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Queen Elizabeth II: Neither Saint nor Sinner, By Reuben Abati 

Post-colonial relations between former European countries and their former colonies have always been coloured by the memory of colonialism, the heritage of slavery and despite the passage of time, this has remained a continual element between former colonial masters and the sovereign, independent states that emerged after the end of colonialism. It is therefore not entirely surprising or shocking that this is being played out as Queen Elizbeth II begins her final journey, having died at the age of 96, after 70 years on the throne, the longest reigning monarchy in British History since the Stuarts took the throne in 1066. Leaders of the world have paid tributes to her distinction as one of the most influential figures of the 20th and 21st centuries who personified dignity, selflessness, graciousness and decency in public life, with great authority on the world stage. 

The government of Canada declared ten days of mourning, Brazil has also declared three days of mourning, in countries across the world, including the United States, Australia and Nigeria, flags are being flown at half-mast in honour of a monarch who was a commanding presence in British public life for seven decades, and indeed the only monarch that many Britons have ever known, justifying PM Liz Truss’s statement that Elizabeth II was “the rock upon which modern Britain was built”  She led the monarchy and her people through the best of times and the worst of times – 15 Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill’s second coming (1951 -1956) to Liz Truss whose formal appointment as Prime Minister was one of her last duties, more than 10 Summer Olympics, seven Popes of the Catholic Church and 14 American Presidents –  whom she met personally with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. She was an exemplar of duty, and a force for moderation and reconciliation, through milestones and traumas at both personal and public levels. But just as there are many who share these views and have continued to pay tributes to her, there are others who object. 

Even before the announcement of Her Majesty’s demise, a Nigerian Professor, Uju Anya of the Department of Modern Languages at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), United States had written on twitter that she wished the Queen would die an “excruciating death…in agony.” She said: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Professor Anya accuses the Queen of having had a hand in the genocide against her people, the Igbos of Nigeria, during the Nigerian civil war, 1967 -70.  Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and others have since taken her to task. Twitter has taken down her tweet. Carnegie Mellon University has since distanced itself from her statement. But she remains adamant. She blames the Queen for the Nigerian Civil War. In Australia, Prof. Sandy O’Sullivan, a Wiradujuri, sounding very much like her CMU colleague, says Elizabeth II was not a bystander to the effects of colonization and colonialism, rather she was an architect of it. “She had a job for decades” says O’Sullivan, “that oversaw action that made indigenous people’s lives worse.”  Other politicians have also had their say. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) issued a statement in which the political party describes the Queen as “the head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanization of millions of people across the world…We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history.” Specifically, the EEF blames Queen Elizabeth II for the British Royal family’s war against the Xhosa, and for the exploits of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Here in Nigeria, Omoyele Sowore, Presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) has flayed the Nigerian Government for directing that flag should be flown at half-mast for Queen Elizabeth. In an official tribute, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari had declared that the history of Nigeria would be incomplete without a chapter on Queen Elizabeth. She first visited Nigeria in 1956, she sent Princess Alexandra of Kent to represent her at Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and was again in Nigeria in 2003 when the country hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). I observe, however, that Elizabeth II remains popular among ordinary Nigerians. Since her death, there has been an outpouring of tributes from persons who either sighted her in 1956, or 2003, or had the opportunity to meet her or work with the British during her reign. Families have been exhuming pictures of their parents with the Queen or of themselves. Nigerian diplomats who have had cause to serve at the Court of St. James or the Commonwealth have been forthcoming with praise. Nigerian communities in the UK have even announced different patterns of family attires (known locally as “aso ebi”) at the high price of between 50 and 100 pounds per yard, which at the rate of the standard five yards would come to a tidy sum of 250 pounds or 500 pounds. Nigerians love to celebrate the death of a person who lives up to a ripe age, and the Queen did, and she lived well too. 

