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Theresa May: The grandeur and illusion of empire

By Ignatius C. Olisemeka
26 January 2017   |   3:33 am
Living up to the reputation of her great and revered ancestors, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, vowed to remain in Europe while thrusting a dagger at the very heart of the European Union.
British Prime Minister Theresa May. PHOTO: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

British Prime Minister Theresa May. PHOTO: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

Living up to the reputation of her great and revered ancestors, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, vowed to remain in Europe while thrusting a dagger at the very heart of the European Union.

I hurriedly jotted down notes as the British Prime Minister robustly delivered her speech. All through the entire endeavour, she belittled the intelligence of her audience with convoluted logic, only clear to her and her admirers.

I could infer from her presentation that the British Prime Minister wanted the best of two worlds for Britain. She picked and chose only those policies that advanced Britain’s supreme self interest. Above all, I discerned an ingrained discomfiture in living with people they – the British – cannot control or subjugate.

It is the disdain with which she treated those of us in Africa, especially Nigeria, that riled most. Hear her out:

“We are a European country — and proud of our shared European heritage — but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why — whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe — so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.”

Her European partners, the main focus of her effort, naturally, received much attention. India, Bangladesh and others were patronisingly mentioned. The entire Africa, she ‘majestically’ grouped as one anonymous unit. Not one mention of Nigeria by name; even though she singled out tiny New Zealand.

She referred to “the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018” in a manner to suggest she was sure her serfs in this ‘unique’ grouping would be summoned, and troop out to obey. She left no one in any doubt about her grand ambition to use us, as usual, as props in building her ‘Global Britain’; a euphemism for the revival of her dream of Empire.

We would be lucky, this time, to be used only as pawns or bargaining chips, in Theresa May’s dream of “a truly Global Britain.” More humiliation awaits us. I am not an economist nor a trade expert to digest the full implications of the copious references made in the British Prime Minister’s strategy and ‘Plan for Britain’.

I would, however, wish to ask where we fit into Theresa May’s grand design and scheme. Where do we as a country wish to stand? Do we still remain an appendage to an empire that had long expired, was resuscitated, revived and transformed in a chameleonic form to Commonwealth? Where do we belong in an association where we had allowed our dignity to be thoroughly bruised with specks and crumbs thrown at us from the master’s table?

I visited Britain for the first time, as a student, in 1955. It was to represent the Students’ Union of the University College of Ibadan at the International Students’ Conference in Birmingham. This was a year before Theresa May was born (1st October, 1956). Then, I had a smooth passage and entry in and out of London.

As a young diplomat at the Nigeria High Commission in London in 1959, I and my colleagues also went in and out of Heathrow airport with our heads held high. Whereas our counterparts, European visitors, would queue up at the immigration desks, waiting for their passports to be stamped, we were waved through with dignity. With the passage and efflux of time, the reverse has been the case.

I mention these episodes because of the nexus between British Immigration policy then, when it was massively in their own self interest; and now, when others are marginally benefitting from it.

Our lot with Britain seems to have incrementally worsened with time. This is not entirely their fault. We have not built dependable and lasting mechanisms into our system to regulate our entry and protect our reputation as a people in foreign lands. Neither has Britain treated us with the measure of respect befitting our membership in the Commonwealth. This is obvious from Theresa May’s Brexit speech.

Immigration, a focal theme in the British Prime Minister’s project, has now become a catch word. As usual, we have been used and dumped: from slavery to partition, from partition to colonisation, from colonisation to independence, and from independence to a malleable, manipulated neo-colonial entity. Should May’s dream come true, we will certainly become an appendage to global Britain – a return to her majesty’s new and reconstructed empire.

It should now be clear to us that while the Commonwealth may have meant something in the past – and may have served some purpose however limited; there had never, in reality, been any wealth that was common.

Everything considered, and upon thorough reflection, we have always carried a disproportionate portion of its burden. The hypothesis of equality on which the Association is supposedly constructed, will, I believe, sooner or later, be put to test. Must we always genuflect and bow to a distant imperial majesty?

Theresa May speaks up so proudly and confidently for the supreme interest of her country. In doing so, she may have stirred up the hornets’ nest. I hope she and her admirers have not unduly taken us for granted as she outlined a plan that has deeply grated at the dignity of others, and the very essence of our being. What is or what should be our response? Pull out from this contraption at an appropriate time?

How prepared is Nigeria for a post-Brexit era? In the same vein, we should ask, how prepared are we in a Trump presidency which shares an ideological affinity with the proponents of Brexit.

Immigration has been a central component in the Brexit agenda. Make no mistake about this. The word Immigration, can only mean one thing in the manner it is now being bandied around by the great grandchildren of slave dealers – undocumented, uninvited and unwelcome – colonisers, who brutalised us spiritually and mentally, ripped us of our dignity, and imposed their will and dominance on us.

To any right thinking person, if the ungarnished truth must be told, the word immigration, as currently peddled, connotes the worst form of prejudice, discrimination, racism and total rejection.

The consequence is starkly manifested in the countless number of men, women and children who perished in the high seas during the abominable era of the slave trade; just as they now perish in droves, today.

The frenzy is driven now, as it was then – spurious rationalisation not withstanding – by the same philosophy of extreme insatiable greed and hate; spun from the same yarn of evil policies of contempt – feigned or undisguised – for fellow human beings. How many more lives will be allowed to perish before their conscience is pricked, by these professed Christians, leaders of their Christian communities, who constantly mouth meaningless words like their ‘values’ and ‘ways of life’?

We wish Theresa May and her bed-fellows the best of luck in their search for grandeur and illusion of empire. It is now Global Britain; and no longer Great Britain, since maverick Donald Trump has appropriated to himself and elevated the word great to greater, in his clumsy bid ‘to make United States Greater Again’.

• Ambassador Olisemeka, former Foreign minister.