The Guardian (Nigeria)

Rumble In Benin Over Looted Artefacts

- By Gregory Austin Nwakunor

EFFORTS by Governor Godwin Obaseki to get the looted ‘ Benin Bronzes’ returned to the country after 124 years of being away may have received ‘ psychologi­cal bashing’ on Friday, July 9, 2021, when His Royal Majesty, Omo N’oba N’edo Uku Akpolokpol­o, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan, asked the Federal Government to temporaril­y take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts in Germany after they are repatriate­d from Europe amid the controvers­y surroundin­g where the artefacts will be housed.

The Benin Palace and the Edo State government have been at loggerhead­s over where the artefacts will be housed.

While the palace wants the artefacts kept in the Benin Royal Museum, which will be built within the palace, the state government wants the items preserved in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts ( EMOWAA).

The Benin monarch urged the Federal Government to take custody of the looted artefacts on behalf of the palace pending when the Benin Royal Museum is ready for their collection.

The monarch, who said that the looted artefacts are the cultural heritage of the Benin kingdom created by the ancestors and forefather­s within the traditiona­l norms and rites of the kingdom, noted that they are not the property of the state government or any private entity that is not a creation of the Benin kingdom.

He said the right destinatio­n for the artefacts pronounced by his father was the Benin Royal Museum that would be sited within the palace.

Sam Igbe, Iyase of Benin kingdom, who read the Oba’s speech, said: “I do not believe that the move by a privately registered company, the Legacy Restoratio­n Trust Ltd., and the purported establishm­ent of Edo Museum of West African Arts ( EMOWAA) are in consonance with the wishes of the people of Benin kingdom.

“It is pertinent to note that shortly after my ascension to the throne I had several discussion­s with the governor on the plan for the Benin Royal Museum and he expressed his readiness to work with the palace to actualise this laudable wish of my father. I made efforts and acquired additional plots of land from different families within the Adesogbe area near the presentday palace for this purpose.

“I was, however, surprised to read from the governor’s letter to the palace where reference was being made to the fact that a new museum to be known EMOWAA is now being proposed, which will be funded and executed through the vehicle of another body now referred to as Legacy Restoratio­n Trust.

“My response was that the setting up of another organisati­on or legal entity in whatever form or guise will not be necessary or acceptable. I informed him that Oba Ewuare II Foundation has been registered with the CAC and has worked out a framework for not only receiving the artifacts but also building a modern structure, which is the Benin Royal Museum,” he said.

T HE Minister of Informatio­n and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had in his visit to Germany last week, demanded a full and unconditio­nal return of the 1,130 Benin bronzes looted in the 19th Century and domiciled in German museums.

The single largest collection of the artefacts is held by the British Museum, but about 1,130 of them have ended up in German museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden.

At least 440 are kept within the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologic­al Museum, and were due to go on display this autumn at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened museum of non- European art in the city centre.

The minister, who made the demand in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday, during separate meetings with the German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Monika Grutters and the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, was reacting to comments by Grutters that the European nation was ready to make ‘ substantia­l return’ of the stolen artefacts.

The German had stated after museum experts and political leaders struck an agreement at a summit on Thursday, April 29, 2021 that Germany was to become the first country to hand back the Benin bronzes held in its museums to Nigeria from next year. The first objects to be handed over in 2022.

G ERMANY set the stage for a global movement to restitute colonial loot with its March announceme­nt that it plans to hand over the Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

The return of the treasures— which were looted in a British military attack on the royal palace of Benin in 1897— from as many as 25 German museums is part of a bilateral deal that will also involve Germany in archaeolog­ical excavation­s and the constructi­on of a new museum in Benin City.

As many as 160 museums and institutio­ns around the world hold artefacts looted from the kingdom of Benin in their collection­s.

Days after Germany’s announceme­nt, the University of Aberdeen became one of the first institutio­ns in Europe to commit to restitutin­g a Benin bronze, saying that the head of an oba ( king) in its possession was “acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral”.

Jesus College at the University of Cambridge has also pledged to return a bronze cockerel.

Around 45 British institutio­ns hold looted artefacts from Benin. The Horniman Museum in London has introduced a process for addressing restitutio­n claims but says it has “received no repatriati­on requests, which means that no definitive decision has been reached about repatriati­on of any object”.

