By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
It is perhaps one of the sweetest contradictions of our times how Nigerians and indeed Africans as a race, erstwhile victims of British colonial exploitation, rapacious destruction of cultural, religious, and economic heritages have openly celebrated the life and times and mourned the death of the great Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth Realms. As we now know, London Bridge ‘fell down’ last Thursday when the Supple Lioness of Buckingham and Balmoral Palaces, Defender of the Faith HRM Queen Elizabeth II shed the cloak of earthly beings and danced gloriously into eternity for a well-deserved royal rest after 70 years and 214 days on the arcane and iconic British throne, at the ripe age of 96 years.
Fittingly, The Queen has gone to join her beloved husband of 73 years in the great beyond and they will lie side by side in a designated tomb for the royals, all well meticulously pre-planned even before Prince Phillip left Earth. Great service to the United Kingdom, great service to humanity! We are thankful for the light that her dedicated and exemplary service presented, the healthy line of successors to the British throne despite acts of individuality, and rebellion inspired by the brave new world and the republican spirit of the vivacious Meghan the American actor, wife of Prince Harry!
Why has the world felt so enamoured with the Queen whom most of us never met? Why have ordinary folks across the world expressed such deep emotions about Queen Elizabeth? Did she represent all we would like leaders and rulers to be? Did she embody values eternal which are universal for both autocrats and democrats? Why has the African world forgotten the evil of slavery and colonialism which our encounter with the Caucasian and Arab worlds inflicted on us within a century? Is it the Christian spirit of forgiveness which the missionaries brought to us? What is the import of Desmond Tutu’s ‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land’ as we examine the life and times of the Great Queen of England?
The first response is that the Queen is distant in time from the savagery of the colonial greed and exploitation even if she was a sweet beneficiary of the colonial enterprise. The koh-i-Noor diamond set at the front of the Queen’s crown was looted from India, though the British claim that ‘the diamond could not be returned as the Queen received it as part of the Treaty of Lahore, 1849 and is currently in the crown won by the Queen’. To be sure, there are millions of pounds worth of artifacts that grace the righteous Monarchy of Great Britain that we may never know about or have access to!
The outpouring of love for this sweet, genial, friendly, kind, beautiful, always smiling, sweet-voiced white great-grandmother from all over the world was indicative of her personal charm. Certainly not just the throne! Of course in death convention dictates that we shed all ill feelings and say the nicest things ever, even if we didn’t mean them, how the deceased was the best person that ever lived, how without the deceased the world would have come to an end, how we loved them and they loved us despite shortcomings and how we would miss them even if we go off to knock off some bottles of alcohol right after the funeral in acknowledgement of good-riddance-to-bad rubbish!
But in the celebration and mourning of Elizabeth II there was something emotionally deep and true, beyond the façade, beyond the allure of showmanship, and the glamour of TV tears and good behaviour. There is a mystique, a grandness about and deep connection with the Queen of England. The Queen of England! I knew about the Queen of England before my own traditional ruler came into my consciousness. Indeed, anywhere one said, ‘The Queen’, it was invariably construed to refer to Queen Elizabeth. Through rhymes, stories, beautiful, colourful pictures and anecdotes, the elevated status, majesty, and importance of Queen Elizabeth became ingrained in one’s memory, one’s consciousness.
Without physical contact, we all felt we knew the Queen, liked her, venerated her. Even highly placed officials felt some nervousness while preparing to meet her. We followed her beautiful story of becoming a monarch by default, her romance, her youthfulness when she ascended the throne of her fathers and took one the name of one of her ancestors Elizabeth I. To ascend the British throne at the tender age of 25 years, in a government and social world dominated and controlled by chauvinistic bullish men was no mean feat. And to think that the first PM she met in audience was the Great Winston Churchill tells the story of how she must have managed to navigate the waters of governing the empire and country during her early days on the throne. The Empire was crumbling, with African nations rejecting British rule and fighting for political independence, sometimes brutally as in the conflict between the colonial forces and the Mau Mau Movement in Kenya! The blood of Dedan Kimathi still cries to heaven. That is subject for another day!
For, Britain as we know, was the greatest and most brutal colonial nation in the history of the world. At the peak of British power, she controlled about a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. India, Nigeria, Kenya, Malaya, Ghana, South Africa, Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus, Rhodesia, and Aden were all in the empire on which ‘the sun never set! Although the British claimed to be different from other colonial powers because she was committed to entrenching the rule of law, and social progress, Elkins contends that ‘Britain’s use of systematic violence was no better than that of its rivals. The British were simply skilled in hiding it’. Britain fought with America to keep that new world in her domain and lost. But Nigeria, especially the Bini people will not forget the destruction of Benin Empire after the looting of artifacts and the 1897 deportation of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi to Calabar, because he fought with dignity to protect the honour of his people. Alongside this was control of slavery and the slave trade with its attendant wealth. The wealth of Great Britain was built on the sweat, suffering, and economic resources of the colonies.
Queen Elizabeth was a beneficiary of a rapacious and dominating empire, even if unwittingly. By the time she took the throne however, the code of engagement was somehow more subdued. In a way, Queen Elizabeth served in the century of the common monarch if I may borrow the expression from Malcolm Muggeridge, the century when the monarchy descended from the high horse of infinite power and majesty and subjected themselves to the modern power and dictates of democracy. For before the 1848 revolutions in Europe and before the 20th century, it was inconceivable for the British monarch to share power with the common people.
That common and personal touch to the monarchy was brought on by the Queen Elizabeth, a queen of destiny and freshness. Picture for one moment what the course of history would have been had the young Queen decided to assert the power of the throne in the traditional way in 1952!
One could say that open hostile questions and interrogations about the relevance of the monarchy persist though anti-monarchy forces will not have their way on abolition, at least not soon. As Muggeridge argues, ‘the British monarchy took a different course. Instead of effacement, what befell it was exposure; just as the new Communists states called themselves people’s democracies, it became a people’s monarchy, with full media support and cooperation’.
So, Queen Elizabeth was a great woman who carried herself with dignity, affection, native intelligence and commonsense. It is our hope that someday, the British throne would return the looted diamond to India, reparations for slavery of Africans, and compensate the exploited peoples of the world. Queen Elizabeth, it is true she stumbled along the line. Who wouldn’t in seventy years in a particular position of power and majesty? As we bid the great Queen goodbye, we hope and believe that her successor who has been groomed for the throne will continue the tradition of service to humanity and that as Long live the Queen fulfilled in the life of Queen Elizabeth, Long live the King will be the portion of King Charles II.