Out of excitement, some Yoruba in the UK are even circulating the news that they intend to perform Oro rituals in honour of the Queen. The Queen was a patron of many charities, trusts and societies around the World. How the Oro cultists would enforce a restriction of movement and insist that all women must stay indoors around Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey at certain ritual hours remains to be seen. Also here in Nigeria, a young politician, Ahmed Garba has suggested that the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, established in the year of Nigeria’s independence, 1960 should be renamed after Queen Elizabeth. This has been condemned by Alaigbo, an Igbo socio-cultural group, which asked that it is Aso Rock, Nigeria’s Presidential Villa that should be named after the Queen.

This writer has deliberately painted the foregoing picture to document as much as possible, an impression of responses to the Queen’s exit, as dictated by emotions, politics, memory and ideology. In Edinburgh, Scotland, and also in London anti-monarchy protesters who held up signs, or asked “Who elected him?” – disciples of Walter Bagehot, and promoters of Republicanism, were arrested as Charles III was proclaimed King and as the Queen’s cortege travelled to Edinburgh. In Scotland, anti-monarchists, booed and heckled. But would all this taken together, taint the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II? Certainly not. While it is true that no one should speak ill of the dead, it is also true that some people have inherited ancestral pains that they feel obliged to express. The mixed responses from parts of the Old British Empire are an affirmation of how the sun has since set on that Empire and how the foregoing truly represents the burden of service and duty that the late Queen carried and the price she has had to pay for her hereditary privilege. 

Blaming the Queen for the heritage of imperialism, slavery and colonialism is a bit rather dramatic, and many of the reactions are overdone.  Elizabeth II may have inherited privilege but she had nothing to do with the character of that heritage. When she was born in 1926, the Empire was at the height of its splendor. By 1947, India, the jewel of the British Crown gained its independence. By 1952, when she assumed the throne at the young age of 25, the Empire was already in transition. She became Queen while holidaying, with her husband Prince Philip in Kenya. It subsequently became her lot to lead what remained of the Empire through several transitions. In 1957, Ghana or Gold Coast as it was then known gained independence. Other countries would follow, including Nigeria in 1960.  In 1926, the British Empire had a population of 600 million, by 1952, that population had shrunk badly, and by the time of her death in 2022, what remained was Great Britain, and 14 countries where she was Queen and Head of State, and a Commonwealth that is no longer the British Commonwealth, but a Commonwealth of Nations and Friends. Concerns have been expressed legitimately about the future of the monarchy, with calls for Republicanism in Australia and Scotland. But the narrative about imperialism and its heritage overlooks the complicity of the former colonies in the construction of that history. It must be said that Queen Elizabeth II was a down-to-earth, relatable person who did her best to put a positive spin on the legacy of the British Empire. She grew to become a treasured link between Old and Modern Britain and shared communities across the world. She was a great diplomat, who though impartial, and politically neutral, visited every country that made up the Commonwealth, with Canada where she was Queen, a record 22 times!   

She didn’t invent imperialism. She was not the architect of colonialism. Instead, she managed the transition from colonialism to democracy to Twitter, the tabloid era and its melodrama, and Tik Tok, in addition to family home troubles, with enormous grace. It can be said of her that she did her duty well. The anti-monarchists who hold Elizabeth II responsible, as symbol and architect of everything that befell their ancestors, overlook the fact that those same ancestors were as guilty as the imperialists, for the evils of the past. An idyllic reading of the roles of our ancestors in the heritage would fall flat on its face. British imperialism was possible because there were local collaborators. Indigenous peoples benefitted by selling their own kith and kin into slavery. They collected the Bible and mirrors and clothes in exchange for the lives of their own people. Our ancestors were glad to be used as tools, exactly the same manner in which African leaders and other leaders in the once conquered territories continue to worship the imperialists. Kemi Badenoch, the British politician of Nigerian origin, who is now UK Secretary for International Trade, once put her finger on the dilemma when she said “there were terrible things that happened during the British Empire, there were other good things that happened, and we need to tell both sides of the story.” The guilt for that heritage was shared. When the company colonialists arrived in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, they were assisted by significant others who worked against their own people. 