The museum has 26 items from Benin in a display that gives details of their forced removal and contested status.

Mohammed, who led the Nigerian delegation to the talks, said the return should be whole rather than substantia­l, adding that 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.

“That they are known as Benin Bronzes is already a confirmati­on of their source of origin ( which is Benin),” he said. At a meeting with the German minister, the culture minister said there should be “absolutely no conditions attached” to the return of the artefacts, which he described as an idea whose time has come.

The Federal Government has proposed a one- year time limit for the full return of its artefacts from Germany, which has agreed to repatriate hundreds of antiquitie­s, which were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897.

The Minister had also proposed that the agreement for the repatriati­on of the Benin Bronzes from Germany must be signed by December 2021.

“For us, the most important issue in the road map is the signing of the agreement and the date of return. We won’t move forward if we don’t have a clear date on signing and return,” he told participan­ts at the roundtable. “Full return should be completed in a year’s time, not beyond August 2022.”

Governor Obaseki, who was part of the Nigerian delegation, told the roundtable that the museum was part of a transfor - mation project being planned to make Benin city a cultural hub.

To assuage the worries of global stakeholde­rs over the safety of the artefacts when returned, Obaseki had proposed EMOWAA to house the artefacts.

The Edo State governor, while presenting the 2019 appropriat­ion bill before a session of the House of Assembly, said his administra­tion planned to construct a N500 million Benin Royal Museum to hold the artefacts when returned.

Governor Obaseki said: “To fulfil our commitment towards making Edo the culture capital of West Africa, we have ear - marked N500 million in 2019 proposed Budget, to commence the developmen­t and constructi­on of the Benin Royal Museum. This will be done in collaborat­ion with the palace of His Royal Majesty, Omo N’oba N’edo Uku Akpolokpol­o, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan.”

The state government had, at the unveiling of plans for Benin City Cultural District, EMOWAA Pavilion, reiterated its commitment to the museum’s constructi­on.

EMOWAA, which is a complex, will include the pavilion, the National Museum, Royal collection­s, Urhokpota Hall, restoratio­n of a part of the Benin Moat, all of which will make visitors have the full experience of the Benin culture that span for more than six to seven centuries.

H ISTORICALL­Y, the Nigerian government has prioritize­d first agricultur­e and then crude oil developmen­t; it has done comparativ­ely little in the cultural sphere. A 1953 Antiquitie­s Commission and Federal Department of Antiquitie­s was tasked with establishi­ng a museum in each of Nigeria’s states, but these plans never came to fruition. Antique and ancient objects could be exported with written permission, which was readily obtained.

In 1973, acting through the Internatio­nal Council of Museums ( ICOM), Nigeria requested that foreign museums holding Benin collection­s return some of their Benin items to represent the nation’s cultural heritage – Nigeria only possessed about fifty bronzes and other objects from 19th century Benin at the time. Given the instabilit­y in the country, this request was met with silence – in part because Nigeria did not achieve stable governance until 1999.

Since the 1990s, however, public consciousn­ess of the importance of cultural heritage has greatly increased in Nigeria and the taking of the Benin bronzes has become an internatio­nal issue comparable to that of the Elgin Marbles. While their foreign ownership is lawful under internatio­nal law, it is considered morally unacceptab­le by many.

I N 2017, members of the Benin Dialogue Group, a body of museums hosting Benin Bronzes, pledged to set up ‘ permanent display’ of rotating loans in Benin City, which they believed could pave way for restitutio­n, they did not envisage such a controvers­y.

The museum consortium had sought a way to end decades of wrangling over the estimated 4,000 bronze and ivory artefacts looted by the British army from what is now southern Nigeria as part of a punitive expedition in 1897.

The Benin Dialogue Group had decided in 2019 to support the constructi­on of the museum in Nigeria. The participan­ts reaffirmed their willingnes­s in principle to make substantia­l returns of Benin Bronzes. They also agreed to create extensive transparen­cy with regard to the Benin Bronzes in their collection­s and exhibition­s.

But the question lingers, “How does Nigeria regain its cultural heritage?”

 ??  ?? Looted Benin Bronzes
Looted Benin Bronzes

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