By John Otim

Queen in Kaduna NigeriaShe was only 26 when she became the Queen of Britain and the British Empire. Today the Commonwealth has replaced Empire, but the Monarchy is still in charge. More or less.  At last year’s annual conference Prince Charles, now King Charles III, flew to Kigali, Rwanda, to open the sessions.

Now rewind the clock back 70 years. We see a young woman. We see a striking figure with a winning smile. We see a woman who could have been on the screens or on the catwalks. Remember Princess Elizabeth of Toro who served as a model in London and featured on the covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Elizabeth of Windsor, as a fashion model is maybe not such a farfetched idea.

Anyhow, in 1952 even as the young Elizabeth ascended the throne, the Empire was dying, fatally wounded from blows suffered in the Second World War. But the Empire was still kicking. And the bulldog at No 10 Downing Street was screaming. 

‘I wasn’t made the Prime Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of Her Majesty’s Empire!’ That was Sir Winston Churchill.

In Nigeria there were protests by market women. Forcibly put down. In Ghana there were riots on the streets. Riots so overwhelming that Kwame Nkrumah was sprung from jail to become the Chief Minister.  In a matter of 5 years Ghana was fully independent.

In Kenya, the Empire’s most prized possession following the loss of India after World War II, freedom fighters, armed and regrouped, bided their time in the dense forests by the slopes of Mount Kenya.  To keep warm, they drank tea, the Queen’s own brew. 

At nightfall as the cold wind blew and the showers came down, the fighters emerged in small groups and winged their way into the city. There they kicked ass, bringing terror in the heart of colonial Nairobi. And the other centers of European settlements throughout Kenya: Nyeri, Kitale, Naivasha, Nakuru, and others. Colonial bliss was shattered. Nothing would be the same again.

But the Empire was far from dead. And it was kicking back. Savagely. Viciously. It felt confident enough to have Princess Elizabeth and her husband come to Kenya to visit and watch birds and other wildlife.

That was how one day, Elizabeth of Windsor woke up at Treetop Hotel in Nyeri, the settler heartland. To find herself transformed from a mere princess to Her Majesty the Queen, within a single night. It was awesome.

The following morning on February 6th 1952, Elizabeth was airborne on her way back to London through Entebbe, Uganda. A fact which present day leaders in Uganda take pride in. Just like their Kenyan counterpart today, celebrates the fact that the Queen became Queen while in their country. Think of it.

The British have been so brilliantly successful in shielding the Queen from the dirty tricks of Empire and of Colony. Like, the massive theft of land in Kenya while the very owners of the land were herded into concentration camps. And locked up in Gulag type prisons where rape and torture were common practices.  Like, installing and supporting murderous Idi Amin in Uganda while trade and business with the dictator boomed. 

To shield and protect the Queen, the British spread around the fiction that the Queen and the royal family were above politics. As if anyone still breathing could be above politics. As if those massively benefiting from the loot could be above it.

And now the Queen is dead. And her good works shine. Who wants to badmouth a dead woman? But Elizabeth II was in fact a good person. And was in her own rights a great woman and a great leader who held together the Commonwealth long after the Empire had died.

The year was 1979. British Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher planned to declare British recognition for the racist regime then ruling in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). She wanted to do it despite the combined opposition of Commonwealth Leaders. 

For maximum impact she planned to do it at the Commonwealth Leaders Conference coming up in August of that year in Luska Zambia. Thatcher was audacious.

The Queen did not have to be there. The Queen was known to oppose Thatcher. Thatcher did not want her to be there. But the Queen made it a point to be there. 

Her royal presence embolden opposition to Thatcher and caused Thatcher to drop her plans for recognizing the racist regime. British recognition of Rhodesia would have been swiftly followed by that of the USA under Ronald Reagan. It would have been a terrible disaster for the whole of Southern Africa.

Now instead there were constitutional progress in Zimbabwe, which soon led to that country’s independence. It was a clear victory for the Queen’s subtle diplomacy.

Queen Dancing with Nkrumah 1961An earlier example of the Queen’s diplomatic achievements occurred way back in 1961. When the Queen flew to Accra Ghana against the advice and wishes of her own government. There, the young Queen, danced with Kwame Nkrumah at the State Ball given in her honor. 

It was a daring act. A white woman, the icon of Empire, dancing with a dashing and outspoken black man, in the age of imperialism, when segregation was the order of the day the world over. 

Britain was proud of what it considered its achievement and legacy in Ghana - the peaceful transition from colony to independence. Nkrumah had been threatening to pull Ghana out of the Commonwealth. Britain was loathed to have this happen.

It was the age of the cold war. The Soviets were waiting in the wings. After Her Majesty’s charm offensive, Nkrumah could not make good his threats. Ghana stayed in the Commonwealth.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth II lasted so long that the generation of Africans that had direct links to the Monarchy are not on the scene anymore. The day after her death, BBC interviewed a former Ghanaian President John Kuffor. He remembered the 1961 visit. He remembered standing in line and waving the British flag as the motorcade swept through Accra. But he was only a boy. 

In the last decade of the last century when I taught at the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria, a senior professor and the Director of the university’s Institute of Economic and Social Research, told us. 

‘The only national anthem I know is God Save the Queen.’ Were we amazed? Not really. We may decry the man’s willful ignorance. But the gist of his statement. And his obvious glee in it told us something.