So William and Harry rowed over whose ‘thing’ Africa is. Now tell me the colonial mindset is dead | Nels Abbey
"Detty December is an annual pilgrimage in which the African diaspora descend on African cities (principally Lagos and Accra) for fun, festivity, culture, business connections and the odd bit of unspeakable debauchery. Pool and beachside parties run from the evening until the sun comes up the next day. Flush the Band Aid poverty porn out of your head: every December, at least, Accra and Lagos are the new Ibiza and Ayia Napa.
As the sun was setting on last year’s Detty December, with a festival attended by 50,000 people (including the likes of Dave Chappelle) and headlined by Erykah Badu, the sun was rising on Prince Harry’s publicity run for his wildly revealing and score-settling new book, Spare.
Armed with a tub of popcorn and a notebook, I gleefully tuned in to the primetime ITV interview with Tom Bradby. And in the blink of an eye, we were offered an inadvertent cocktail of Detty December meets the Windsors.
“Africa is my thing, you can’t have it,” was the quote highlighted by Bradby and attributed to Prince William, referring to a disagreement between Harry and William in which the latter claimed prior ownership over royal/charitable activities on the continent. The following day in the US, ABC’s Michael Strahan brought up the same point in his interview with Harry: “I know that Africa is very special to you. But your brother exerted his power to say, ‘No that’s my place. The elephants, the giraffes are all mine.’ Did you think that he knew how important Africa was to you and what you wanted to do, that he did it to hurt you?”
Although no one remarked on the absurdity of these words at the time, in both interviews you could have been mistaken for thinking that “Africa” was an empty new-build castle in Cornwall or a pet chihuahua being fought over in a custody battle.
What are we to think? There isn’t that much room for doubt: Africa is still seen as a colonial plaything for British princes engaged in their own personal scramble, rather than a vast and complex continent that is home to the most diverse population on Earth. Moreover, if Harry is to be believed, the seemingly good intentions of the future monarch, William, were not motivated by a desire to do good by the African people but, at least in part, a desire to do better than his little brother.
There are dark historical echoes here, going all the way back to Europe’s imperialist “scramble for Africa”. Oneupmanship among European royalty and empires was always a driving objective. In a reflection of how far things have changed yet remained the same, the exchange between the princes appeared to reveal a more intense interest in African wildlife, “the giraffes, the elephants”, than the African people.
It is of a piece with what we know, for western competition for ownership of and then influence in Africa, and subsequent western charity on the continent, has not led to betterment for Africans. If there is anything like a “common wealth” today, it speaks more to the relationship between African nations and China rather than with Britain.
In November 2022, I was lucky enough to attend the Aké arts and book festival in Lagos alongside Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Kojo Koram, author of Uncommon Wealth, and others. During a drive to an art gallery, Koram and I were shown Mobolaji Johnson station, a Chinese-assisted, large, modern train station in the once wasteland of Ebute Metta, Lagos. Last month, a Chinese-built 27km light railway service in Lagos, a city of 15 million people, performed its maiden test run. The optics speak for themselves: China is working with Africans on huge modern infrastructure projects across the continent, many of which have led to the betterment of African lives (despite controversy over debt trap suspicions); meanwhile British princes argue whose “thing” Africa is.
It reveals quite a lot about race and the western media that the “Africa is my thing” notion didn’t attract headlines. How Harry lost his virginity or the drugs were far more interesting.
Like Europe, the African continent is beautifully complex. Often, it is messy. But despite the many problems it faces, in 2023, events such as Detty December, the growth of tourism, the expansion of African music into global pop culture, the African continental free trade area, the normalising of democracy and respect for human rights, and the diversification away from raw material dependency – all are of greater importance to Africans than which British prince gets to lay claim to the continent. Africa is moving forward; I’m really not sure the Windsors can say the same.
Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and former banker. He is the author of the satirical book Think Like a White Man"