A very large number of Nigeria's priceless artefacts left Nigeria's shores long before the country came into being as an independent nation. The high point was the infamous assault on Benin in 1897. Dispossessing Nigerians of their heritage went on throughout the period of colonial domination and more recently it has been rearing its ugly head through looting of heritage archaeological sites and museums.
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NCMM, Director General Mallam Yusuf Abdullahi Usman recently said the commission charged with the responsibility of preserving Nigeria's antiquities considers the return of all these objects an issue of paramount importance, saying that is why it is paying intense attention to it, including setting up of a special unit to handle the return of such artefacts.
The last recorded case of antiquities theft from the National Musuem collection was in 1996.
"So the claim that the recently intercepted terracotta pieces in the US were stolen from National Museum, Lagos is absolutely false.
"No object has been stolen from any Nigeria museum since the last series of burglaries in the early 1990s. Even then, the Lagos museum was not affected and all the stolen pieces were put on the ICOM [the International Council of Museums] red list. Indeed many of them have since been recovered and returned to the museums."
The looting of heritage archaeological sites and Museums has been an age-long and world-wide problem. In Nigeria, the problem reached epidemic proportions in the 1990s when Nok and North-western Nigeria's (Kwatarkwoshi) archaeological sites were massively robbed of their priceless objects. These objects were spread throughout Western Europe and the USA.
While the problem abated in the beginning of the new millennium, recent field studies indicate that it has not fully stopped.
Abdullahi said that at the onset of the present management of the NCMM in 2009 under his leadership, the issue of looting of archaeological sites by illegal diggers reduced due to the use of a multi-pronged approach.
"Within the last three years, the Commission has embarked on several sensitization programmes involving law enforcement agencies, media, local communities and traditional rulers at Abuja and Kaduna and also in the rural areas especially at Nok and Janjala. In the meantime, approval to employ six hundred security and crafts men to police our heritage sites is awaiting cash backing from the budget office.
"From the legal perspective, the Commission has made substantial progress in its bid to review its laws with a view to tightening the loose ends against the smuggling of antiquities. This review will give the Commission the power to the unequivocal proclamation that all antiquities buried under the ground are the properties of the Federal Government of Nigeria. It will also make it possible for the Commission's Antiquities Inspectors to search and arrest, with or without warrant, malefactors. The Commission will equally be empowered through provisions in the reviewed law with the power of prosecuting offenders."
He said the Commission has some registered antiquity vendors, who bring objects to it for acquisition, saying through them, the Commission has acquired very good and invaluable objects, adding that in recent times, due to dwindling financial resources, the Commission has been unable to pay as and when due.
"When the vendors bring in these antiquities the Commission is obliged by its Act to collect them even when it does not readily have funds to pay compensation, for the simple reason that these are the heritage of the nation and so cannot be allowed to remain outside the protection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
"We are currently dialoguing with the vendors with a view to finding means of compensating them. Thus we are seeking intervention funds from the Federal Government to enable us defray the debt owed them in order to prevent the objects from being sold to foreigners and private collectors. It is important to note that the issue of purchase of Antiquities is of prime importance to the nation."
The NCCM Director General explained that the Commission pursuing restitution and return, has adopted approaches that are firmly anchored within the framework of the foreign policy direction of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is principally dialogue rather than undue combativeness.
These, according to him, have brought about discussions with other nations, particularly in West Africa under the auspices of ECOWAS, which he said is necessary because most smuggled artefacts are taken out through the borders of ECOWAS nations.
The Commission in its effort at getting these objects back to Nigeria has also been operating through the ICOM/UNESCO framework and has also been dialoguing with professionals in the foreign Museums
"Efforts at dialoguing have brought about recent interface with most of the major museums in Europe. The Commission instigated discussions on modalities of returning Benin objects to Nigeria. This has resulted in the meeting of the major museums in Europe and the Commission in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany in 2010 and 2011 respectively. A third meeting is scheduled for Benin City before the end of this year. The heads of these European museums have signified their intention to attend this meeting. It will be recalled that Nigeria was one of the strong voices in the Egyptian Conference of 2010 where returns of the pieces of each countries priceless antiquities were demanded to be made to their countries of origin."
Nigeria's effort at restitution was recently rewarded when Terra-cotta effigies of more than a thousand years old were returned from Canada on the 24th of February, 2009. Before this, the L'Office central de repression du vol des oeuvres et des objets d'art (O.C.R.V.O.O.A.) had also returned three Ife bronze heads stolen and found in France. Benin bronze artefacts sold to Galerie Walu in Zurich were also returned to Nigeria.
In September this year, the Commission shall be receiving from the Embassy of France five Nok Sculptures which were intercepted in August 2010 by the French.