When conflicts erupted, the outsiders were helped by insiders.  The great Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Bini Empire would not have been deposed, and the Benin Expedition of 1897 would not have succeeded if the Bini Kingdom was not sabotaged by insiders! In the Lagos Colony, Oba Akitoye, in the fight for the throne with Oba Kosoko went to the British for help in 1851. Akitoye got the throne after Kosoko was defeated with the help of the British in Ogun Agidingbi; Akintoye became King but Lagos later became a colony of the British Empire in 1861/62: quid pro quo.  In 1956, when the Attah of Igalla, Ameh Oboni, Ugbakolo (1945- 56) refused to remove his cap for the Queen of England, his brother-kings turned against him. They thought he, Agabaidu, was being disrespectful.  They were stung by a thousand bees. The same stories can be told across the old British Empire. The likes of Professors Anya and O’Sullivan and the EEF and Omoyele Sowore may be entitled to their own views of the coin, but they need to be reminded that the colonized were not entirely victims but architects also of their own woes and this has nothing to do with Elizabeth II as person and monarch. Our ancestors were not saints. 

Their descendants too are no saints either. India got its independence from Great Britain in 1947 but it soon splintered into three countries. The countries of Africa that gained independence from Britain in the 60s have not moved beyond the past in any significant manner. There are Nigerian analysts who continue to blame the British for every problem after 60 years of independence. They forget that the same treasures that they say the British looted, Nigeria can’t even manage them. Shell discovered oil in the Niger Delta in 1956.  We have mismanaged that asset so badly even foreign oil companies are running away from our shores. We are told that the British structured Nigeria to fail, and gave power to Northerners, hence the civil war. How is that a problem caused by Elizabeth II? Former colonies must begin to take responsibility for their own failures and stop whining about stolen treasures. In those days when there was a general clamour for Nigerian independence, there was a little-known female Nigerian politician who campaigned vigorously that Nigeria was not ready and that we were better off with the British managing this country. Adunni Oluwole.  

She vehemently opposed Nigerian Independence. In 1954, she founded the Nigerian Commoners Liberal Party. She became so popular she later won a seat in Ikirun, defeating the NCNC and the Action Group. She didn’t think Nigeria was ready for independence in 1956 or any other time thereafter, because African politicians simply wanted to replace the British and become colonialists over their own people. She became the leader of a group known in Western Nigeria as “Egbe Oyinbo Mailo” meaning “The White Man Must Not Go Party”. Adunni Oluwole was called a harlot for her political views and her insistence on the rights of women.   She has since been vindicated, more or less.  Professor Uju Anya may well be reminded that it was the same wannabe African colonialists who have caused the Nigerian civil war, and every other thing that has held Nigeria down, and certainly not Elizabeth II. Former colonial subjects must simply learn to get their acts right and stop blaming the past and the outsider. It is ironic today that many members of these same former colonies would rather elect for British citizenship than embrace the post-colonial realities in their own countries. In Nigeria, our leaders regard the UK as their second home. They all have houses, wives and children in the UK.  They go there for medical treatment. They hide their stolen loot in that second home.       

We must look to the future, represented by the emergence of King Charles III, who had to wait for 70 years to succeed his mother, but nonetheless well prepared for the job. As the accepted, chosen and anointed Head of everything connected with what he inherits, he should have no problems sustaining the legacy. The Elizabeth II story has taught us so much about the resilience of culture, pomp and tradition, the continued relevance of the British monarchy, and the simple fact that royalty is no protection from mortality. People of the Commonwealth, learn to look inwards. Her work is done… The gavel sounds… May her soul spring into the newness of life. Farewell, Elizabeth II. So mote it be. 

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