African leaders are colonial too – now is the chance to change

Queen Elizabeth’s passing should provoke a self-examination of our own role in preserving colonial heritage.

South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, left, and President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II during the lying in State inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool Photos via AP)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, and foreign minister Naledi Pandor pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II during the lying in state inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London, on September 18, 2022 [Chip Somodevilla/Pool Photos via AP]

The death and funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II have rightly provided much occasion for exploring the often ignored, brutal history of British colonialism – the story of the country’s murderous subjugation and plunder of populations across the world and the royal family’s role in it.

It was gratifying to see so many people refuse to be railroaded into mourning the passing of perhaps the most visible symbol of that history. However, I couldn’t help but notice a significant divide.

While their subjects seemed keen to highlight past British crimes, the present-day rulers of former UK colonies were less enthusiastic. In fact, almost unanimously, they joined in memorialising Elizabeth II, flying flags at half mast, extolling her virtues as a symbol of dedication to duty and even flying to London by the dozen to attend the funeral.

It is interesting that amid all the exhumation of the past, there was so little discussion on how that history is playing out in the present. For here’s the truth: Even as we condemn the British and European exploitation of what they considered their colonial possessions, many of us continue to live our lives surrounded by reminders of their time here, decades after “independence”.

A week before the queen’s death, Kenya’s Supreme Court had begun hearing challenges to the declared result of the August 9 presidential election, which had delivered victory to William Ruto. The robes and wigs that the lawyers and judges bedecked themselves in as well as the archaic manner of address – My Lords and My Ladies – are all traditions borrowed from Mother England.

For many former colonies, political independence did not really mean decolonisation. As political scientist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee put it in an interview published in Nermeen Shaikh’s book, The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power, “many of the postcolonial state forms … replicated quite consciously the forms of the modern state in the West”.

Of course, there have been exceptions such as Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso who understood decolonisation as a revolutionary, experimental process centred on the intellectual liberation of ordinary people, who would be responsible for their own empowerment.

Still, scholars like Mahmood Mamdani have argued that post-independence leaders, especially in Africa, focused on deracialisation – undoing white domination through Africanisation and nationalisation – rather than decolonisation. “Everywhere, decolonisation began with deracialisation,” he once noted.

Sadly, once local elites secured for themselves the privileges, resources and opportunities formerly reserved for white people, they never sought deeper decolonisation. Deracialisation without decolonisation in turn left so-called independent national governments vulnerable to influence and pressure from foreign interests, because their umbilical cords to colonial-era systems and practices had never been snapped.

In fact, many liberators did end up like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – retaining or recreating the very same colonial structures they had once railed against. In Kenya, for example, as related by former Attorney General Githu Muigai in a 1992 paper, the attempt to impose a liberal constitution on the authoritarian colonial administrative structure at independence failed, with the former adapting to the latter rather than the other way around.

More recently, Ruto and his former boss and predecessor as president, Uhuru Kenyatta, have since 2013 been tasked with imposing a new constitution, promulgated in 2010, on the existing authoritarian colonial state, but to a large extent have backtracked on that.

In a throwback to what his father, the first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta, did to the new constitution at the time of independence, Uhuru in his second and final term even attempted to introduce amendments meant to weaken constraints on corruption. These amendments, eventually blocked by the country’s top court, focused on enabling power-sharing governing arrangements by multiplying the number of available state positions – president, deputy presidents, prime minister, deputy prime ministers and the official leader of the opposition – that could be distributed among partners. Of course, this would have revived the associated opportunities to loot the exchequer that had existed prior to 2010.

The evidence is therefore clear: Even this latest generation of rulers, which has inherited colonial states relatively intact, sees former European masters as its political kin.

The passing of Elizabeth II provides an opportunity to do much more than debate the past. It should also provoke a long overdue self-examination that acknowledges our own role in preserving the colonial heritage we inherited from Europe, and to reboot the project of decolonisation that was aborted at independence.

The idea behind such a conversation is not to recreate the pre-colonial past. As Chatterjee noted, it is a dialogue “about whether a different modernity is possible”. It is a debate that would benefit even Western nations that seem to have trouble defining themselves outside frameworks created by imperialism that had placed them at the top of the pile.

Of course, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Many thinkers and writers working outside Western frameworks, from Frantz Fanon to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, have laid the groundwork for the monumental project of cleaning up the political, social, economic and cultural mess left behind by the likes of Elizabeth II.

However, to do this, we must not only remember the past, but must also confront its presence in the present. And that means dealing with our own post-independence failure to birth “a different modernity”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.