Prince Charles’ invitation to storied Nigerian monarchs to visit him in Abuja during his Nigerian visit is a classic instantiation of what French theorist Pierre Bourdieu has called symbolic violence. Charles is only a prince, but he artfully deployed his symbolic capital as heir apparent to the British throne to derogate Nigerian monarchs who are his mother’s notional equivalents.
Many Nigerians on social media were understandably outraged not only by the superciliousness of the gesture but also by the embarrassing, self-denigrating obsequiousness of the Nigerian monarchs who honored Prince Charles’ invitation in Abuja. A Sam Hart with the Twitter handle @hartng expressed righteous rage at the colonialist condescension that Prince Charles’ invitation to Nigeria’s monarchs to visit him symbolizes. “We are no longer a British Colony so we are not beholden to the Crown,” he wrote. “Why would our 1st Class Traditional Rulers be herded to Abuja for sighting by the Next in Line?”
One Jide Taiwo (@thejidetaiwo) also captured the cultural anxieties of many Nigerians when he wrote: “So traditional rulers in Nigeria, including some of the most respected thrones ie Ooni of Ife & the Emir of Kano, left their kingdoms to go greet the visiting Prince Charles – the 70 year old arole who is still waiting … [to] become king? Wonderful.”
Nevertheless, although it’s true that Prince Charles is inferior in positional terms to the Nigerian monarchs he has belittled, that’s not really true in the global cultural economy. In his book Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu points out that in our everyday relational and discursive encounters, we habitually bring certain unspoken but nonetheless crucially important dispositions, which he calls “habitus.” This habitus predisposes us to unconsciously confer authority and prestige on some people and deny same to others. It also structures our perception of social and cultural reality.
Prince Charles knows this. He knows that because of Britain’s role as Nigeria’s former colonizer, current neo-colonizer, and stealthy annihilator of the self-esteem of its people, the cultural and social unconscious of Nigerian monarchs will incline them to regard him as their superior. In Bourdieuan terms, Prince Charles has a more valuable symbolic capital than Nigeria’s so-called first-class monarchs do.
Symbolic violence is said to occur when people who wield enormous symbolic capital use the privilege and affordances of this capital to inferiorize people who are—or who they perceive to be— subordinate to them. Although he is only a potential king, Prince Charles obviously disdains our monarchs’ self-construal of themselves as kings and as heirs to an illustrious, if bygone, regality. That was why he didn’t visit them in their palaces, but instead invited them to visit him in Abuja.
And because our monarchs have interiorized their own inferiority, it didn’t hurt their royal self-worth, nor did it strike them as anomalous, that a visiting prince from another country didn’t find them worthy of personalized visits but instead invited them to visit him outside their domains of traditional authority.
Prince Charles’ symbolic violence against our monarchs and our monarch’s blithe incapacity to appreciate, much less resist, it didn’t surprise me at all. It is the product of the deliberate and systematic inferiorization of the traditional institutions in Britain’s former colonies, of which Nigeria was only one, by British colonizers.
For instance, in the 1800s, the Colonial Office in London officially said no traditional ruler in the colonies should be referred to as a “king.” As I pointed in previous columns, on page 110 of an 1821 British Foreign Office document titled Correspondence with Foreign Courts Regarding Execution of Treaties Contracted, the British colonial government emphatically instructed that monarchs in British colonies should never be called “kings.” A king is a sovereign ruler, and only the British monarch was qualified to be called a king in the British Empire “on which the sun never sets.” Monarchs in the colonies could only be called “chiefs.” If the “chiefs” enjoyed enduring historic prestige among their people, they might be called “paramount chiefs,” but never “kings.”
Nigerians have internalized this invidious nomenclatural discrimination and still call their monarchs “chiefs.” This is especially true in northern Nigeria where non-Muslim—or non-Emirate— traditional rulers are called “chiefs” and their spheres of traditional influence called “chiefdoms.” In southern Nigeria, “chief” has now been appropriated to approximate what the British call a knighthood, that is, a traditional title conferred by a monarch ideally in recognition of an individual’s outstanding achievements or contributions to society.
Another enduring legacy of colonial Britain’s inferiorization of our traditional institutions is encapsulated in the “His Royal Highness” form of address that our monarchs still cherish. As I have pointed out in many previous columns, “Royal Highness” is prefixed only to the names of princes and princesses in Britain. Monarchs and their consorts are addressed as “Royal Majesty.” It is entirely conceivable that since the British Colonial office in London did not accept traditional rulers in the colonies as “kings,” it taught that they be addressed as “Royal Highnesses,” which implied that kings in the colonies were at best equivalent to British princes.
Nearly six decades after formal political independence from Britain, Nigerian traditional institutions are still stuck in, and defined by, the odious colonial categories imposed on them by British colonizers. Let me give just one recent example to illustrate this. Sometime in late July this year, I was invited to present a paper at the annual convention of the Zumunta Association USA, an association of northern Nigerians in the United States, where a representative of the Emir of Kano delivered the keynote address. The emir’s representative repeatedly addressed the emir of Kano as “His Highness.” So did other speakers.
However, when I had reason to make reference to the emir, I chose to honor him with the title of “His Royal Majesty” and explained that “His Highness” is used in Britain to refer to princes and princesses, which the emir isn’t. The emir’s representative wasn’t persuaded. He said the emir told him he preferred to be addressed as “His Highness.”
That, for me, was a powerful sociolinguistic manifestation of the internationalization of inferiority. Honoring Prince Charles’ invitation to Abuja was only the cultural and political expression of this inferiority. Since Prince Charles is formally addressed as “His Royal Highness,” as most of our monarchs are, they have titular parity. When you add Prince Charles’ symbolic and cultural capital to the mix, it’s easy to see why our monarchs were effortlessly intimidated into authorizing their own humiliation.
To be clear, I am not a monarchist. In fact, I have nothing but ice-cold disdain for the tyranny of inherited, often unearned, authority, which monarchy represents. Nevertheless, my personal philosophical revulsion against monarchy is immaterial to the reality that Nigeria’s prominent monarchs were the willing victims of Prince Charles’ symbolic violence. This is important because it strikes at the core of what I like to call our national xenophilia, that is, irrational, unjustified, inferiority-driven veneration of the foreign and the corresponding sense of low national self-worth that this veneration activates.
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