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“Queen Elizabeth II, African kings and democracy”, the Franco-Ivorian writer Véronique Tadjo

By on September 23, 2022 0

Véronique Tadjo, Franco-Ivorian novelist and painter, Commander of Arts and Letters and President of the jury for the Orange Book Prize in Africa, has lived in the United Kingdom for several years. As an outside observer of the British monarchy, she provides insight into an event that dominated the news – the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was buried on Monday. We saw in it the perfect opportunity to evoke power and its limits when it is embodied in a single person.

The war in Ukraine, the Covid… Everything seems to have stopped since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, what do you think?

Veronique Tadjo: It is because of his exceptional destiny. She was 25 when she ascended the throne on February 6, 1952 upon the death of her father, King George VI. His coronation was the first in the country’s history to be broadcast live on BBC television. It was watched by almost 20 million Britons and the global television audience was estimated at 277 million. When she died on September 8, 2022 aged 96, she became Britain’s longest-serving monarch. She still embodied the idea of ​​a powerful empire that had ruled over India, China and much of Africa. With his death, a whole era disappears forever.

What did Queen Elizabeth II represent to you?

I lived in Brittany for many years. The Queen was a daily presence, respected and reassuring. I saw her as an incredibly powerful woman with a strong sense of duty. She seemed immortal and yet frail. I felt that whenever there was a crisis nationally or in the royal family, his first course of action was to assess its impact on the monarchy.

She has always opted for cohesion, even if it means being perceived as cold or unfair. She had a knack for speaking to the British people. Most often, she intervened to reassure them when social tensions were high. A journalist wrote that she hid the imperfections of the British.

What do you think of the ‘unholy’ alliance between monarchy and democracy in the UK?

I would say that if the monarchy has sometimes been called into question, it is no less solidly anchored in the social fabric. It is part of British identity and it is likely to continue as before, as for decades it seems only a quarter of the population wanted to abolish it. Democracy is ensured by a very robust parliament.

The courts have specified since the 17th century that they will set the limits and extent of sovereign prerogatives. British monarchs cannot make any changes to the common law, i.e. legislation or custom. The system of separation of powers means that the monarchy essentially plays a symbolic role. Legislative power belongs to parliament. There is no constitutional protection for the continuity of the crown, which is why it can be challenged.

The most serious problem is the royal cost borne annually by the British taxpayer, even if the subsidy given to the monarchy so far was not paid by the taxpayer. And yet Elizabeth II was considered the richest woman in the world, with a fortune estimated at 28 billion dollars according to Forbes magazine. This vast company was nicknamed “The Firm” and was also known as “Monarchy PLC”. That being said, the Royal Family also make big money, pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into the UK economy every year. Harry and Meghan’s lavish TV wedding has generated an estimated $1.5 billion. The Queen was also linked to 600 charities across the UK and the Commonwealth.

You say you are fascinated by ritual and tradition. Please tell us about it.

Everything we have seen since the death of the queen comes from a thousand-year-old tradition and from very ancient texts. When Elizabeth II ascended the throne, everyone already knew how she would be buried and what rites would be in place. Every year there were rehearsals and information about the monarchy was regularly updated.

It’s a well-oiled machine that has been running for centuries. Everyone must play their role and be in their place. This preservation of tradition fascinates me. In a world changing at breakneck speed, the monarchy is pretty much the only long-term, collective memory we have. It is a link between the past and the present.

Do people need a ruler?

People don’t necessarily need a ruler, but they definitely need someone who embodies a higher idea of ​​the nation. They need leaders who rise above the fray and show that the public interest is more important than individual interest. This is what you are looking for in a power figure.

In fact, I have the impression that there is something liberating in there because the government of the day is then seen like that, a government which can be vigorously challenged in its management of public affairs. There is therefore no confusion between the function of the state and the search for absolute power.

Is it a pity that there are not many effective monarchies left in Africa? Is it a loss?

What happened during colonization was incredibly brutal. The various colonial powers that divided Africa among themselves set about systematically destroying and undermining traditional systems, because any rival authority, in their eyes, had to be suppressed. I will not go into the difference between “direct” (British) and “indirect” (French) colonization, since they had the same objective: divide and rule. A clean slate was in order. Instead, the colonists favored a “modern” and more malleable political elite so that they could preserve the gains made at the time of independence.

