A former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, in this chat, speaks on the demise of Queen Elizabeth II, discussing the significance of her reign, personal encounters and the warm side of the monarch beyond her public image of seriousness. Anyaoku also reveals how alongside the Queen, who until her death was the Head of Commonwealth, and others handled the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa by the late maximum ruler, Gen Sani Abacha.
When you heard yesterday that the queen was under medical supervision, were you concerned the end was near?
I was concerned about the fact that her doctors for the very first time, issued the sort of statement they issued. Usually, they would be very veiled but they were specific yesterday in describing her condition.
And it got her family to go to Balmoral. Immediately after I heard the news of her condition, I immediately sent a message of my concern to Buckingham Palace. I was concerned hearing about the condition.
So, when the news of her passing came, I was deeply saddened also. I also issued a statement, which I sent copies across.
The demise has provoked an outpouring of emotion across the globe. Given global happenings, do you think the world was ready for her passage?
Yes, I believe that Queen Elizabeth II had earned the respect of leaders and people across the world. She reigned for an unusually long time of 70 years. But not just that, she was an exceptional lady.
She was an exceptional human being. I interacted with her many times over the years that I was at the Commonwealth Secretariat. And I can tell you that she was an exceptional head of the Commonwealth.
She was admired and respected by Commonwealth Heads of Government for her commitment to the Commonwealth as it were. In her interactions with various Commonwealth Heads of Government, they were always impressed by the depth of her knowledge of major events in their own country.
Until her demise, she was the Head of the Commonwealth while you were the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth for a decade. What was it like working with her?
I found her a very knowledgeable and caring boss. She had warmth that those who came very close to her felt. And besides her public image of seriousness, she had a private humorous side and a very caring side.
I can give you one example of her caring side. Every year, as the Commonwealth Secretary General, my wife and I hosted a reception at which she was the principal guest. And in 1999, at a reception, I presented my youngest child, who was then a student and she asked him what he did and where he was.
My son said he was a student at Birmingham University. Her Majesty said ‘’Well, I am coming to your university in three weeks to join you in celebrating your 150th anniversary.’’ My son said “Yes, Your Majesty, we are all greatly looking forward to your visit.’’
This was on a Monday. Two days later, on Wednesday, the Vice Chancellor’s office in Birmingham received a telephone call from Buckingham Palace, saying that Your Majesty would like the young Anyaoku to be at the lunch being hosted in her honour.
That is a personal touch that would not be exhibited by too many people. So, she had that personal side.
On the official side, she was a very dedicated and effective head of the Commonwealth who had audiences with Commonwealth Heads of Government at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. And she was hugely respected and admired.
How did you relate with her as Head of Commonwealth?
You could never disagree with Her Majesty because she would not express publicly her view on any political issue. That is a convention.
And of course, the convention is that those who speak with her in private like I as Secretary-General regularly and Heads of Government are bound by the convention to never speak about conversations with her.
What do you think about the queen as Nigeria’s chief colonial master?
From what I discerned, the mood in the country is not hostile. Fortunately, Nigeria didn’t go through liberation struggles like Kenya where there was Maomao, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
We negotiated our independence and our constitution with Britain in a cordial way. So, there is no lasting animosity in Nigeria towards the United Kingdom because the history of Nigeria’s movement toward independence was different.
And many people, particularly people of my generation, remember the Queen’s first visit to Nigeria in 1956.
And of course, the second visit was in 2003 when she came to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Abuja. I think there is this abiding respect from Nigeria. So her death has elicited general sympathy rather than hostility.
In your interactions with the Queen, did you find her having a personal affection for Nigeria?
Yes. Nigeria, in terms of state visits, and staying at Buckingham Palace, two Heads of Nigerian government had visited and stayed at Buckingham Palace.
Gen Gowon and Gen Babangida visited and stayed at Buckingham Palace. She was warmly disposed towards Nigeria.
You were at the Commonwealth as Secretary-General when the late Ogoni environmentalist, Saro-Wiwa, was murdered by the government of General Sani Abacha in 1995. Nigeria was suspended as a result of that incident. How did you handle the issue with the Queen at the time?
Nigeria was suspended at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland in 1995. Two days before the meeting, I had wind that General Abacha was likely to order the hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and others. And I sent a personal message to him.
I also got President Nelson Mandela to send a message to him, pleading with him not to kill Saro Wiwa. The morning the meeting opened, news came that he had done so. And that was an infringement of a basic value of the Commonwealth.
One of the fundamental values of the Commonwealth is human rights , freedom and respect for lives. Because he did that Nigeria was suspended.
In the room where the decision was made , there were two Nigerians, Tom Ikimi, who was Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, and myself.
I think the heads of government, hearing that I might decide to resign, specially adopted a resolution, reaffirming their confidence in me as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.
A number of them spoke to me and said I have been advocating the values of the Commonwealth and principles and they expected me to remain in office.
That was how I remained in office. But Nigeria, instead of being expelled, was suspended and readmitted to the Commonwealth the day Obasanjo was sworn in as President.
I was present in Abuja for that and on that occasion, I announced the return of Nigeria to the Commonwealth.