ROAPE has asked a few of our contributors to reflect on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the legacy of the British royal family and on the British empire in Africa. Gathanga Ndong’u looks at the crimes of the British state, and the queen’s part in these, in Kenya. Femi Aborisade analyses the reaction of Nigerians to the death and writes that this is an opportunity for real change. Scott Timcke explains that the royal family sits at the apex of a pyramid of continuous horrors.
The Shame – Kenya and the queen
Reflecting on the death of the queen, Gathanga Ndung’u considers the crimes of the British state, the monarchy, and the queen, in perpetuating the horrors of empire and colonialism.
By Gathanga Ndung’u
To say that I’m flabbergasted, appalled or angry would be an understatement. As a grandchild of a Mau Mau (Land and Freedom army) war veteran and part of the third generation of freedom fighters, I feel betrayed. The feelings that I have following the directive from the outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday 9 September that the Kenyan flag should fly at half-mast for four consecutive days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II are of resentment and deep anger.
Growing up, I never saw our flag flying half-mast following the death of a Mau Mau war veteran, let alone observing a moment of silence during our public holidays such as Mashujaa Day (Heroes’ Day).
As a grandchild of a militant of the Land and Freedom army, I fail to understand how and why we have to honour our oppressors and treat them with reverence while oppressing our heroes at home. I naively expected this to be a time to reiterate our push for reparations to the incoming ‘crown holder’ and to bring the needed healing by making right the wrongs done under his predecessor’s 70-year reign.
The Kenyan ruling class has clearly shown in whose interest they act. This is happening a few months after Mama Ngina Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother and the wife to the first president of Kenya, embarrassingly shaved Muthoni Wa Kirima’s dreadlocks in public in full glare of the cameras.
Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima was the only woman field marshal in the Land and Freedom army. She fought deep in the forests of Mount Kenya and Aberdare against the colonial British government in Kenya during the uprising. She had kept her dreadlocks as an act of defiance towards the British government and the successive regimes that failed to recognise the role they played towards our independence in 1963. Her dreadlocks have been an everyday reminder of the struggle and sacrifices they made. Her public shaving seems to have come about through coercion and manipulation, forcing her to accept that our ‘flag independence’ was truly a political, cultural and economic transformation.
Muthoni suffered two miscarriages as a result of the wounds inflicted during the war, and has remained childless. To date, she has maintained that Kenya is her only child, and she has never regretted sacrificing her life for the sake of the freedom of her ‘child’ today. However, she has decried the sorry state in war veterans have had to survive almost 60 years of independence.
Since the death of the queen a week ago, both international and local media, electronic and print, are flooded with the ‘beautiful’ legacy that she has left. They have systematically overlooked the horrendous and bloody legacy of racial discrimination, killings, theft of African resources, of minerals and labour from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and other countries across the world.
Our biased media have forgotten the blood, sweat and tears that sustained the monarchy during her reign, they have forgotten the families that were ripped apart during the many wars her government waged in different countries. I do not mourn the queen’s death.
At the apex of the British state, this is a moment to let the world know the legacy she is leaving behind, the stolen hope, shattered dreams and broken souls in every country that her military has invaded. This would have been the moment to remind the incoming king of the long unfulfilled reparations promised to the families of the Land and Freedom army in Kenya and other war heroes in other parts of Africa and the world.
It is said that life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forward. For this reason, it is our collective responsibility to remind the powers that be of our history, the painful paths we trod and the future we envisage. To live forward, we first have to deal with the crimes of the past, for it is in winning justice that we shall find our way to a future worthy of the sacrifices of the past.
Gathanga Ndung’u is a community organiser with Ruaraka Social Justice Centre which is under the Social Justice Centres’ Working Group. He is also part of Revolutionary Social League brigade that organizes political education in different political cells in the respective centres in Nairobi.
The Queen is Dead – Nigeria and the royal family
ROAPE’s Femi Aborisade reports from Nigeria on the reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. He says the death must be an opportunity to reconsider the past, and to fight for a decolonial future.
By Femi Aborisade
The reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II vary widely in Nigeria based mainly on differences in ideological and political tendencies. These stretch from those that revere any authority figure to those that want a fairer and more democratic society and do not see any role for the remnants of feudalism either in Britain or in Nigeria.