Is it a pity that there are hardly any effective monarchies left on the continent? Yes, because we have lost a type of government close to the majority of Africans and all that goes with it, languages, ancestral knowledge such as traditional medicine and traditions of oral tales. Fortunately, some of the traditions have survived repeated assaults although many traditional monarchies were co-opted by the governments of the time. We see this very clearly each time there are presidential elections. A multitude of candidates seek the support of kings and traditional chiefs to get their subjects to vote.

Which African monarchs, dead or alive, fascinate you?

Some of the Nigerian and Cameroonian traditional rulers were extraordinary in that they seem to have managed to maintain the continuity and influence of their office. It is a question of cultural identity. The Zulu King of South Africa, for example, wields great political weight in the country. Of course, we remember Shaka Zulu, who fought hard against the British presence. I am thinking of Soundiata Keïta from Mali, Samori Touré, Mansa Musa and Kankan Musa and other African historical figures who founded radiant kingdoms.

But I am especially interested in queens because they are figures forgotten in history. Apart from Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt (between 51 BC and 30 BC), who was a woman of power and passion and willing to do anything to preserve the independence of her kingdom vis-à-vis the Romans, there is not really a place in the collective imagination for female characters of great stature. Instead, we are left with a vision of African women as permanent victims of tradition and then of modern patriarchal society.

I wrote a story called Queen Pokou, Concerto for a Sacrifice about Queen Abla Pokou, who founded the Baoulé kingdom in the 18th century after fleeing the Ashanti kingdom during a war of succession. Côte d’Ivoire readily acknowledges this, particularly because political power has long remained in the hands of the Baoulé elite. However, this is no longer the case in present-day Ghana. The queen was erased from memory because she undermined royal authority. During my research, I realized that there are very few documents and archives on the great African female figures. Things are changing, but there is still a long way to go to exhume them from history.

Dynastic successions are common in Africa, although they are not necessarily accompanied by pomp and circumstance. What do you think?

This is very worrying because these dynastic successions have no legitimacy. They were imposed against the will of the people and represent a flagrant abuse of power. Also very worrying is the phenomenon of the third presidential term, which allows these leaders to stay in power by manipulating the constitution of their country. I joined two writers — Tierno Monénembo [from Guinea] and Eugene Ebodé [from Cameroon] — to draft a petition titled “No to the presidency for life” as several West African heads of state sought a third term, including Guinean Alpha Condé and Ivorian Alassane Ouattara.

We must ask ourselves, as Ebodé pointed out, why some of the real opponents of yesterday give up their commitments once in power and are then obsessed with retaining power. Too many of our leaders behave like royalty because we lack strong institutions.

Military coups have again become frequent in recent years. Your thoughts?

Many people mistakenly believed that military coups could have a progressive aspect. Indeed, faced with the seizure of power, the option of legality is no longer possible. With their backs to the wall, desperate populations welcome the soldiers with fanfare. But look at what is happening in Guinea today.

The junta succeeded in overthrowing Condé, who reigned as a despot. However, we are seeing a return to square one, as the release was short-lived. In a column published recently, Monénembo railed against a period of transition which dragged on: “Our real army, which has just replaced our false democrats, is not in a hurry either to hand over power”. He adds: “After the presidencies for life, eternal transitions!

The responsibility of our leaders is undeniable. When faith in the possibility of change is lost early (eg dynasties, third mandates, orchestrated successions) and disillusion sets in, the door is open to all kinds of excess. The stability of a country is only possible if the majority of its citizens have confidence in the leaders and are convinced that there is a sense of justice and a common future.

What about literature? What are you working on at the moment?

Everything overlaps. For me, literature is the place of all concerns. It is the act of reading, the act of writing and the act of engaging in deep reflection. My latest novel In the Company of Men, concerns the environment and the Ebola epidemic. This subject continues to capture the attention of readers, and therefore mine as well. In parallel, I put the final touch to a novel which will immerse the reader in the post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011 in Côte d’Ivoire.