Véronique Tadjo, a Franco-Ivorian novelist and painter, commander of arts and letters and president of the jury of the Orange Prize for Books in Africa, has lived in the UK for several years. As an outside observer of the British monarchy, she provides insight into an event that has been dominating the news — the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was buried on Monday. We saw this as the perfect occasion to discuss power and its limits when embodied in a single person.
The war in Ukraine, Covid … Everything seems to have stopped since Queen Elizabeth II’s death, what are your thoughts on this?
Véronique Tadjo: This is because of her exceptional destiny. She was 25 years old when she ascended the throne on 6 February 1952 on the death of her father, King George VI. Her coronation was the first in the country’s history that was broadcast live on BBC television. It was watched by nearly 20 million Britons and the worldwide television audience was estimated at 277 million. When she died on 8 September 2022 at the age of 96, she became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. She still embodied the idea of a powerful empire that had ruled India, China and much of Africa. With her death, a whole era disappears forever.
What did Queen Elizabeth II mean to you?
I have lived in Britain for many years. The queen was a daily, respected and reassuring presence. 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 at the national level or in the royal family, her first course of action was to assess its impact on the monarchy.
She always opted for cohesion, even if it meant being perceived as cold or unfair. She had a gift for speaking to the British people. More often than not, she intervened to reassure them when social tensions were high. One journalist wrote that she hid the British’s imperfections.
What do you think of the ‘unholy’ alliance between monarchy and democracy in the UK?
I would say that although the monarchy has sometimes been challenged, it is nevertheless firmly rooted in the social fabric. It’s part of British identity and it’s likely to continue much as it did before, because for decades it seems that only a quarter of the population wanted to abolish it. Democracy is assured by a very robust parliament.
The courts have made it clear 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, that is, legislation or custom. The system of separation of powers means that the monarchy essentially plays a symbolic role. Legislative power is vested in the 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 though the subsidy given to the monarchy up to this point was not paid by the taxpayer. And yet Elizabeth II was considered the richest woman in the world, with an estimated fortune of $28bn according to Forbes magazine. This vast enterprise was dubbed ‘The Firm’ and was also known as ‘Monarchy PLC’. That being said, the royal family also brings in a lot of money, pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into the UK economy every year. Harry and Meghan’s lavish, televised wedding generated around $1.5bn. The queen was also linked to 600 charities across the UK and Commonwealth.
You say you are fascinated by ritual and tradition. Please tell us about this.
Everything we’ve seen since the queen’s death comes from a thousand-year-old tradition and very ancient texts. When Elizabeth II came to the throne, everyone already knew how she would be buried and which rites would be put 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 has to play their part and be in their place. This preservation of tradition fascinates me. In a world that is changing at breakneck speed, the monarchy is about the only long-term and collective memory we have. It is a link between the past and the present.
Do people need a sovereign?
People do not necessarily need a sovereign, but they certainly need someone who embodies a higher idea of the nation. They need leaders who rise above the fray and show that public interest is more important than individual interest. That is what you look for in a power figure.
In fact, I feel that there is something liberating about it because the government of the day is then seen as just that, a government that can be vigorously challenged in its management of public affairs. Therefore, no confusion arises between the function of the state and the search for absolute power.
Is it a shame that there are not many effective monarchies left in Africa? Is this a loss?
What happened during colonisation was unbelievably brutal. The various colonial powers that shared Africa among themselves undertook to systematically destroy and undermine traditional systems, as any rival authority, in their eyes, had to be suppressed. I will not go into the difference between ‘direct’ (British) and ‘indirect’ (French) colonisation, since they had the same objective — to divide and conquer. A clean slate was needed. Instead, the colonists favoured a ‘modern’ and more malleable political elite so that they would be able to preserve the gains made at the time of independence.
Is it a shame 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 oral storytelling traditions. Fortunately, some of the traditions have survived the repeated assaults despite many of the traditional monarchies having been co-opted by the governments of the day. We see this very clearly whenever there are presidential elections. A whole host of candidates seek the support of kings and traditional leaders to get their subjects to vote for them.
Which African monarchs, dead or alive, fascinate you?
Some of the Nigerian and Cameroonian traditional leaders were extraordinary because they seem to have managed to preserve the continuity and influence of their office. It’s a question of cultural identity. The Zulu king of South Africa, for example, exercises a lot of political weight in the country. Of course, we remember Shaka Zulu, who fought hard against the British presence. I am thinking of Mali’s Sundiata Keïta, Samori Touré, Mansa Musa and Kankan Musa and other historical African figures who founded radiant kingdoms.
But I am especially interested in the queens because they are history’s forgotten figures. Apart from Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt (between 51 BC and 30 BC), who was a woman of power and passion and ready to do anything to preserve the independence of her kingdom from the Romans, there is no real 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 Reine Pokou, Concerto pour un Sacrifice about Queen Abla Pokou, who founded the Baule kingdom in the 18th century after fleeing from the Ashanti kingdom during a war of succession. Côte d’Ivoire readily recognised her, mainly because political power was for a long time in the hands of the Baule elite. However, this is no longer the case in present-day Ghana. The queen has been erased from memory because she infringed on royal authority. In the course of my research, I realised that there are very few documents and records about major African female figures. Things are changing, but there is still a lot to be done to excavate them from history.
Dynastic successions are frequent in Africa, although they aren’t necessarily accompanied by pomp and circumstance. What do you think?
It is very worrying because these dynastic successions have no legitimacy. They have been imposed against the people’s will 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 their country’s constitution. I joined up with two writers — Tierno Monénembo [from Guinea] and Eugène Ebodé [from Cameroon] — to write a petition called “No to the life presidency” when several West African heads of state were seeking a third term, notably Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara.
We must ask ourselves, as Ebodé pointed out, why some of yesterday’s genuine opponents renege on their commitments once they are in office and are then obsessed with holding onto power. Too many of our leaders behave like kings because we are so lacking in strong institutions.
Military coups have become frequent again in recent years. Your thoughts?
Many people have mistakenly believed that military coups can have a progressive aspect to them. This is because, in the face of the power grab, the option of legality is no longer possible. With their backs to the wall, desperate populations welcome the military with fanfare. But look at what is happening in Guinea today.
The junta succeeded in removing Condé, who ruled as a despot. However, we are seeing a return to square one, as the liberation has proved short-lived. In a recently published column, Monénembo railed against a transition period that is dragging on: “Our real military, which has just replaced our false democrats, is not in a hurry to hand over power either.” He adds: “After life presidencies, eternal transitions!”
The responsibility of our leaders is undeniable. When confidence in the possibility of change is lost early on (for example, dynasties, third mandates, orchestrated successions) and disillusionment sets in, the door is open to all kinds of excess. A country’s stability 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 for all concerns. It is the act of reading, the act of writing and the act of engaging in deep reflection. My latest novel, En Compagnie des Hommes, is about the environment and the Ebola epidemic. This topic continues to capture the attention of readers, and therefore mine as well. At the same time, I am putting the finishing touches to a novel that will plunge the reader into Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010-2011 post-election crisis.