Nigeria: Bringing Back Our Artifacts

6 December 2019

Yinka Olatunbosun reflects on the federal government's renewed effort towards the return and restitution of Nigeria's stolen artifacts

During the Colonial rule in Africa, countries such as Egypt, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Senegal and Nigeria were robbed of their artifacts. Nigeria was looted during the 1897 punitive expedition of the Benin Kingdom by the British forces.

The Benin Kingdom was razed down, and the king, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was forced into exile as 3,000 pieces of art were stolen. These works are in foreign museums in spite of the frequent calls by the Nigerian government to the countries to return the works to its country of origin.

In 2007, the Benin Dialogue Group was formed to address the restitution of these iconic pieces. The group is made up of several European museums, the Royal Court of Benin, Edo State government and Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

More recently, the Minister of Information, Alh. Lai Mohammed has renewed the FG's campaign towards retrieving the stolen treasures. Will this turn out as just another quiet diplomacy or a vigorous pursuit of these priceless pieces?

The hope for optimism exists in the proposed return of the Bronze Cockerel known as Okukor to Nigeria by Jesus College Cambridge. The Benin Bronze statue was one of the pieces stolen in 1897 by some British forces. Though the date of return is still unknown, the Cockerel had been reportedly removed from public display following calls by the students of the institution to return it.

At a press briefing with journalists in Lagos lsst week, the Minister of Information promised that the campaign to preserve Nigeria's historical and cultural heritage will be done using legal and diplomatic means.

"We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past," the minister said.

He added that Nigerian artifacts are generators of revenue in places where they do not belong. Within the framework of UNESCO and ECOWAS, the Minister expressed confidence in the process of art repatriation. With reference to Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970Convention, to which most nations subscribe, he pointed out some salient 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.

"One cannot fathom how an individual or collective genius of people who had not visited that part of theworld 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 observed.

When 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, they are bound by this Declaration, which has necessitated this Plan of Action by the Nigerian government.

He commended the effort of the 'Benin Dialogue Group', and encouraged the collective to make decisions that are logical and inviolable.

"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 theobjects loaned out too.

"We call on every museum and person holding on to ourheritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue with us on the basis of the conditions we have enumerated today. We urge them to identify what is in their collections, transparently make them public, approach us for discussion on terms of return and restitution, as well as circulation and loans.

"They must acknowledge that ownership resides in us. They must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda ofUnderstanding in this regard, and they must be ready to release some of these antiquities for immediate return to Nigeria," he said.

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