Returning African artefacts taken by explorers and colonisers has remained a serious issue in Europe-Africa relations. Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Arts and Culture Editor of Guardian Arts) interrogates the new Federal Government campaign for return of Nigeria’s stolen and looted artefacts.
When a Cambridge University college said on Thursday it would return an antique statue of a cockerel to Benin City, capital of Edo State, Nigeria, more than 120 years after British colonial forces looted it, the Federal Government responded, saying it was delighted by the announcement, and thereafter, launched a broad appeal for museums across the world to return its heritage.
Many consider the move by Jesus College as likely to step up pressure on other institutions holding plunder from the historic Kingdom of Benin and other objects from other cultures taken by colonialists during the 19th century.
“The Nigerian government is very delighted at this development, which we have been following for some time now, especially the role of the Nigerian students in that University in pushing for the repatriation of the cockerel,” the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said.
“Considering the hundreds of Benin Bronzes looted during that occupation, the decision to return the cockerel is like a drop in the ocean, but it is an important drop and we welcome it. Again, we appeal to all those holding our artefacts to follow the footsteps of the Cambridge University by willingly returning them to Nigeria, where they rightly belong.”
He said government is kick-starting the ‘Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artefacts’ with a quest to retrieve the Ife Bronze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987, when one of the country’s national museums was broken into.
Mohammed said, “in launching this campaign, our hands are strengthened by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which most nations subscribe, identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each member state, thereby belonging to that State. By the provisions of this Article, they include cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property, which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property. Let’s relate these provisions to an Ife bronze head or a Benin Bronze head, both made several centuries ago. One cannot fathom how an individual or collective genius of people who had not visited that part of the world created such object, or how they are “subject of a freely agreed exchange, or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities.”
He added, “also, the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region met in December 2018 in Abuja and adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. We are bound by this Declaration, which has further brought discussions towards a Plan of Action.”
While commending the work of the discussion group that is now known as the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’, which is working to resolve this issue, he stressed, “we desire that our heritage resources circulate around the world, especially because we are aware that art lovers all over the world truly love them. We also know that all the major museums around the world desire to have them on loan. For these reasons, we do not mind to conduct joint exhibitions and have the objects loaned out too. But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever.”
BDG is a multi-lateral collaborative working group that brings together museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom with representatives of the Edo State government, the Royal Court of Benin and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Nigeria.
The BDG held its sixth meeting in Benin City from July 5 to 7, 2019 at the invitation of the Governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki.
A central objective of the group is to work together to establish a museum in Benin City that will facilitate a permanent display reuniting Benin works of art dispersed in collections around the world.
During the meeting, the BDG discussed the new Royal Museum in Benin City and joint exhibition planning. At the governor’s invitation, Sir David Adjaye led a discussion concerning the architectural vision for the museum in Benin City.
As part of the outcomes, the group drafted a vision statement:
“The vision is to establish a new royal museum to reunite in Benin City the most significant of Benin’s historical artefacts, currently in various locations around the world. The Museum will showcase the rich history and culture of the Benin Kingdom from the earliest archaeological evidence to contemporary creative expressions, in recognition of the fact that Benin City continues to be a vibrant artistic centre. The museum will be founded as a place of remembrance, education and inspiration for the people of the Benin Kingdom and audiences from around the world.”
At the meeting of Directors of Cultural Heritage and Museum of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which held in April in Cotonou, Benin, stakeholders, include African Union, ECOWAS Heads of State and Government, West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) member states were requested to take measures to ratify the UNIDROIT Convention as soon as possible, prepare official letters to countries in possession of these artefacts to return them, inform and raise awareness in order to mobilise national stakeholders.
They were also urged to provide adequate financial resources for the implementation of the action plan on the return of cultural artefacts in their countries, promote the introduction of legal instruments for creating business foundations by non-state actors in order to support funding of activities for returning cultural heritage and adopt a common position for nominating ECOWAS representatives in international decision-making bodies on culture.
The African Union, on its part, was asked to take ownership of ECOWAS action plan on the return of cultural artefacts and contribute to its implementation.
As regards the Heads of State and Government, participants recommended that they become more involved and ensure the implementation of the action plan on the return of artefacts and the establishment of a group devoted to cultural artefacts.
ECOWAS and UEMOA, on their part, were invited to prepare a draft international agreement on the specific issue of the return of cultural artefacts and establish a regional committee for monitoring the implementation of the action plan.
The return of African art objects held by major museums in former colonial cities has become a major issue since the publication of the report French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr in October 2018. Both authors raised the alarm in French and European museums by recommending automatic restitutions to African states of all goods seized during the colonial era.
The 108-page study speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.
France’s restitution move has intensified pressure on other European governments to do likewise — and given hope to other African countries. Western governments, especially Britain, have been fighting against returning objects, even those on loan, claiming that they are custodians and conservers of humanity’s cultural and natural treasures, despite these objects having been unlawfully appropriated over the ages through conquest and colonialism.
British museums have long resisted campaigns for the return of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, Greece’s Elgin Marbles, Ethiopia’s Magdala treasures and other loot, often citing legislation that bans them from disposing of their collections.
As then-Prime Minister David Cameron said of Greece’s Elgin Marbles and India’s Koh-i-Noor diamond: “No, I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism’, as it were. I don’t think that is sensible.”
In March, the culture ministers of Germany’s 16 states agreed to create conditions for the repatriation of artefacts in public collections that were taken “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today” from former colonies, describing their return as “an ethical and moral duty.”
At a meeting on March 15, 2019, the ministers agreed to work with museums and institutions to develop repatriation procedures with “the necessary urgency and sensitivity,” and promised a dialogue with representatives from source countries. They agreed on the need to inventarise and publish details of items in ethnological collections and to prioritise the return of human remains. They also proposed establishing a central help desk to provide information on colonial-era heritage and called on all institutions in possession of such items to conduct provenance research.
The German government this year allocated €1.9m to provenance research for artefacts that entered museum collections during the colonial era, with the funds to be administered by the Magdeburg-based German Lost Art Foundation. It appointed an eight-member committee including Bénédicte Savoy to select grant recipients on the basis of applications from German museums.
Though some might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them? The statement of the minister is enough commitment from government to pursue the cause logically. “These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not. Of course, as you all know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play,” Mohammed said.