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Government set to take possession of returned artefacts

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
18 July 2021   |   4:20 am
Amid His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan’s call for the Federal Government to temporarily take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts in Germany after they are repatriated from Europe, the Minister of Information and Culture....

Looted Benin Bronzes

Amid His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan’s call for the Federal Government to temporarily take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts in Germany after they are repatriated from Europe, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has expressed government’s determination to take possession of the artefacts. He disclosed this at a media briefing in Lagos yesterday.

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 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.

Mohammed said the Federal Government would take possession of these antiquities, “because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws.”

He said, “we have always exercised this right in cognisance of that 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 the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities.”

According to the Minister, “in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts 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.”

He said, “the relevant international conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups. For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its 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.”

He said 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 our looted artefacts carried along our important traditional institutions and state governments.”

According to him, government is not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts, “we are 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.”

While updating Nigerians on the efforts being made by the Federal Government to repatriate looted and smuggled Nigerian artefacts from around the world, he said the same efforts have been exerted in the case of Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie’s in 2020, “and the fact that we took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ife object.”

On November 28, 2019, the Federal Government had announced, at a media briefing in Lagos, the launch of the ‘Campaign For The Return and Restitution’ of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artefacts from around the world.

“I said that with the launch, we are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.”

While saying that less than two years after the renewal of campaign for the return of Nigeria’s looted artefacts, “positive results are been achieved.”

To him, the work ahead remains tough and daunting, but government will not relent until every stolen and smuggled antiquity is repatriated.
“These artefacts are so cherished all over the world and we realise that if they are returned to Nigeria and properly exhibited within and outside the country under our control, they stand to increase the influx of tourists to our nation and earn us good money,” he said. “Of course, 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.”

In his words, “though not everyone in possession of these artefacts is willing to return them, we remain undeterred as we have deployed all legal and diplomatic means and we have been recording successes in our quest for repatriation.”

Listing some of the successes recorded by government since the campaign began in 2019, Alhaji Mohammed said, “in October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.”

He also said, “in March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year. In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico. The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece.”

He continued, “we have also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These antiquities 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. This 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.”

The minister, however, said, the most remarkable progress in the quest to repatriate the country’s looted artefacts has been recorded in Germany, “which is currently working with us for the repatriation of 1,130 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.”

Recently, he led a high-level Nigerian delegation to Berlin, Germany, to iron out the modalities for the repatriation. During the trip, the Nigerian delegation met with Prof. Monika Grutters, the German Minister of State for Culture, who has responsibility for antiquities; the German Foreign Minister, Mr. Heiko Maas, the Secretary of State in the German President’s office, Mr. Stephen Steinlein, and Harmann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is the centre of the German culture establishment, and his team, I also met with the Directors of at least 20 major museums.

“The negotiations were tough but fruitful. We have agreed that there is no going back on the issue of returning the Benin Bronzes.

“At the meetings in Germany, I insisted, and it was resolved that provenance research on the Benin Bronzes cannot and must not delay their return, since the origin of Benin objects is not a subject of dispute as such objects are only associated with the Benin Kingdom.

“On the German authorities’ proposal to return a ‘substantial part’ of the Benin Bronzes. I have asserted the stand of the Nigerian government by demanding full and unconditional release of the artefacts. Concerning recording the artefacts in 3D formats for posterity and academic sake under the ‘digitalbenin’ project, of which we are a part.

“I have told the Germans that this work of digitalising the Benin Bronzes must not delay the return of the artefacts and that issues related to copyrights ownership and other rights over the digitalised objects will be discussed soon.”

He said, “we agreed to have a definitive timeline for the repatriation of the artefacts because Nigeria is tired of an indefinite timeline. Therefore, we resolved that the agreement on the repatriation should be signed in December 2021 and the repatriation should be concluded by August 2022. I told the Germans that Nigeria is averse to attaching pre-conditions to repatriating the Benin Bronzes. These are our properties, do not give us conditions for releasing them. We therefore agreed that the release will be unconditional, neither will it be staggered.”

He noted, however, that the meetings in Germany were not only about repatriating these objects. “We have decided that the repatriation of the artefacts should not be the end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between Nigeria and Germany,” the Minister noted.

He pointed out that there are other benefits accruing to Nigeria from the ongoing talks. “There will be archaeological training for Nigerians. The
Nigerian side and the German side agreed to Nigeria’s proposal to use the repatriated artefacts and other works of art to inspire Nigeria’s Creative Industry towards realising its high potential. For this and
other purposes, it was agreed that the Germans would facilitate the establishment of an academy in Nigeria.”

The government commended Germany for taking the lead in the global efforts to repatriate all artefacts that were looted from Nigeria and indeed from the Africa.

“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. I also want to thank Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, who was with us all through the tough negotiations in Berlin, and His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin, who sent the Benin Crown Prince, His Royal Highness
Ezelekhae Ewuare, to be a part of the Nigerian delegation to Berlin.”