Muyiwa Adetiba

By Muyiwa Adetiba

I was sitting with my first daughter in an interstate train going from Baltimore to New Jersey. As it is with many young people, her companion was not the person by her side but the phone in her hand. But the silence was comfortable. I with my thoughts and she with her phone.

Then she broke the silence with these four simple words ‘the Queen is dead’. I was going to give a sympathetic but nonchalant response. Then I noticed her eyes were clouding as she stared unseeingly ahead. For a brief minute, I wondered why the death of an old British Queen was affecting her so much.

Then the realization that she had spent her entire adult life in Britain dawned on me. She is probably more British now in her world view than Nigerian. Besides, the West is much better at fostering a sense of nationalism among its various people than those of us in this part of the world. Which probably accounted for the outpouring of emotions from ‘Britons’ across colours, religions and social strata including those whose ancestors were used – and abused – to build the system.

My daughter seemed lost in thoughts and I let her be. After long minutes of silence, and as if talking to herself, she said she wished she was there to be part of it all. ‘Would she have participated in any of the festivities?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Probably not’. She answered. ‘But you can’t be in London at this time and not be carried along’. (As it turned out, quite a lot of people were ‘carried along’).

By evening, the news and the grief which accompanied it, were everywhere. I can understand the former; she was the longest reigning monarch in British history. She was also a visible Queen of a very visible country with claims to imperialism. So it made sense that the news would spread like wild fire.

But the latter caught me by surprise. I heard the expressions of sorrow and grief from people who had all sorts of vicarious relationships with Britain. Calls to and from friends and family in the UK were punctuated with wistful if not somber expressions. I asked a childhood friend who is a tennis buff like me if he was watching the US Open Finals. His answer was ‘missed it. We are rather lost in the grief of the moment’.

I just couldn’t understand it then. I couldn’t understand a queue of five miles or a wait of 25 hours just to pass by a coffin. To me, she was a 96 year- old woman who had lived a fulfilled, if not a rose-tinted life. It was on the cards that she was going to die sooner than later. Besides, people hardly mourn the death of a 96-year-old person where I come from. We celebrate them.

To these people however, it was more than that – from news snippets and comments here and there – one learnt that. To these mourners, she represented stability in an unstable ‘Great Britain’ – what with Scotland and Ireland threatening to pull apart; she represented uniqueness in an increasingly nondescript Britain; she represented integrity and respect in a leadership that has birthed a Boris Johnson and a Liz Truss in quick successions on the political front.

She represented certainty in a future that is culturally and religiously uncertain. Most importantly, she was the mother hen many have known all their lives. In other words, as it so often happens, the grieving was more for self,and to some extent for country, than for the Old Lady.

Leaders almost always take the fall for the missteps of their countries. I get that. The buck should stop at the top. So the late Queen has been blamed for all manner of ‘sins’ her country committed before and during her long reign -from slave trade to stolen artifacts; from economic expansionism to promotion of wars in distant lands.

She has received more than her fair share of blame for Britain’s colonization policy and the sad fate of many colonized countries – including Nigeria – which have refused to lift themselves up since independence. She has recently been blamed for the side Britain allegedly took during Nigeria’s Civil War. She has even been blamed for her birth into what her fierce critics call a life of priviledge, opulence and idleness.

Yet very few people give her credit for the inner turmoil she would have had to contend with throughout her life. She was born into a life of responsibility and duty. Surely she would have craved some anonymity and privacy at some point – living in a glasshouse can be so claustrophobic; she would have craved the sweetness and wildness of youth and envied the young who had them.

The dismemberment of Imperial Britain happened during her reign. The making of UK into a multi-cultural and multi-religious country happened during her reign. The cries for the abolition of the monarchy heightened during her reign. These were changes so profound and so different from what she was born into.

Yet she handled these changes with equanimity and panache. She was born into extreme wealth yet she never flaunted her wealth preferring to identify more with the middle class than the upper crust to which she belonged. In her 70-year reign, she learnt to entertain all manners of leaders – including the obnoxious- with charm and grace. She was an example of how to be relevant without being obtrusive.

Her funeral early this week was handled majestically – forgive the pun. Everything seemed so seamless. Yet a lot of issues and conflicts must have cropped up and managed – egos and idiosyncrasies for example – without losing the mood of the moment. It was interesting watching leaders who are used to sirens and outriders being herded into buses. Even something so basic as the sitting arrangement could ruffle feathers. One must give it to the organizational skill of those who pulled it off.

The most touching and most telling moment for me however, was when her crown and other instruments of office were taken from the top of the coffin and placed on the altar of God. It was a symbolic stripping off. Power and authority belong to God and must return to Him. Leaders, especially African leaders who love the pomp and accoutrements of power, must learn to use them to work while it is still day for the benefit of their people. They will take nothing with them when the bell tolls.

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