Return of looted Benin artefacts, 125 years after
History was made on Feb 19, in the ancient city of Benin, as two out of the several artefacts looted during the 1897 British invasion of the city, repatriated were publicly presented at the palace of Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II.
The artefacts, a cockerel sculpture and Oba Uhunilao’s bronze burst otherwise known as Oba head, were handed over to the oba by Amb. Sarafa Ishola, Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Scores of Benin sons and daughters as well as well-wishers from far and near, stormed the ancient palace to witness the return of the artworks, the prominent handiworks people of Benin are globally known for.
It was a moment of joy, ecstasy and jubilation when the high commissioner, assisted by Prof. Abba Tijjani, Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), unveiled the statues.
By most accounts, a British force of 1,200 men, under Sir Harry Rawson invaded the ancient Benin kingdom in the late 19th century, in response to the ambush of a previous British party, under Acting Consul General James Phillips. This account, Oba Ewuare, however, recounted with a variation.
As against the retaliation for killing of some British soldiers in many accounts, the Benin monarch sees the punitive expedition of the British force, as calculated and deliberate plan to attack the kingdom for its territorial dominance as well as for her treasure.
Whatever be the reason, it is incontrovertible that Benin was invaded, and Rawson’s troops, apparently, captured and sacked the city, bringing to an end the once glorious kingdom that was consequently absorbed into colonial Nigeria.
Museologists affirmed that more than 10,000 artefacts were looted at the Oba palace, which are today found in about 165 museums and collections across the world.
Two of these are Jesus College at the Cambridge University in England and Aberdeen University, Scotland.
More than a century afterwards, many museums and collections across the world, particularly in Europe, began to agree to the restitution of these artefacts. This is because international scholars and most museums now agree that keeping stolen items is not only immoral but outrightly illegal.
Jesus College and Aberdeen University, therefore, emerged the first to show an example. Consequent to front and back conversations, the Federal Government of Nigeria, through its High Commission in the United Kingdom, repatriated the two items in the possession of the universities back to where they were removed from.
The high commissioner performed the official hand-over, on the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The diplomat described the event as historic and a promise fulfilled and testified that the returned works were preserved in their original forms just like they were, before being taken away 125 years ago.
He, nonetheless, commended the British government for granting the export licence to repatriate the artworks to Nigeria at no cost. Artefacts that had spent more than 50 years in the United Kingdom, Ishola said, required export licence under the local law before they could be repatriated.
Stressing the significance of the return, he said the items are now value-laden, for the cockerel was valued at £2 million, while the Oba head, valued and insured for £500,000. He urged the people to join the palace in the preservation of these common treasure.
“I am not aware of the value as at when it was taken away, but as at today, the cockerel is valued at £2 million, while the Oba head is valued and insured for £500,000. This is a great treasure for the Benin kingdom and Nigeria. We will still see many of them come back,” he said.
The high commissioner hinted, however, that the Federal Government would soon make a policy statement on these artefacts and others, seeking to be repatriated back home.
Tijjani, the director-general of NCMM, said that the commission is spearheading how stolen Nigerian artefacts would be repatriated.
He described the Benin artworks as living arts that had much to do with the culture, spirituality, rather than for monetary sake or aesthetics.
The commission, Tijjani said was elated that efforts to seek the return of these stolen arts had begun to yield results, with a further assurance that talks are ongoing on the restitution of others, stolen in places across the country.
Oba Ewuare II, commended the two universities for their pace-setting initiative in returning the two bronzes.
The oba, shortly after the items were handed over to him, sought to retire from the ceremonial arena to an inner room.
His younger brother, Aghatise Erediauwa, read the oba’s address.
He said the call for the return of the items centred on restitution, an idea largely supported by reputable international scholars and museums.
“There is consensus now that heritage items must be returned to their place of origin. For this, we commend both Jesus College of Cambridge University and the University of Aberdeen for setting the pace,” he said.
Oba Ewuare II, however, demonstrated the will to lease some of these looted artefacts to any interested museums, which may be afraid of missing the Benin bronzes in their collections once the ownership is established.
“We are aware of the ongoing discussions which the Federal Government, through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is holding with various governments on our behalf. We are also aware that the major museums will miss having Benin bronzes in their collections.
“I believe that a working arrangement can be agreed, whereby our ownership of the artefacts having been established, those museums will continue to enjoy the presence of our artefacts.”
The oba hailed President Muhammadu Buhari for his interest in the handling of the items, this appreciation he also extended to Amb. Ishola, Prof. Tijjani as well as Prof. Wole Soyinka for their untiring efforts at getting the items returned.
He also commended the support of prominent traditional rulers across the country for their efforts in seeking the return of stolen artefacts.
The oba, nonetheless, reiterated that the bronze and other works that were looted from the palace must be returned directly through the agency of the Federal Government.
He called on all stakeholders to join the campaign to return stolen Benin artefacts.