Nigeria Demands Unconditional Return of Looted Artefacts From Germany

The Benin Bronzes in the British Museum.

The German Minister of State for Culture says the 1,130 artefacts would be returned to Nigeria from the beginning of 2022.

The Federal Government of Nigeria has demanded a full and unconditional return of the 1,130 Benin Bronzes that were looted from the African nation in the 19th century and domiciled in German museums.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, made the demand in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday, during separate meetings with the German Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grutters, and the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas.

Reacting to comments by Mr Grutters that Germany was ready to make a 'substantial return' of the 1,130 looted artefacts, Mr Mohammed, who led the Nigerian delegation to the talks, said the return should be whole rather than substantial.

He also said the issue of provenance, which has to do with the place of origin of the artefacts, should not be allowed to unduly delay the repatriation of the art works, adding, "That they are known as Benin Bronzes is already a confirmation of their source of origin (which is Benin)."

"No conditions"

Later, at a meeting with the German Foreign Minister, Mr Mohammed, said there should be "absolutely no conditions attached" to the return of the artefacts, which he described as an idea whose time has come.

Saying there was the need for the parties to commit to definite timelines for the return of the Benin Bronzes, the Minister of Information and Culture said it was necessary to conclude all necessary negotiations in a very short term.

He said the ongoing discussion between Nigeria and Germany on the return of the art works is not just the end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between both countries.

Mr Mohammed thanked the Government of Germany for taking the lead in the global efforts to repatriate all artefacts that were looted from Nigeria and indeed from the African continent.

"We see Germany as a leader in the efforts to take practical steps to repatriate our stolen artefacts, and we hope Germany will sustain that lead," he said

The Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, who was also a member of the Nigerian delegation, said a "transformational" museum is being built in Benin city to house the artefacts upon their return, as part of a new cultural district in the city.

Mr Obaseki said he was attending the talks to demonstrate the strong partnership involving the Federal Government of Nigeria, the (Benin) royal family and the people of Edo State.

The Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Tuggar, said the issue of the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes should be seen as an opportunity to take the cooperation between Nigeria and Germany to a greater height.

"This is an opportunity that must not be missed. Minor issues should not delay the repatriation," he said, commending the government of Germany for taking the lead in the repatriation process.

Earlier, the German Minister of State for Culture, said "the way we deal with the issue of Benin Bronzes is important to addressing our colonial past," describing the issues as a "an important personal concern."

She disclosed that the 1,130 artefacts would be returned to Nigeria from the beginning of 2022.

Mr Gutters noted that the fact that Germany has twice sent delegations to Nigeria for talks over the planned repatriation is an indication that both sides have moved beyond mere talks, saying every museum in Germany holding Benin Bronzes have agreed to cooperate.

The Nigerian delegation, which also included the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monument (NCMM), Abba Tijani, and the Benin Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Ezelekhae Ewuare, was later taken on a guided tour of the Humboldt-Forum, a royal palace turned museum in the heart of Berlin that houses art works from around the world.

History

The artefacts are those taken from the Benin Royal Court following the British incursion in 1897. On January 12, 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of the Royal Navy forces at the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force to invade the Kingdom of Benin, capture the Benin Oba and destroy Benin City.

The operation was named the Benin Punitive Expedition.

About 40 per cent of the art was accessioned to the British Museum, while other works were given to individual members of the armed forces as spoils of war, and the remainder was sold at auction by the Admiralty. Most of the Benin Bronzes sold at auction were purchased by museums, mainly in Germany.

The Benin art was copied and the style integrated into the art of many European artists and thus had a strong influence on the early formation of modernism in Europe.

Several aspects of the expeditions have been featured in Nigerian movies like The Mask (1979), starring Eddie Ugbomah; and Invasion 1897 (2014), directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen.

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