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Rumble in Benin over looted artefacts

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
11 July 2021   |   4:24 am
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...

One of the stolen Benin artefacts

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 present-day 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.

THE 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.

GERMANY 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 transformation 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 earmarked 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.

HISTORICALLY, 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.

IN 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?”