Thursday, September 15, 2022



Ayo Olukotun



One of the reasons for beaming a comparative searchlight on the fortunes, travails and vicissitudes of other nations is that, for those who care, they show examples or best practices of how developing nations should best evolve. This is not to say, as modernization theorists once assumed that all nations should travel the same road to greatness. That notwithstanding, advanced nations constitute a repository of knowledge which can guide up-and-coming nations. Consider for instance how marvelously and gently Britain went through two important political transitions. The first from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson who left office in disgrace to Liz Truss, his successor, the second is the passing on at 95 of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension to the throne of heir apparent, Charles III, her son. In point of fact, her last constitutional act was to accept the resignation of Johnson and to affirm Truss, giving her the nod to constitute a cabinet.

There must be some dexterity, even genius of orderliness for a country to manage those delicate transitions with such decorum and civility. Like a colleague bantered to me a few days back in some other countries very easy to guess Truss's rivals would probably be in court challenging the legality of her emergence while the flamboyant Prince Williams might also have been making political noises about his father who is 73 being too old to succeed his grandmother. Such are the indelicateness and rawness of transitions and elections in Nigeria. The reason is not far to seek. In an often quoted speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town in 1947, Elizabeth II, at the time heir apparent, said solemnly, "I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service..." This suggests that even before ascending the Imam Elizabeth already had a vision, not of the use or abuse of naked power but of qualitative service as befitting a cultured and aristocratic elite trained in the promotion of change for the best of reasons.

As known, the Queen's devotion to duty spanned her entire life as she kept an itinerary filled with regal assignments into her nineties. Empowered by commitment to service, Elizabeth II successfully managed the transition from a more powerful monarchy during the British Empire years to a ceremonial one, walking the tight rope between the pomp and pageantry of the monarchy and its reduced visage and power in later years. She was, of course, Head of the British State who had to give approval for every constitutional change but there was a substantive Prime Minister who held executive power. It must have been a balancing act, challenging to pull off for the Queen to keep to her reduced authority while still maintaining the magnificent circumstance of an earlier era. This is precisely the notion of soft power captured in the famous statement by a former American President, Dwight Eisenhower, "Carry a big stick but speak in a small voice." In the case of Elizabeth, even as her big stick shrunk through the years of transition from empire to  a declining nation-state, she continued to speak in a small but influential voice appropriate to the majesty of her Office. That is why the potential for conflict between the head of state and head of government was not allowed to rear its head because Elizabeth II confined herself to the constitutional constraints and limitations of the monarchy.

Born in April 1926, Elizabeth, longest serving British monarch, worked with 15 British Prime Ministers and visited 13 American Presidents, appointed 7 Archbishops of Canterbury and met with five popes. Not many in the human race will have the opportunity and leeway to live in such elevated circumstances. Elizabeth, if she had chosen, could have indulged herself vainly in the glorious ambience surrounding her Office and the serial photo-ops with world leaders. But that would have been all about her and would not explain why she was loved by the British people with her death provoking outpourings of grief, not only in the Commonwealth of Nations but across the entire globe. As previously mentioned, it is the quality of service to her nation and to humanity that underwrote her contribution to British history and differentiates her from the common run in her country and from politicians in less fortunate countries who were driven by the lust for power rather than self-denying benevolence.

For those who still argue about the necessity or imperative of maintaining and celebrating a hereditary monarchy in a democratic system, it should be noted that there are at least fourteen counties in Europe that maintain monarchies and are vibrant democracies. Most of the Scandinavian counties as well as Switzerland among others are some of the most qualitative democracies on the globe and yet they feature constitutional monarchies. The key word here is "constitutional" because that defines the scope as well as the boundaries of monarchies, conferring on them legitimacies. Furthermore, the monarchies are limited by the demos, which in this case, refers to the power of the people to endorse or withdraw assent. That is why in some countries unpopular monarchs have been forced to abdicate when the people were up in arms against their unpopular or tactless reign.

Elizabeth will be remembered for maintaining the traditions of the British monarchy extending its frontiers in the days of empire and for the adroit management of the civilities of power sharing within the British state. It was her qualities and finesse that enabled her to tide over various dramatic moments and outright scandals such as occurred in 1997 during the tragedy involving her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. Obviously, this was a chilling moment for the monarch and the institution she represented as public discontent was voiced over her tardy handling of the Diana tragedy. However, her forte enabled her, not only to tide over but to steer the institution away from the sensational headlines that must have cost the family not a little embarrassment. The Queen, as often quipped, winces rather than rules. Her abiding contribution is in the area of dexterous use of soft power in a world of aggressive behaviour and the ungainly deployment of naked power.

Soft power, on a broader scale, refers to the power of attraction, indirectness and persuasiveness through other means than force. Much about the British state which has a constitution that is for the most part unwritten, is about soft power. For example, British educational institutions are a prototype of soft power. When you learn, for example, that Oxford University has produced out of 56 Prime Ministers, up till 2022, 29 of them not to count Presidents and Prime Ministers of other countries; you do not need another invitation to emulate or doff your hat for the eminence of its educational quality.

In a country sold on soft power, there are things like gentleman's agreement which are taken seriously. This is the tradition from which Elizabeth as Queen came from, extended, beautified and exemplified.

Nigeria where the search for raw power is often brutal even murderous, has a lot to learn from the gentle soft power model of Queen Elizabeth and the conventions displayed by a monarchy dating back to the tenth century.


Professor Ayo Olukotun is a director at the Oba (Dr.) S. K. Adetona Institute for Governance Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye.

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