There are views which assumed that prominent individuals could intervene to resolve or reduce conflicts and crisis in society. To Helen, who witnessed the Biafra Civil War in her childhood and went on to experience first-hand violent communal and religious conflicts in Kaduna later in her life, the death of QE II meant little to her. “I do not think anything about her death – what did she do? She chose to remain silent in the context of so much suffering in Nigeria.”
Given the horrors, terror and uncertainties of everyday life in Nigeria it is no wonder that so many turn to would-be saviours. Helen’s standpoint may represent a tendency that attributes to the British royal family the power to contribute to the process of social change, in the same way that some unions tend to appeal to traditional rulers in Nigeria to intervene in strike actions.
However, if we are to achieve a fairer and more egalitarian society then these elitist views will have to be completely discarded. We cannot depend on any traditional rulers. The interests of these customary leaders tend to be intertwined with the interest of the ruling class that holds society under its control. It is only the collective action of the common people that can emancipate and transform society.
One professor of law expresses the views of a significant segment of the Nigerian society who held the queen in awe, describing her as “iconic”, “lovely and adorable”, etc.
In my opinion, I would personally not describe the royal family, a symbol of a system of slavery, to be “lovely and adorable”. Adoration is almost synonymous with “worshipping” out of deep love and respect. Given the crushing effects of colonialism and slavery, there should be no basis to suggest deep respect or adoration for the institution of the British empire and royal family.
Nor should we venerate the monuments and plaques to the queen’s visit to Nigeria in 1956. The mass movement in the United States in the events following the murder of George Floyd teaches us how to treat colonial monuments as a new generation learns our colonial history.
A deep reflection on what slavery meant for those who went through it does not call for celebration of personalities that represent that epochal catastrophe in human history. But I agree that politicians have continued the damage to society that was set in motion by the era of slavery and colonialism. My plea is that the current modern-day “slave masters”, in the guise of politicians, and the colonial masters of the past should collectively be described as anti-human.
The celebration of the royal family ignores and completely devalues the monumental anti-colonial sacrifices, struggles, agitations of ordinary Nigerians, workers’ strikes and the killings of protesters and detentions of activists in the anti-colonial struggles which led to Nigeria’s independence. Our independence was not obtained on a platter of gold, as some academics and politicians would want us to accept. It was obtained from the sweat and blood of working-class resistance and the agitation of movements for national liberation. I recommend a reading of Mokwugo Okoye’s books and other accounts to gain a balanced view of the actual struggles for independence.
The great Black Nationalist Malcom X’s parable of the ‘house and field Negroes’ (with different material existential conditions) aptly explains the differences in attitudes to the death of QE II, as a symbol of oppressive forces:
There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food – what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master; and they loved their master more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their master’s house – quicker than the master would. If the Master said, “We got a good house here,” the House Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we”, he said “we”. That’s how you can tell a house Negro.
It is therefore not surprising that some Nigerians – equivalent to the house Negroes – felt a direct bereavement with the death of the queen. For these Negros, they perceive that a part of them has also died. Like Malcom X, a field Negro, many other categories of Nigerians call for more critical thinking.
I count myself among the field Negroes who insist that the royal family should be held responsible for the acts of the colonial power and the empire.
As Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said, “She was the only British sovereign known to 90% of the Nigerian population.” In fact, many middle-class Internet users have posted photos and tributes on their social networks, saluting the life of Queen Elizabeth II. Others have reportedly organised parties in celebration of the life and times of the queen.
To Adekunbi Rowland, who grew up between Nigeria and Britain, “It’s really a poignant moment for me, I feel like my grandmother died.” Rowland said he wished for an opportunity “in front of Buckingham Palace, with friends”.
However, another Nigeria, a 30-year-old woman, evokes the “duality” of her feelings, well aware that the queen also represents a darker part of Nigeria’s history. “We talked about it with my aunt right away, as we were crying our hearts out, wondering if it was an expression of a ‘colonised mentality’,” she explains.
Much clearer is Caleb Okereke, editor-in-chief of the online publication Minority Africa, believes that he has “no duty of empathy” and even evokes “the Stockholm syndrome of certain Africans”. Okereke went on: “Personally, I am more moved thinking of the two million Igbo dead during the civil war [Biafra war between 1967 and 1970]. We know that the Biafrans were abandoned to their fate without any intervention from Britain,” which sided with the federal government in the war to protect its economic interests.
