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Queen at 90: Soft power and echoes of the past

By XN Iraki | April 26th 2016

The United Kingdom has had a monarchy for more than 1,200 years. Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 90 last week, is the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

She was visiting Kenya in 1952 when her father, King George VI, died. Western media is mute on the Kenyan connection, but we should not be mute ourselves. It is a great opportunity to market the country as a favoured destination for monarchs and aristocrats who once made Happy Valley (Wanjohi) their playground.

Mzee Mathenge Iregi, who lives in Naro Moru, narrated how he and his friends watered roads on the then princess’s envisaged route to keep the dust down. Road contractors do the same thing today.

Elizabeth was on her way to Sagana State Lodge, a favourite spot for President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had not yet been born at the time of her visit. Mzee Iregi did not get to see the princess, despite his efforts to deal with the dust.

She then left Kenya to go and take up the throne aged 25.

The Mau Mau uprising followed that same year. Kenya remained a British colony and protectorate until uhuru in 1963. We became a republic, unlike Canada or Australia, which remained dominions still headed by the queen.

Our link to the monarchy these days is the Commonwealth, which we do not hear much any more.

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I was luckier than Mzee Iregi; I saw off Queen Elizabeth in 1983 during another of her visits to Kenya. We were driven to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in an old Bedford school bus made in England. I wish I had taken a selfie with her, waving a miniature Kenyan flag.

Interestingly, the UK has no written constitution — traditions and judicial precedents do the trick. That perhaps makes it easier to make bold and flexible decisions.

Could that explain why the tiny island nation once ruled a quarter of the world?

Constitutional burden

Many will disagree with me, but constitutions can be a burden if enough thought and flexibility are not put into them. Seen how small US or Chinese constitutions are?

Why does the UK have a monarchy contrary to our expectations? Though the monarch does not play much of a role in the daily running of the government, she or he is a symbol of longevity and continuity. The queen is a unifying figure in the UK, the Commonwealth, and in its dependencies and dominions.

Such a unifying figure is what is lacking in the Kenya. Before the 2010 Constitution, the President held the powers of the queen and prime minister. These powers were dispersed to governors and commissions in the new law. Some power was taken over by tribal chiefs, some of whom have succeeded in unifying their communities.

Kenyans were to take most of this power. I doubt we were ready. Special interest groups also got their cut of the power. Ever wondered why national decisions in Kenya are in a state of paralysis?

It is unlikely that Kenya will hold a bash to celebrate the queen’s 90th birthday, which is formally marked in June, but we could be represented as part of the Commonwealth.

Still, we can learn about the impact of ‘soft power’ from her long reign.

Humility and long-term thinking, which is why monarchies are retained, seem to be the missing links in Kenya. It amazes me that colonial editions of the Kenya Gazette are signed by ‘His Excellency the Governor’, and our current governors are addressed as His Excellency.

Monarchies, and there are many, link the past to the present, deepen national pride and identity. We have monarchies in Spain, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Japan.

The US and China, did away with monarchies, but invested in unique unifying forces. In the US, it is the American dream, while in China, it is its long history and civilisation. Francis Fukuyama, in fact, says China is a civilisation masquerading as a nation. Where else does communism derive its legitimacy?

The generation in Kenya that sang “God save the Queen” is slowly passing away, replaced by a more global and techno-savvy lot. The new generation is finding it hard to get an identity and a link to the past. Even our politicians are in the same dilemma, which is why ICC reverberated so well in 2013. Maybe the nations that retained monarchies knew something we did not.

We may not revive our kingdoms like Uganda, though I feel we got kings that were never coronated.

What is not contestable is that we need a national identity that will pull us together and make this nation a better home for all of us.

Identity has economic dividends for both individuals and nations. Creating one eluded our founding fathers. Can UhuRuto and other current leaders take this up as their legacy?

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.

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