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Fed Govt’s move for return of artefacts

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The Nation 2 December 2019

Will Nigeria ever get back its artefacts in museums in Europe? Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed is championing a campaign to not only get back these artefacts but to also get restitution, writes Assistant Editor OZOLUA UHAKHEME

Over 3,000 pieces of bronze were looted from the old Benin Empire during the 1897 British Punitive Expedition. These priceless bronze works are trapped behind glass walls in European galleries and museums.

Information and Culture Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed has called on every museum and individuals across the globe in possession of Nigeria’s priceless artefacts to initiate dialogue with Nigeria on the basis of return and restitution. He said such museum or individual must acknowledge that ownership resides in Nigeria and must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) leading to the release of some of these antiquities for Nigeria.

The minister added that the  Federal Government would by next year begin an annual national conference on the restitution of cultural property in line with the recommendation in the Declaration by ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments last year at Abuja. The essence of this campaign, he said, is to keep the issue of return and restitution on the front burner of national discourse.

“We are kick-starting the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artefacts with a quest to retrieve the Ife Bronze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into. After it was brought to an auction in London two years ago, the auction house observed that it was an Ife Bronze Head which belongs to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List of cultural goods that are deemed to be the most vulnerable to illicit traffic.

“These lists are made available to national police and customs authorities by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organisation as well as to museums, auction houses, and galleries. They are intended to help users identify the kinds of artefacts etc that may have been stolen or smuggled so that they can be confiscated and returned to their rightful owners if an attempt is made to sell them illegally,” he said.

Mohammed explained that Nigerians 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.

“Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them? Our answer is simple: These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history.”

He lamented that those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not. He noted that tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy adding that these priceless heritage resources have a role to play.

“How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe as their properties?” he wondered.

He stressed that the ownership of these cultural objects resides in the Nigerian State now and forever. To him, “under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours.”

He added: “They represent important pages in our history. In other words, whether these heritage resources are presently domiciled in Nigeria or are in any other part of the world, whether they are in public or private museums, in collections or in private households, they were wrought by the genius of our forebears. They shall never belong to any other person or nation but to us,” he added.

A few days ago, Jesus College Cambridge agreed to return a Benin bronze statue to Nigeria. It was taken by British colonial forces from the country in the late nineteenth century and donated to the school by a student’s father.

The artefact is set to be one of the first Benin bronzes returned to Nigeria.

In 2013, former Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, initiated a move to get the artefacts back. Six museum professionals in Europe, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and representatives of the court of Benin met in Benin.

The foreign museum experts who were at the meeting were Dr. Micheal Barret and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius representing the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden, Silvia Dolz of Museum for Volkerkunde, Dresden, Germany, Dr. Peter Junge of Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany, Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner of Museum fur Volkerkunde, Vienna, Austria and D. Annette Schmidt representing the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.

Representing the Royal Benin Palace were the Enogie of Obazuwa, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua, Esere of Benin, Chief Stanley Obamwonyi.

Duke urged the foreign museum experts to reconsider the injustice that led to the uprooting of these artefacts. He said: “We must explore opportunities at voluntary repatriation’ as there are many instances of such repatriation.

“In 2001, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin returned parts of the Philippeon monument to Greece. Denmark returned the Codex Regius and the Flateyjarbok to Iceland. Ethiopia too has successfully effected the return of one of its national religious treasure, the 1700 years old Axum Obelisk from Italy, after a 70-year stay in Rome,” the minister said.

In his capacity as NCMM Director-General, Mr Yusuf Abdallah Usman said: “We have to start from somewhere. In the past, there was no such significant dialogue, but now, we are listening to each other on the need to return the objects to Nigeria. On whether we have the facility to store the objects, some people forget that the objects left here in the first place and were in safe custody then.”

A December 2010 in Vienna Austria established the framework for the dialogue and second meeting held in Berlin, Germany in October 2011.

Ever since the battle for the restitution began, none of the requests for the objects yielded positive results. “For instance, in 2000, Prince Edun Akenzua appeared before the British House of Commons requesting for the repatriation of the works. In 2008, two letters were written by Prince Edun Akenzua, to no avail, to the trustees and the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was only in 1938 that some form of repatriation was made to the Benin monarchy. Part of the regalia of Oba Ovonramwen found in a private collection in the UK was returned to Oba Akenzua 11,” according to a report.

How far Mohammed’s move will go remains to be seen.

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