The sheer splendor and grandeur that characterized activities marking her burial ceremonies reflected the opulence and effortless glamour of her life as royalty for over seven decades. I speak of no other than the just departed Queen Elizabeth 11 of England. She was born great by luck of birth although she magnified the prestige and fame conferred by her royal heritage through a personal charm, modesty and grace that have been widely acknowledged across the world at her passing. Although the immense wealth of the royal family prominently advertised during the burial sharply reinforces in the public consciousness the sharp contrast between the stupendous riches of a microscopic few and the want and deprivation of the vast majority of humanity in our current capitalist epoch, the late Queen was obviously deeply adored by millions of her country men and women across class stratifications. They thronged various venues of the monarch’s lying in state waiting for hours to pay tribute to her memory.
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Many have perhaps inevitably made reference to the linkage between the opulence of the ruling classes of the west and the mass poverty of the underdeveloped regions of the world largely as a result of the historical ravages of the slave trade, colonial imperialism and continuing neo-colonial exploitation. The Queen is seen by many as symbolizing these historical crimes as monarch of a Britain that once wielded colonial suzerainty over large swathes of mankind. In his ‘Communist Manifesto’, Karl Marx, paid glowing tribute to the inherent capacities of capitalism through profit-driven continuous and unceasing improvement in and development of society’s means of production to create wealth beyond what could ever be contemplated under preceding modes of production – communalism, slavery and feudalism. Capitalism has surely not disappointed in this regard as it has created by its prodigious productive capacities the conditions for the abolition of poverty on earth. Yet, growing affluence in a part of the globe continues to be accompanied by increasing poverty and inequality in other parts.
Professor John Holloway in his 2010 luminous revolutionary book, ‘Crack Capitalism’ vents his frustration on the avoidable contradictions of capitalism when he writes, “Break. We want to break the world as it is. A world of injustice, of war, of violence, of discrimination, of Gaza and Guantanamo. A world of billionaires and a billion people who live and die in hunger. A world in which humanity is annihilating itself, massacring non-human forms of life, destroying the conditions of its own existence. A world ruled by money, ruled by capital. A world of frustration, of wasted potential…We want to create a different world. We protest, of course we protest. We protest against the war, we protest against the growing use of torture in the world, we protest against the turning of all life into a commodity to be bought and sold, we protest against the inhuman treatment of immigrants, we protest against the destruction of the world in the interests of profit”.
A Nigerian professor teaching in the United States was vicious and vehement in denouncing the queen and her legacy wishing her excruciating pain even as the world awaited the formal announcement of her passing. One of the reasons for the professor’s fury at the queen was what she described as the monarch’s responsibility for the perceived ‘genocide’ against her people, the Igbos, during the Nigerian civil war. This is a superficial and hollow analysis of the war and the role of Britain in the tragedy. Surely, the former colonial overlord could not have been expected to support the breakup of the ex-colony fashioned after its Lugardian image. What were the remote and immediate causes of the war? Could the tragedy have been averted? Did Colonel Odumegwu Ojwuku and other secessionist leaders unjustifiably lead their people into a war for which they were so obviously ill-prepared particularly in terms of military capability and preparedness? In any case, the queen reigns. She does not rule and could not be personally held responsible credibly for the actions of a government in effective control of power and policy.
But then, Britain’s colonial territories including Nigeria were conquered, acquired and ruled in the name of the queen. The monarchy itself participated in and profited from the depredations of the slave trade while even conferring knighthoods on notorious slave traders. Walter Rodney in his immortal ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ has documented meticulously how Africa’s current pitiable socio-economic and political deformity and mal-development is deeply rooted in the continent’s historical encounter with imperialism via the slave trade, colonialism and the prevailing neo-colonialism that grew out of these historical atrocities. It is estimated that the population loss to Africa as a result of the slave trade was most likely to the tune of 159 million people in addition to the physical destruction of properties and infrastructure, psychological demoralization, technological incapacitation and dysfunctional perversion of pre-colonial economies to serve colonial interests.
Expatiating on Rodney’s insights, the late Professor Bade Onimode writes, “These horrendous losses from slavery bled African countries so terribly that by the time of the next European onslaught in the form of colonial invasion, Africa was already prostrate. It had almost lost the will to fight after some 425 years of continuous slave raids, physical destruction, depopulation, technological de-mobilization and the most unimaginable destitution in human history. It was this thoroughly dispossessed, paralyzed and traumatized Africa that was forcibly incorporated into the international capitalist economy from about 1850 on the basis of extreme inequality”. But some have wondered why Africa was so weak that she could not contain and even defeat the colonial intrusion.
