Margaret Thatcher leaves complicated, sometimes bitter legacy in U.K.’s former colonies

April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher meets with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in Nairobi in 1988. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

The historic leadership of U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher transformed her country and played an instrumental role in the final decade of the Cold War, for which she is still lionized in much of the Western world, particularly the United States. But her legacy is far more complicated in a number of former colonies, places that at the time were referred to as the "Third World" in the parlance of the Cold War.

Thatcher's at-times aggressive anti-Soviet efforts led her to support some nasty but reliable dictatorships in an effort to isolate Moscow and contain its influence. This was a game that Washington and Moscow played as well, but the U.K. came to with special access to former colonies, as well as perhaps a special responsibility to serve them in kind. Now the Cold War is over but the U.K., and particularly Thatcher, are remembered in those countries, sometimes bitterly, as the friends of dictators.

She also sought to shore up the U.K.'s once-mighty foreign policy, as well as domestic faith in the nation's strength, with shows of force and resolve that sometimes had harsh consequences in the limits of the former empire.

Most famously, Thatcher resisted global efforts to isolate Apartheid-era South Africa, including by vetoing sanctions. Though she opposed Apartheid as a policy, she still supported the government that implemented it, which was both a close trading partner and an anti-Communist bastion. She had dismissed Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as "a typical terrorist organisation." On his release from prison in 1990, Mandela sought a meeting with Thatcher to express his personal objections to U.K. policy on South Africa. Other ANC officials were so upset with Thatcher that they initially vetoed even that meeting at first.

In a statement today marking her death, the African National Congress, which is now the country's ruling party noted, "The ANC was on the receiving end of her policy in terms of refusing to recognize the ANC as the representatives of South Africans and her failure to isolate apartheid after it had been described as a crime against humanity." Still, they called her "a force for good in the world," remembering her as an "outstanding leader."

Such seemingly contradictory reactions are not unusual. During her tenure, U.K. relations disintegrated with Nigeria, its most populous African colony. Partly this was over her government's support of both South Africa and for the white-dominated government of Rhodesia, a former colony now known as Zimbabwe. Partly it was over oil. In 1979, maybe or maybe not in response to Thatcher's decision to lift sanctions on Rhodesia (scholars don't fully agree on this question), Nigeria nationalized the British Petroleum interests in its country. Relations, as Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal wrote, "never recovered." In 1980, the wildly popular Nigerian musician Fela Kuti released an album with a horned and devil-eyed Thatcher snarling alongside Apartheid leaders.

Still, she is remembered surprisingly warmly by a number of Nigerians, according to Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole, who tweeted that she enjoys "lots and lots" of Nigerian supporters "of the 'I didn't agree with all her policies but she was great' variety."

Ishaan Tharoor, of Time magazine, suggested that only "wannabe Tories" would rush to embrace Thatcher in India. She had pushed for India to liberalize its economy – rather than to take the more protectionist path often preferred by developing states – and praised a then-finance minister named Manmohan Singh for his efforts. Today, Singh is prime minister.

In Pakistan, she "best known for supporting General [Mohammed] Zia ul Haq's military dictatorship," according to Time correspondent Omar Waraich, referencing the military regime from 1978 to 1988. A video of Thatcher visiting Pakistan and enjoying curried goat with Zia is making the rounds today among Pakistani social media users.

Her policy, and thus her legacy, toward Northern Ireland was even more complicated, in part because she came to power toward the end of a very old struggle. Her government took a hard line on such groups as the Irish Republican Army, most famously by refusing to bend to Irish hunger strikers who demanded to be considered political prisoners. Violence escalated during the hunger strikes and after. In 1984, she survived an IRA assassination attempt. Perhaps the most critical statement on Thatcher's death came from the president of Sinn Fein, an Irish political party. "Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister," his statement read. "Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering."

Perhaps the most revealing tribute came from Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland who may well take it to independence after centuries of British rule. Unwilling to praise or condemn, he carefully called her "a truly formidable prime minister whose policies defined a political generation." Salmond's statement ended, "No doubt there will now be a renewed debate about the impact of that legacy. Today, however, the proper reaction should be respect and condolences to her family."

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Caitlin Dewey · April 8, 2013