Nigeria: Battle for Benin Artefacts Escalates, Govt Lays Claim to Artworks

90% of Africa’s cultural heritage currently lies outside the continent, including the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum.
18 July 2021

The Federal Government says it is the rightful entity to take possession of 1,130 stolen Benin artifacts and others due to be returned to Nigeria.

Other contenders for the custody of the artworks are Edo State government and the Palace of the Oba of Benin, from where the artworks and artifacts were looted in 1897 by the invading British Army.

The position of the Federal Government was disclosed yesterday by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed at a press conference in Lagos. The minister said the return of the artifacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany, saying Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.

Mohammed said: "The Federal Government is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany. Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative conventions and laws, the return of the artifacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany. Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria."

According to him, relevant international conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups. "For example," he said, "the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in article 1, defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation. This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property."

Mohammed said regardless of the right the FG has over the custody of the looted artifacts, the Nigerian state - through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments - has, in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate Nigeria's looted artefacts, carried along the traditional institutions and state governments.

"What I am saying in essence is that the Federal Government will take possession of these antiquities, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws," the Minister said, noting that the Federal Government had always exercised this right in cognisance of the culture that produced the art works.

"That is why the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have always involved both Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities," he said.

Mohammed also revealed that the Federal Government is not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts, but also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun, etc.

The Minister spoke about the efforts of the Federal Government over the Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie's in Year 2020, and how the Federal Government took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ife object.

"These antiquities," Lai Mohammed said, "consist of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite Ife Bronze head. We are currently before the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris, where we have instituted a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least."

He said the Ife Bronze antiquity has been seized by the London Metropolitan Police, pending the decision on who the true owner is. "Of course, we all know that the true owner is Nigeria."

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