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Queen Elizabeth’s controversial legacy



Tayo Oke

Yesterday, September 19, 2022, the traffic came to a halt, the bagpipe and the muffled drum bellowed sombre notes into the air, the roads to Westminster Abbey, in London, the gothic splendour of the Lady’s Chapel cleared of all moving objects except for the Royal Navy pulling the gun carriage with the remains of the Queen. Kings and Queens in far-away kingdoms were in attendance, presidents, prime ministers and assorted heads of governments all over the world came to pay their last respects to a unique figure, Queen Elizabeth II, for more than 70 years the Queen and head of state in Britain, as well as Australia, Canada, New-Zealand and a number of former colonies who still retain an attachment to the British constitutional monarchy. Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the age of 25, in 1952, following the sudden death of her father, King George VI at the age of 56. Soon after being crowned Queen, she wooed people into her affection by vowing to devote her entire life, “whether it be short or long,” to the service of the “Empire” as Britain still thought of itself at the time. She threw herself into the role quite cheerfully, some would say, effortlessly.

It is often said that the Monarchy does not get involved in politics. That the royal family is neutral in the contention for political power. That the Queen or King is outside, or indeed ‘above politics’. This is nothing but a figment of the citizens’ imagination. The monarchy, by definition, is a conservative, class-ridden institution. The Queen made it her lifelong devotion to preserve the status quo, though she was, by virtue of her position, already on one side of the political divide—the privileged few. The ‘successful’ period of Her Majesty’s long reign could only be such if viewed through the prism of the aristocracy. Any monarch who manages to keep the population cheering and waving in adoration whilst preserving the bulk of the status quo for any length of time, not to say for over 70 years, has to be hailed as a resounding success. This is precisely what lies at the heart of the late Queen Elizabeth’s Midas touch. She played and overplayed her desire to be among ‘her people’ at home and abroad. She kept stressing the ‘common values’ that bind Britain with the rest of the Commonwealth of nations. The Commonwealth, a community of former British colonial subjects, was branded a ‘family’ with the Queen as its head. It was apple pie and motherhood stuff.

What is often overlooked in the commentaries on the monarchy is the fact that the royal family is indeed a family but it is also a business or a ‘firm’ as it is referred to in royal circles. It is managed by an extremely well-informed, well-groomed crop of ‘aids’ covering marketing, accounting, real estate, politics, economics, international affairs and, of course, media. Their job is to steer the monarchy away from the limelight when it is unwanted and equally steer it towards the limelight when it is necessary. In order words, the Queen’s acclaimed deft touch on the throne is, in large part, owed to the intelligence expertise and dedication of a lot of people working assiduously behind the scenes all these years. They are the ones who have cleverly managed to keep the ultimate symbol of class division in British society away from any diplomatic faux pas, international controversies or internal rebellion. Queen Elizabeth II carried herself with grace and dignity, yes, but that is not the whole story. Anyone sitting on a family fortune worth billions of dollars in perpetuity should have little difficulty keeping the ‘stiff upper lip’; the classic middle England code for self-restraint. Sympathy for her family at her death and the overwhelming outpouring of emotions even from the former colonies and former colonial ‘subjects’ only mask the gaping wound inflicted in her name on innocent victims of her country’s once insatiable thirst for brute force as the weapon of choice to divide, colonise and establish dominion over swathes of other people’s land. Nigeria is one of such casualties of British imperial domination. The British, at one point, had dominion over one-quarter of the world’s population. The Queen never stopped trumpeting ‘our common values’ to Commonwealth leaders in Africa and across the world. What common values forced territories with disparate ethnic nationalities, such as the North and South of Nigeria, to become one? The British value of exploitation, expropriation, extortion and plunder perpetrated in Nigeria and across Africa was neither shared by Nigerians nor can it be forgiven in a hurry.

Divide and rule was the major political strategy deployed by the imperial viceroys, viscounts and other representatives of the monarchy all over the world. The consequences of this political strategy are still with us today in Nigeria. Nigeria is a product of the British monarchy, created and sustained purely in its blood-sucking interest. Similar scenario happened in Ghana, Egypt, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and, of course, South Africa, where the white minority was aided and abated by British imperialism for more than two centuries. What common value is there in one race (the whites) feeling entitled to subjugate another (the Blacks) with the active support of Her Majesty’s government for such a long period of time? What about the genocidal involvement of Her Majesty’s government in the lynching of the Kenyan nationalist fighters; the “mau-mau” in the 1950s because they were demanding the same access to Paine’s “rights of man” that had inspired the French Revolution in 1789? Common European values that were never thought worthy of extension to the Africans. At what point did the Queen suddenly realise that the commonwealth group of nations shared common values?

So, how should we, in this part of the world, react to the passing of the Queen? The answer is a bit more complex than it seems, but, whatever we do, it should not be with a nostalgic admiration for either the institution or the person that personifies the monarchy. No nation, no citizen, should be subjected to hereditary or divine rule in the modern age. No one should have the privilege of acceding to a seat of power or influence simply by the accident of their birth, as Prince Charles (now King Charles) has just done and as his son, William, will also do in the fullness of time. Privilege should never be bestowed; it must always be earned.

Nigeria too has pockets of traditional institutions of monarchy and inherited stools all over the place. Many of them do a good job, quietly, behind the scenes. Their influence is curtailed by their lack of political power, but, it is precisely this lack of political power that gives them moral authority. The British Monarchy has endured because of its ability to navigate the world of political power and moral suasion with canny, deft and panache at times. Other monarchies, such as Japan and Thailand endure because the people see them as divine. Lese-Majeste carries the weight of public condemnation in such environments like no other. In the Arab world, monarchy is a curious combination of hereditary, divinity and brute force. It is a region steeped in history, but, also a region besmirched by blind loyalty and bloodshed. On balance, Queen Elizabeth stayed rather too long on the throne, but this, ironically, is an argument for stability, and continuity. Nonetheless, it is also an argument for sterility and inertia. In ancient Rome, her son would have mounted a bloody palace coup to dethrone her mother. Our sympathy must go to poor Charles, who had to wait until the age of 73 to get a real job.

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