racism must have accounted for the uncharacteristic manner of locomotion of their leaders.

For the ordinary African watching at home, the sight of such leaders – some of whom had flown to Britain on expensive charter planes – being squashed on a bus was amusing and offered temporary relief from everyday troubles.

How will Elizabeth’s death affect the future of the Commonwealth?

Even before Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the Commonwealth, a successor organization to the British Empire consisting of the countries colonized by Britain plus one or two that wished it, had largely become a relic in search of a function .

What largely prevented the fragmentation of the 56-strong body for so long was not a clearly defined common goal, but the quiet power and charming influence of the late monarch.

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King Charles III, Elizabeth’s successor, is no longer as attractive as she is, lacking her enigmatic charisma, and in a world of celebrity status and social media, it’s becoming harder to stick together.

The organization may not collapse immediately, but its importance in international affairs, like that of the UK, is likely to diminish over time as calls for fragmentation grow louder. It is noteworthy that almost all countries of the Caribbean Commonwealth are already criticizing the monarchy and pushing for the republican status achieved by all African countries at independence – with the exception of Eswatini.

To survive, the institution, hitherto unequal, must transform itself and find a new, contemporary common purpose. A key question in this context relates to who will be the next leader of the body. Will Charles be in charge and – if so – will he be as tactful as the Queen?

Or will he be outspoken, as he showed recently when speaking out against the UK’s plans to return illegal migrants to Rwanda? Or will the next Commonwealth leader come from Canada, Australia or even Africa to make the organization more representative?

The question also remains how long the monarchy, an ancient hereditary institution not universally popular even in the UK, will survive as a central part of modern British democracy. As a result, the future of the Commonwealth may ultimately be decided by the fate of the monarchy itself. His obituary remains in draft form for the time being.

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and political commentator.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official policy or position Mail & Guardian.

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