Were African leaders the only ones packed in buses during Queen Elizabeth’s funeral?
By Sishuwa Sishuwa
The burial of Queen Elizabeth II on 19 September 2022 dominated much of the chatter on social media across Africa.
A careful reading of the content revealed three specific questions.
• Why did some African presidents attend the funeral while others did not?
Nearly all of Africa’s heads of state and government were invited to attend 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 chairperson of the African Union; Christophe Mboso N’kodia, the president of the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s military leader.
Those who attended the funeral may have sought to use the opportunity to informally convene with other world leaders, including the new UK prime minister, Liz Truss.
Others may have been motivated to do so by the desire to pay their final respects to a fellow human being who was head of the Commonwealth, in line with the pan-Africanist ideals of recognising common humanity.
Some, like Ramaphosa, may have placed economic entanglements at the heart of their decision-making, more so knowing that South Africa is home to the largest British diaspora in Africa.
Those who stayed away, particularly if used to travelling with splendour, may have sought to avoid the “humiliation” of being “herded” onto a bus for the funeral.
Others probably had more urgent and pressing domestic priorities to resolve, while some may have found it difficult to justify the cost of a trip to the UK and another to the US for the ongoing United Nations General Assembly within the same week.
What perhaps raised eyebrows and outraged many human rights groups was the invitation extended to Sudan’s military leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who presided over the Khartoum massacre that resulted in the death of at least 40 peaceful protesters in June 2019.
• Were African leaders the only foreign dignitaries bussed to the state funeral?
This was perhaps the most persistent question. Complete with images, several social media users wondered why African leaders who attended the state reception in honour of Queen Elizabeth II were transported to the venue on a coach bus while those from other countries were not.
This ordering, some said, indicated a form of racial hierarchy in which some people are seen as more important than others. These reports, when carefully scrutinised, turned out to be false.
The truth is that almost every visiting leader attending the event was accorded similar treatment.
This includes foreign royalty and the leaders of India, Canada, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Norway, France, and other European and Asian countries.
The exceptions included the president of the United States Joe Biden, who was allowed to use his armoured presidential limousine, nicknamed “The Beast”, because of concerns about his security.
American war adventures across the world have over the years heightened the threat on any US president whenever they travel overseas.
This experience contrasts sharply with that of most African leaders, who do not bomb their way out of problems they cannot resolve peacefully or through diplomacy.
The reaction of many Africans to the false reports that their leaders were the only foreign dignitaries who were bussed to the funeral does suggest two things, however.
The first is that for many in Africa, the indignities of the colonial period and suspicions of marginalisation are not distant in memory.
The history of trauma, combined with the resurgence of dangerous right-wing populism with racial overtones in much of Europe and the rest of the world, has left many on the continent hypervigilant.
The second point is that many Africans are also drawing sharp contrasts between the spectacle of their leaders’ willingness to use buses in the UK and the extreme pomp that characterises their travel within their respective countries.
In the UK, the Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries, for instance, it is normal for elected public officials to go to work on buses or bikes – the same mode of transport that the majority of their citizens use every day. Travel in luxury and flashy entourages is generally frowned upon.
In contrast, many African leaders travel domestically with such ultra-flamboyance that it is as if their very existence is only validated by opulence.
All along, they had made their harmless citizens believe that it was impossible for them to travel any other way.
This explains why many across the continent initially thought that racism must have been responsible for their leaders’ uncharacteristic mode of transportation.
For the ordinary African watching back home, the sight of such leaders – some of whom had flown to the UK using expensive chartered planes – squished on a bus was amusing and provided temporary relief from everyday problems.
• How will Elizabeth’s death affect the future of the Commonwealth?
Even before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the Commonwealth, a successor organisation to the British Empire, comprised of the countries that were colonised by Britain, plus one or two that wish they had been, had largely become a relic in search of a function.
What largely prevented the fragmentation of the 56-member body for so long was not a clearly defined shared purpose, but the quiet power and charming influence of the departed monarch.
King Charles III, Elizabeth’s successor, is not as attractive a figure as she was, lacks her enigmatic charisma, and, in a world of celebrity status and social media, will have a tougher time keeping it together.
The organisation may not collapse immediately but its significance in international affairs, like that of the UK, is likely to diminish over time with greater calls for fragmentation.
It is notable that nearly all Caribbean Commonwealth countries are already voicing criticism of the monarchy and pushing towards republic status, one that was achieved by all African countries at independence — except Eswatini.
If it is to survive, the institution, which has been unequal, will have to transform and find a new common purpose relevant to the times.
A key question in this regard relates to who becomes the body’s next leader. Will Charles be in charge and – if so – will he be as tactful as the queen was?
Or will he be outspoken, as he recently showed when voicing his opposition to the UK’s plans to repatriate illegal migrants to Rwanda? Or will the next leader of the Commonwealth come from Canada, Australia or even Africa in a bid to make the organisation more representative?
Questions also remain about how long the monarchy, an ancient hereditary institution that is not universally popular even within 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. For now, its obituary remains in draft form.