Professor Onimode argues that it was the industrial revolution, which started in England at about 1750 that reversed the hitherto near- technological parity between Europe and Africa as well as other parts of the world pointing out that “Like Asia and Latin America (and the USA before them), Africa lost the colonial wars not only because of the superior fire-power of the colonial invaders, but because 425 years of slavery had left the continent pathetically paralyzed and bleeding in every vein. What was remarkable, therefore, was not that Africa was subjugated, but that she could muster the strength and resilience to resist the colonial predators so fiercely and for so long”. In the debate between scholars who perceived colonialism in Africa as a mere episode and those who saw the phenomenon as epochal in its consequences for the continent, the latter appear to have been proved right.
Let’s take the enduring political implications of the colonial intrusion as an example. One of the admirable features of the British political system, for instance, is the distinction between the elected government which effectively rules and the monarchy which only wields symbolic and nominal power. There was a natural evolution over time from the absolute and dictatorial monarchism in Britain to the contemporary constitutional monarchical democracy in which real power resides in elected institutions while the monarchy lends its historic prestige, age-long ethos and traditional authority to strengthen the legitimacy and stability of the state. Before the advent of colonialism, there were relatively well developed traditional political systems in the diverse kingdoms and empires that made up pre-colonial Nigeria. Many of these such as the Yoruba pre-colonial states had in-built systems of checks and balances that helped prevent absolute tyranny and maintain a modicum of democracy no matter how tentative and indirect. These pre-colonial political institutions such as in Benin, Oyo, Ile-Ife, Itsekiri, Ijebu-Ode, Sokoto, Kano, Igala-land, the Tivamong several others enjoyed profound reverence and respect among their people.
But what was the colonial imprint on these evolving pre-colonial political institutions? According to Dr. Nse Etim Akpan, “One of the greatest disadvantages of the system was the damage it did to the traditional authorities who were subject to the checks and balances and other necessary safeguards. But the indirect rule system destroyed these checks and created new powers for the chiefs who abdicated their traditional roles, thus a democratic traditional system became an autocratic one”. In the East where the people were not accustomed to control by traditional rulers and governance was based on families, clans and age grades, the colonialists created warrant chiefs, which were dysfunctional, unacceptable to the people and the experiment was a colossal disaster. Would the content, direction and character of Africa’s pre-colonial patterns of governance and state formation as well as consolidation not been far different and probably more effective and productive without the colonial intrusion?
In his book, ‘The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State’, the late Basil Davidson, lamented that the natural evolution of pre-colonial traditional political systems and patterns of state formation and consolidation were aborted by colonialism and imported political institutions of the colonial power imposed on the continent as if Africa had no worthwhile political governance systems prior to colonialism. This may be at the root of what continues to be a crisis of governance in post-colonial Africa with neither various forms of liberal democracy nor diversities of dictatorship being effective vehicles for accelerated development and meaningful progress. Referring to what he described as a system of ‘dual authority’ in Nigeria with the co-existence of elected governments at various levels and monarchical traditional authorities, Professor Richard Sklarwonders if the deep cultural roots of the latter and the historical prestige they enjoy among their people cannot be tapped as a source of legitimation for elected authorities and the democratic process.
But that seems too late in the day. Although a few highly revered monarchs can still be found, much of the reverence and prestige of the traditional institutions has been eroded by the same moral degeneracy and venality characteristic of virtually every aspect of life in pre-colonial Africa. Africa’s gaze must be to the future and not the past. Neither does it serve much useful purpose lamenting the depredations of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism when the continent has attained political independence for over six decades now and indigenous African rulers have perhaps been even more corrupt and oppressive than the colonial overlords with the consequent deepening of underdevelopment on the continent.
Our post-independence history has also shown that there can be no magical short cut to genuine liberation and development through illusory revolution or deceptive military messiahs. The only viable path open to Africa is to strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy through which governments can increasingly become more accountable, governments more transparent and the leadership more patriotic, visionary and competent. Progressive forces and parties must strive to ensure that the capacity of the democratic process to produce leaders who can think creatively outside the box and conceptualize as well as implement policies that can help break the chains of dependency and underdevelopment in Africa is systematically enhanced.
Culled from The Nation