Benin: France to Fast-Track Return of Artifacts from Benin

Photo: Son of Groucho.
90% of Africa’s cultural heritage currently lies outside the continent, including the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum.

Returning African artifacts taken by explorers and colonizers remains a hot-button issue in Europe-Africa relations — one that gained traction last November when French President Emmanuel Macron announced the return of 26 historic artifacts to Benin.

On Thursday, French Culture Minister Franck Riester said Paris will go ahead with the restitution without waiting for a new law to enshrine it. He said France will consider similar demands from other countries.

Europe is believed to house about 90 percent of Africa's cultural heritage. Benin was the first country to formally ask France to give back the artifacts.

Jose Pliya, who heads Benin's National Heritage and Tourism Development Agency, NAPT, welcomes their pending return — though he says Benin now has to find a place to put them.

"From our side, we are aware the condition to receive these pieces is not really there," he said. "Why? Because we have museums … but they are suffering. A lot of waste and mismanagement [in] the past."

The artifacts include thrones and statues taken in 1892 during a French colonial war against what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Benin is restoring and building museums, and training curators to properly house these and other fragile objects. Pliya says this initiative will take months. But he believes harnessing his country's rich culture can bring major job and development dividends.

"Benin is very rich in terms of culture. We want to transform this culture into resources. And one way is tourism," he said.

France's restitution move has intensified pressure on other European governments to do likewise — and given hope to other African countries. Hailu Zeleke, conservation chief at Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, says a number of Ethiopian artifacts are housed in Britain as well as Italy.

"We hope the British also respond the same as the French," Zeleke said. "We hope that things are changing … to return our heritage to Africa, to their homeland."

Other experts believe cultural development delivers payoffs such as less migration to Europe and greater stability.

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