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Looted Benin arts: Before the West returns them – Part 3

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Benin arts. Photo: ARTNET

Therefore in 2018 when the Swiss government mooted the idea to return the second and last tranche of the Abacha loot to Nigeria, it did it in three ways.

One, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, with the Nigerian government with a strong proviso and commitment that the Nigerian government put the monies to use ‘for the benefit of the Nigerian people’. This MoU was signed by representatives of the Nigerian, Swiss and US governments at the maiden edition of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery, GFAR, in December in Washington DC, and with former US Justice Minister Jeff Sessions in attendance. Second, the Swiss paid interest on the loot stashed in their country and third, the Swiss-made sure to get Civil Society input and oversight in the distribution of the returned Abacha loot to the poorest of the poor in Nigeria.

Even though modalities for the selection of recipients for the distribution of the returned loot remain in contention, available data seem to indicate that the returned loot reached the poor, thereby helping to discard other campaigns1 associated with an accountable and transparent disbursement and distribution of the returned loot to Nigerians.

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Recommendations for returning looted Nigerian Artworks.
The overall plan for the return and utilization of the Abacha loot to Nigeria by the Swiss Government achieved more than average success. It was a coordinated effort involving local and international players – the World Bank, the Nigerian Government, the Swiss, Civil Society Organisations and international donor organisations like the DfID and UKAID.

Therefore, in considering a workable template for the return of looted artworks from Benin, CERLSI proposes the following.

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Adoption of the Savoy-Sarr
That government steer debate around the return of looted assets by setting up a think tank to study the Savoy-Sarr Report. Responsibility for this should be the Ministry of Information and Culture, liaising with all ministries of culture nationwide to look into making contact with relevant stakeholders like religious and traditional institutions, policymakers at the three levels of government.

Part of the recommendation of the Savoy-Sarr Report stated that there should international cultural cooperation with access to research, archives & documentation for people in Africa or in the Diaspora which can bridge the wide gaps between Africa & the West relating & wider preservation of African culture2. To do this government can fund literacy activities within and around the museums in Nigeria and promote them in primary and secondary schools through radio and television discussion programmes.

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Scrap the CBN Creative Industries Financing Initiative, CIFI, 2019
To promote the arts and creativity in Europe and the Americas, governments set up residences and literary villages. Established and up-and-coming writers, sculptors, poets and artists who meet the conditions for these residencies often take advantage of them to produce artistic works that meet requirements set out by the management of the residency or cultural centre. These residencies are mostly free-to-attend and cater to specific programmes and projects linked to cultural development. They do not give payable loans based on an interest like the CBN-CIFI. A good example of how the Nigerian government can take advantage of its huge human capital, especially of its blooming young population, will be with the work of Goethe Institute Nigeria.

In 2019 alone, it organized several cultural programmes for Nigerians. These include the ABC of Project Management (a year-long project), a children and Youth Theatre Workshop, a Story makers workshop, an exhibition of ‘Games and Politics’ accompanied by a supporting Virtual Reality, VR, workshop for journalists, a residency programme for artists and curators and has provided very strong support for local musicians, cultural bugs, African filmmakers. In an interview with Bob MajiriOghene Communications3, When asked what the motivation was for providing a platform for Nigerians free of charge, current director, Friederike Moschel simply said, ‘It’s the people…people working in the cultural scene in Nigeria…there’s so much human energy here4’.

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Other cultural centers run by the diplomatic community in Nigeria include the American corners, the Alliance Francaise, the British Council, and the United States Information Service, USIS. All these centers promote the educational, cultural and artistic sides of their countries and help to empower the Nigerian cultural environment with opportunities for development.

CERLSI, therefore, proposes to the Federal government to scrap the CIFI, and replace it with a sustainable programme which does not give out loans to struggling artists, writers and singers and actors. The CIFI programme has many stringent financial conditions that a struggling artist cannot meet and makes it easy for people not involved in artistic creativity to hijack and exploit for other reasons than the promotion of arts and digital creativity. Part of what the Federal government of Nigeria can do is support the remnant of the surviving artists who have learned the art of creativity from their forebears. Some of them5 say the basic materials6 for the production of the intricate works are expensive, and therefore there is a resort to the use of candle wax instead of the real thing.

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Proposed Sale of the National Arts Theatre
The Nigerian government must take responsibility for running the National Arts Theatre in Lagos. They must not sell it. Such responsibility includes creating a board of governors to include NGOs and to be headed by a respected literary personality. The National Arts Theatre can be a potpourri of literary activity against the broader objective of making it a hub for literary startups and artists.

Return of looted Works of Art.
Let the federal government upgrade existing museums in Nigeria, and especially the one in Benin City, Edo State. Part of the reluctance and excuse from those currently holding on to the looted artworks from Benin City is that there are no facilities in a place worthy of holding these works of art now belonging to the international community. They cite security concerns as well after a heist of some artworks occurred in Nigeria within the past decade.

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Let the Federal Government adopt the returned Abacha loot template of returned loot. With the returned Abacha loot, there was a synergy between Nigeria and the countries where the loot was hidden, the World Bank and international development organisations. There was also Civil Society involvement – traditional and religious leaders, NGOs, academics and educational institutions. With the Savoy-Sarr report already in place, the National Assembly can pass a resolution calling on Mr President to renew a request for the return of looted artworks from Nigeria.

With that request, Nigeria can harmonise efforts in the background seeking the return of looted Nigerian artifacts and seek an MoU with the British and French governments concerning return and safe custody of the looted artworks from Nigeria. With the Abacha loot, the Federal government linked the distribution of the returned $322.5million distribution to Nigerians through already existing programmes – the Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, CCTP. An NGO, the Africa Network for Environment & Economic Justice, ANEEJ7, easily the leader in asset recovery matters in Africa, started a project, the Monitoring of Recovered Assets through Transparency and Accountability, MANTRA. Both programmes, the CCTP and the MANTRA worked together to ensure that the returned Abacha loot found its way back to Nigeria, and into the pockets of Nigerians, considered true owners of the Abacha loot.

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Establish a body of art connoisseurs – to be made up of lawyers, historians, traditional rulers and leaders of religious institutions, youth groups, the Igun artisans and to include curators from the international community. This suggestion came to light from discussions with art connoisseurs8 in Benin City at an event organized by the Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative, CERLSI, over this brief.

Art is life and life is bigger than money and its disbursement or distribution. Therefore, looted Nigerian and African works of Art presently domiciled in museums abroad have to be returned and domiciled exactly where they were forcibly removed from, the palace of the Oba of Benin, OmoN’ObaNedoUkuAkpolokpolo Oba Ewuare II. To do this, there must begin to exist in Nigeria institutional mechanisms that promote the arts and cross-cultural activity in Nigeria. To get this off the ground, the government must establish residencies, scrap its loans program to artists, take full responsibility for running the National Arts Theatre in Nigeria and initiate proceedings leading to full repatriation of looted Artworks from Nigeria.


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