By Dare Babarinsa
Many people, who are familiar with the history of British colonialism in Africa, will be surprised about the genuine affection that many Africans felt about the late Elizabeth II, the Queen of England and Head of the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth, when she came to the throne in 1952, was also the Queen of Nigeria and 18 other African countries including Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Zimbabwe. She was the symbol of a benign, occasionally brutal, but declining empire built on Catholic exploitation; the largest the world had ever known. In the end, it was her graciousness, her humanity and mastery of the art of serenity that won Elizabeth universal acclaim.
She was visiting Kenya, when her father, King George VI, died in 1952 and she had to rush home to become the Queen. In the preceding 100 years before she ascended the throne, the British had been busy assembling the greatest empire in history.
In the words of Rudyard Kipling, it was an empire on which the sun never set. This was true in both geographical and philosophical terms. Britain was in charge in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Palestine, a great swath of the Middle-East, Australia, New Zealand, many of the countries in the Caribbean Islands and many other territories and islets all over the world. Therefore, at one time or the other, the sun would be shining on the British Empire. However, by the time Elizabeth came to the throne, the empire was in serious decline. The sub-continent of India had gained independence in 1948; thanks to the efforts of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and his followers, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, who became the first Prime-Minister of India.
Gandhi was very influential in Africa, especially among the emerging nationalists, who regarded Indian victory against the British as their own. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one the leading nationalists, was a followers of Gandhi. He modeled his eyes glasses after Gandhi’s and his cap after that of Nehru. In 1983, I was at Awolowo’s house at Parklane Apapa to cover an assignment when he announced Alhaji Mohammed Kura as his running mate. There were three framed pictures on the wall overlooking Awolowo’s dining table. There was the quotation from the American Football coach, Vinci Lombardy. There was the painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. There was also the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet, despite the difficult relationship we had with the British, the prestige and influence of Britain has been far greater on Nigeria than that of the Indians. First, Nigerians regarded India as a poor, though large, country from which we had little to learn and nothing hardly anything to gain. On the other hand, we viewed the British with admiration and respect. The dream of every aspiring member of the elite was to go to England and when he returns, the child born to him would be named, Tokunbo; brought from overseas! Believe me, every elite family of the 1950s and 1960s had its Tokunbo!
So, when the Queen visited Nigeria in 1956, she was received like a well-loved sovereign, not the symbol of imperialism that she truly was.
Our leaders and traditional rulers turned out in their best. Chief Awolowo, the Premier of the Western Region, named the first dual-carriage road in Nigeria, Queen Elizabeth Road, Ibadan.
In every region, schools, institutions and streets were named after her. Note also that in the 19th Century, the British named the largest island in Lagos, Victoria Island, after the then reigning British queen and Elizabeth’s great grandmother, Queen Victoria. Four years after that historic visit, Nigeria became an independent country.
With the empire gone, why was it still possible for Queen Elizabeth to maintain her prestige in the former colonies? First, the British avoided defeat in battle with those they regarded as non-European powers. When in 1952 Elizabeth was visiting Kenya with her husband, Prince Phillip, it was at the height of serious agitation against British rule. The Kikuyu had revolted against the British over their seizure of land.
Many British farmers had settled in Kenya, growing coffee and maintaining huge ranches, because they found the temperate climate suitable for them unlike the mosquitoes infested tropics of West Africa. The great struggle was captured for eternity in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o unforgettable novel, Weep Not Child. In the end, the British, after the execution of hundreds of leaders including the great Marshal Dedan Kimathi, handed over power to Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of independent Kenya.
In Nigeria, the British granted independence to our country and our freedom was not won on the battlefield. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first titular President of Nigeria and the last Governor General to represent the Queen, said our freedom was won “on a platter of gold.”
By escaping the clash of arms, the British were able to keep their prestige. They continue to wield their influence from 1960 till today. All Nigerian rulers from 1960 till date, with the notable exception of President Umar Musa Yar’Adua and his successor, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, were trained and have served under the British. Though the great Zik went to school in America, he was appointed Governor General under a British arrangement. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was trained as a teacher in Northern Nigeria as well as in the U.K. Awolowo was trained as a lawyer in the United Kingdom.
Those were our frontline leaders at independence and they were all connected to the UK and held the British crown in awe.
In 1966, Balewa was toppled and killed and the First Republic became history. His successor was Major General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was once an officer of Queen’s Own Nigerian Regiment and served as the equerry to the Queen when she visited Nigeria in 1966. Ironsi joined the army during the era of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), which was to be dismantled with the independence of Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. Ironsi was trained in the UK just like his successor, General Yakubu Gowon. After nine turbulent years, Gowon was topple and was replaced by another British trained officer,
Of course, General Olusegun Obasanjo, President Shehu Shagari, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Babangida, General Sani Abacha and General Abdulsalami Abubakar were all trained by the British.
The pervading influence of the British cannot be avoided in every aspect of our polity. When Balewa was killed, the rump of his cabinet met at the official residence of the Minister of Defence in Dodan Barracks. They quickly sent a message to Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, the British High Commissioner, asking for help. The High Commissioner replied that the Prime Minister had been declared missing and not dead, and therefore, let the ministers appoint an acting Prime-Minister, who would make a formal request from the British government.
The ministers failed to do that and the result was that Ironsi collected power under controversial circumstances.
Even now, the British are still in the shadow of power. Therefore, every member of the mostly decadent Nigerian political class seeks for validation from the British establishment.
Every successful person in high places, including the successful thieves, wants to show off in London and other British cities. There is no Nigerian governor or minister who has not been to the United Kingdom, this year. They are always on their sad pilgrimage to the ‘Unholy Land’ of our past devastation. As you are reading this, some of them are on their way there, are there already or are airborne on their way home. They do not realise that their duty is actually to make Nigeria better than the United Kingdom, for God has made this land, with its clement climate, abundant resources, and fertile soil, far better than most countries of the world. It is the collective failure of the political elite that makes the mourning and the nostalgia for Queen Elizabeth so poignant and sad.