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Returning Africa’s looted artifacts from Europe

By Patrick Dele Cole
18 September 2022   |   2:53 am
One of the unintended consequences of Colonialism is the study of the social and political history of the colonized and the cultural preservation of a sizeable number of the artifacts

One of the unintended consequences of Colonialism is the study of the social and political history of the colonized and the cultural preservation of a sizeable number of the artifacts of Africa.

Many of these artifacts were if we use the modern parlance looted and taken to Europe where they adorn nearly all the European museums and quite a few of the heritage domains of the colonialists. To that extent, the best place to study and see the wondrous art of Africa is no longer in Africa but in Europe.

The Europeans were following a well-trodden path that began perhaps during the Greek and Roman Empires of carrying the booty of conquered people back to their own countries thus a sizeable number of Egyptian ancient treasures ended up in Rome, Paris, and the United Kingdom. Napoleon, for example, carried away to Paris the famous Egyptian Obelix. The museums in France are full of looted items from Italy. The recent controversy over the Elgin marbles originally owned by Greece but looted by Lord Elgin who took them to Britain and to the British Museum.

Another unintended consequence of Colonialism was the study and compilation of the social political and cultural histories of the conquered and colonized people usually compiled under the rubric of intelligence reports. No one pretends that these intelligence reports were accurate or truly depict the social values, history and habits of the colonized people. What it did do was the explosion in the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. Thus, a large body of what is known in ancient Egypt comes from these studies. Similarly, the pursuit of original men and their evolution is also from the seminal works of the Blakey Brothers in East Africa. Margaret Meades groundbreaking studies in Micro Polynesia are also an indirect result of colonialism.

In India, where writing even preceded Europe, there are magnificent histories and artifacts of the various powerful Maharajas. In some places, the palaces of the Maharajas were stripped, and irreplaceable artifacts were taken to Europe. Even the deplorable caste system of untouchables was again faithfully recorded in various intelligence reports and East India Company missives.

With the advent of democracy and its spread throughout the world, a new demand that all these looted or stolen or bought artifacts now adorning Europe should return to their places of origin. For Nigeria in particular, the struggle for the return of quintessential Benin, Ife, Lokoja, Igboukwu and a host of others back to Nigeria. The good intentions of the proponents of this move cannot be impugned. Good Africa art should be located in Africa. And in these days of 3D printing, it is possible to replicate the originals and display those in museums in Europe while the originals came back to their native land.

On the face of it, this is a worthy cause. In France, two presidents were known to have the biggest Africa art collection. President Mitterrand and President Jack Chirac. It would seem that these two presidents were shamed into accepting the moral argument that these works of art do not belong to France. In pursuit of their acceptance in principle to return these artifacts to Africa, I was sent to negotiate the repatriation of these artifacts. President Chirac though visibly pained by the decision expressed a fear that there was nothing in any of the African countries which approximated to the care and attention given these objects in France. He agreed to the return of these artifacts but pleaded that he would do so at the end of his presidency. He also raised the intractable problem of what we Africans would do to retrieve the thousands of essential African arts in private hands most of which we have no idea of their provenance. My reply was that we would cross that bridge when we get there but at the moment, we would take what we can see and hope that public opinion will rise to keep this issue in the front burner.

So what will we do with these objects of art when they return to Nigeria? Who owns them, where will they be displayed and how will they be displayed? The people of Benin rightfully made a claim that the Benin Ivory face and other famous Benin sculptures should return to Benin, but the Benin culture was so pervasive it extended from Benin westward to the borders in Togo. It made significant stops in Lagos, Ile-life, and nearly all present-day Delta. The staff of office for example which Benin usually sent out to a rising King say in Lagos or Dahomey or in Ode Itshekiri, who owns that? The famous Nok culture, where would we place that.

Do we really have the political will matched by resources to look after these priceless objects of art? The department of antiquities which is responsible for our museums is a disgrace if not completely comatose. While I was busy struggling in France to get these objects back, the massive new offices being built for the national museum, in Onikan, King George V, St. in Lagos had been sold and is now a shopping mall. The land behind that particular building that belonged to the Nigerian museum was vandalized and sold and is now the site of a massive car park opposite the Yoruba Tennis Club.

Do we really have the right to bring these massive historical irreplaceable works of art to a people who will by their very action have showed contempt for museums and artifacts? What preparations are being made to receive these priceless pieces which must be kept at a certain temperature and looked after with loving care so that they continue to exist for posterity? Will they not be stolen and sold back to rich Arabs or Europeans? Where are the trained archaeologists and master restorers employed to do the job of preserving these arts? These are questions that need and must be answered before going to pick up objects of art that if not properly kept will disintegrate irreplaceably.

I do not see the political will beyond the chest-beating proclamation that this is our art and it should come back. Come back to do what? Are the curricula of our schools sensitive to visits to museums which depict our history? Will these art objects be turned to the department of antiquities or to the various kingdoms to which they were originally looted?

London will return 72 artifacts, including the famous Benin bronzes, perhaps some of the most remarkable artifacts in the history of Art after the British Museum succumbed to pressure to return looted art to Nigeria.

The British have eased their conscience on this issue by the common belief that these objects were looted from Nigeria in 1897. But 72 artifacts is a small drop in the scale of the loot of Benin, estimated to be over 10,000. This information I gleaned from the excellent book The British Museums by Prof. Dan Hicks, given to me by former Guinness Managing Director, Keith Richards. It is estimated that these 10,000 items are held in 165 museums throughout the world. Germany has even gone further by committing to return over 1,100 items. If Germany will return 1,100, then Belgium which looted more than both UK and Germany must be in their thousands, so far Belgium had made no commitment and no one is holding them to account.

Nothing is going to arrive in Nigeria before 2025 when the Edo Museum of West African art will be ready. This may be a beginning but a country with a kleptomaniac political imprint, and without any strong commitment to history and to art may not be ready for any monumental change.

I know it’s unpopular to ask these difficult questions but they must be answered and preparations made for their proper upkeep.

Dr. Patrick Dele Cole (OFR) is Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Brazil and Argentina