We are told that the current King Charles III is not as bad as many members of the British ruling class, and that he does not display the open racism of his father, but he benefits hugely as a member of the global elite and, as with his mother, has done nothing to challenge the world that he benefits from. The last time he visited Nigeria was in late 2018 just after the army massacred 39 Shiites at Karu Bridge in Abuja. He did not cancel the visit nor raise any public concern.
The public statement from the British Young Communist League was widely shared on social media in Nigeria. This statement noted, among other things, that “Elizabeth Windsor never criticised Britain’s racist colonial empire. She never criticised or apologised for her notoriously racist husband. She never shied away from consorting with dictators in the interests of the British state.”
I would join thousands of others demanding (among many other things): the total abolition of the monarchy with a democratically elected head of state, and reparation for all, with an immediate redistribution of wealth looted by the royal family from Britain’s former colonies.
The fact that anti-royal statements are being widely shared indicates support for these republican statements by many sections of the Nigerian left.
The death of the queen has provided an opportunity to rethink political power in Nigeria, as in other African countries colonised by the British, and to think hard on the way forward. It is hoped that the right lessons would be learnt, in order to strengthen the movement for radical change in the interests of the downtrodden across the world.
Femi Aborisade is a socialist, writer and lawyer based in Lagos. He was interviewed on roape.net and the interview can be accessed here. Femi is an editor of ROAPE.
An Imperial Monarch
Scott Timcke argues that the queen’s conduct legitimated an institution that cannot be disassociated from racism and colonialism, neither in the past or the present.
By Scott Timcke
Queen Elizabeth II was the head of state of one of the most influential counties for 70 years. The initial statements about her death frame Elizabeth as a symbol of stability in a difficult post-war era. No doubt the obituaries will do the same. It reveals preference for a mythological time when society seemed simpler. This is indicative of how the Elizabethan age both has – and yearns for – continuities with imperial history. To see those connections it is best to view the monarchy as an institution, with Elizabeth personifying it. And while some people may praise the personal virtues of Elizabeth, her conduct legitimated an institution that simply cannot be disassociated from racism and colonialism, neither in the past nor the present.
Part of Elizabeth’s role was as a symbolic head of state. Still, the state used her celebrity to keep colonial policies intact. Whether through radio, television or her tours, all these sought to preserve a sphere of influence for London bankers, to soften the visible edge of systems of exploitation. No doubt we will read of Elizabeth and Britain’s ‘long-standing relationship with Africa’ and other places, a sad euphemism to hide the horrors of enslavement and colonisation. This is a fact of the ‘extraordinary service’ heralded in the British press.
Elizabeth’s reign was as imperial monarch. Her coronation was to a weakened empire, but one fully committed to preserving a racial order of white supremacy, as Kenyans in the 1950s can attest. Her reign, like the Imperial State Crown bejewelled with diamonds (such as the Cullinan II), acquired wealth and authority from centuries of colonial subjugation.
Moreover, Elizabeth did not graciously grant colonies their independence. Decolonial movements struggled for self-determination, many of these same movements suppressed by the British state. In other cases, neo-colonial techniques changed the calculus over the necessity of governor generals. So, it is no surprise that Elizabeth was not universally loved in Africa, the Caribbean, the sub-continent or Australasia.
The Crown oversaw the cruelties and deprivations of colonialism. Besides which, citizens of countries within the Commonwealth realm, whether they were Australians, Canadians, Grenadians or Jamaicans, were Elizabeth’s subjects too. Insistence upon decorum from the colonies silences the truth being told of what happened, and does happen, there; it lets white supremacy walk free. And so calls for civility must be seen for what they are: efforts to promote political illiteracy and leave the status quo undisturbed.
Elizabeth’s death is an opportunity for many countries to discuss self-determination and the project to achieve it in the near term. If people feel uncomfortable with having these kinds of discussions now, perhaps it is best that the monarchy is dispatched so this uncomfortableness can be set aside for good. Elizabeth was not chosen by people. She was chosen by a system designed to exclude. Citizens in the Commonwealth now have the opportunity to make a choice over whether they wish to change their state of affairs.
Scott Timcke is a comparative historical sociologist who studies race, class and technology in modernity. He is a research associate with the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change. His second book, Algorithms and The End of Politics (Bristol University Press), was released in 2021.