Now Who’s Being Rude? British Leaders Snub the Countries They Once Ruled
Did Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II realize that the three countries they offended in recent comments were each exploited by the British empire?
The British Empire may have unraveled decades ago, but that apparently hasn’t stopped the queen and her current prime minister from still thinking themselves better than their former colonial subjects.
Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on film Monday describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt” to Queen Elizabeth II. The following day, the queen herself recalled Chinese officials as “very rude” while speaking to a British police officer who oversaw security for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit last October.
Imperial Britain dealt lasting damage to all three countries. Its legacy of imperialism left Nigeria with a fundamentally fragile state, brought war to Afghanistan, and spread addiction to a generation of Chinese.
Britain began colonizing Nigeria in the mid-19th century but didn’t give shape to its modern-day borders until 1914, when it combined the north and south protectorates. The resulting state stitched together some 400 distinct ethnic groups — which are also divided along religious lines — under a single government. Abuja has since struggled to balance control over oil wealth and political power among three dominant ethnic groups.
One legacy of Britain’s decision to combine Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north with the Christian south is the current threat posed by Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency that is waging a ruthless war for an independent caliphate in the north of the country.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari responded Wednesday to Cameron’s slam not by demanding an apology, but rather the return of stolen public funds that he said are stashed in British banks. During the Panama Papers leak, Britain came under fire for managing a network of tax havens across its crown dependencies and overseas territories that attract the type of ill-gotten money corrupt Nigerians would want to hide.
The negative impact of Britain’s successive invasions of Afghanistan is harder to parse. In the mid-19th century, Britain attempted to conquer the country and create a buffer zone between Tsarist Russia and colonial India. Its efforts to directly install a puppet ruler, however, ended in bloodshed. Toward the end of the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1842, Afghan tribesmen massacred a joint force of 16,000 British and Indian soldiers retreating from Kabul through a snowy mountainous pass. A single British army doctor escaped from the ambush alive.
After Britain gained control of Afghan foreign affairs nearly 40 years later in a second military exploit, it transferred a huge part of historical Afghanistan to its crown jewel: India. The Afghan territory acquired by British India comprises nearly 60 percent of modern-day Pakistan and serves as a regional hotbed of Islamist militancy. Many of the Pashtun tribes that straddle this restive border region have fueled the Taliban with foot soldiers and commanders and play host to foreign al Qaeda leaders.
In China’s case, leaders in Beijing have avoided drawing attention to the queen’s concerns about their rudeness. China is trying to protect its blossoming financial relationship with Britain; both Beijing and London promoted Xi’s state visit in October as marking the dawn of a “golden age” in British-Chinese relations.
A nationalist backlash over London’s perceived arrogance or amnesia over its imperialist past, which included colonizing Hong Kong and otherwise forcing China to accept opium as payment for its tea exports to Britain, could jeopardize that. Xi’s reputation is also on the line, and he is known for having a thin skin when it comes to gibes about his personality.
Beijing is reportedly censoring foreign reports of the HRH gaffe, while state media outlets have omitted references to her unguarded remark in their coverage of the queen’s garden party at Buckingham Palace. Instead, Chinese media focused on Elizabeth’s fashion sense. Check out her royal highness’s color coordination:
Photo credit: PAUL HACKETT/AFP/Getty Images