‘I thank President Buhari for insisting stolen artifacts should be returned to their places of origin’
HRH, Prince Edun Akenzua is the Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa dukedom and a scion of the Benin Royal Family. In this interview with MICHAEL EGBEJULE in Benin, he reminisces on the journey for the repatriation of the looted Benin artworks by the invading British troop in 1897; the return of two artworks by Dr. Walker to Oba Erediauwa of blessed memory in 2014 and the return of the cockerel by the Jesus College, Cambridge University, London and the head of Oba (Benin King) removed from ancestral shrine by the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
You were involved in the struggle for the repatriation of stolen Benin artifacts, how do you feel today?
Let me start by congratulating Omo n’ Oba, Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II on his hosting of guests on Monday, December 13, 2021. It is in his reign that the Federal Government made a pronouncement for the first time, on the desirability of returning Nigeria’s artifacts that were looted from their makers and owners more than a hundred years ago. The Oba spent energy and resources to ensure that the reception was successful.
The Oba heartily and warmly thanked the President, Alhaji Muhammdu Buhari, for saying the artifacts will be sent to the Oba and those from other parts of Nigeria to be returned to their places of origin. I join the Oba to thank the President; he is the first President to ever publicly speak in that tone and concept.
Military Head of State, Gen. lbrahim Babagida, set up Africa Reparation Movement and named Alhaji M.K.O. Abiola of Blessed memory as Chairman. Although the movement’ included the repatriation of the Africa’s looted artwork, he did not go the whole hog or make public demand, as President Buhari has now made. MKO, in his characteristics manner, worked doggedly to ensure that the looted artworks were returned.
MKO established the United Kingdom and European branch of the movement in London and named Bernie Grant of Blessed Memory, Member of the British Parliament as Chairman. I have had the privilege of collaborating with Bernie Grant on the same course for about five years. We were to jointly present a paper to the House of Commons in 1920; may his soul rest in peace.
Talking about the Cockerel, which has now ben returned, how much do you know about it?
I know about the Cockerel. A journalist whose name is Colin Freeman and writing for The Telegraph of London, came to interview me in 2016, five years ago. His article was published in The Telegraph on October 8, 2016. That was when the students union of Jesus College, Cambridge University, England, protested that the Cockerel must be removed from where it was mounted.
Students of Oriel College, Oxford University, also demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the college. The students demanded the removal of the Cockerel from the University, because they said its presence there reminded them of British Colonialism and its inhumanity to the colonised people.
A controversial campaign to return a bronze cockerel held at Cambridge University to Nigeria has gained pace after the intervention of the great grandson of the King from whom it was stolen by Victorian explorers. The cockerel, which has resided in Jesus College since 1930, was removed from public view in March, after protests from students that it celebrated a ‘colonial narrative.’
The protests came in the wake of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign to remove the status of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th century colonialist, from Oxford’s Oriel College. Having removed the cockerel from display in the college’s main hall, dons at Jesus College were now agonising over whether to bow to the students’ demand for the further step of repatriating it to Nigeria. ‘It is like tracking down a thief who has stolen your car, only for him to tell you that you can’t have it back, because there is a risk it might get stolen again.
It is something I have been campaigning for myself for many years without much success. So, it’s about time these statues came home to their original owners.
Do you subscribe to the agreement signed at the Oba’s Palace upon the return of the two artifacts?
I have not seen the agreement signed. I was told five persons signed, including Nigeria’s High Commissioner to London. I was told the High Commissioner said that was how they do it over there.
I wonder why a person who is being given back his stolen property may sign an agreement or MOU? It is ludicrous that a person, whose stolen property is being returned, is made to sign an agreement or an MOU before the stolen goods are returned to the owner. It is colonialism hangover. For the Federal Government to fall for that ruse or scam make itself a neo-colonialist. A simple letter of acknowledgement would have sufficed. I cannot comment much on this because, as I said, I have not seen or read the agreement signed.
What is the bond between yourself and the Benin Royal Palace?
Oba Erediauwa was my brother. We were born of the same mother. Oba Ewuare II is his son, therefore my biological nephew. In our custom in Benin, Oba is the traditional father of every Benin person, including uncles, aunties and cousins.
You talk about MP Bernie Grant, where did your paths cross?
My brother, Omo N’ Oba Erediauwa set up a committee in 1986, which he named Benin Centenary Committee. The committee was to organise and execute the commemoration of British invasion of Benin in 1897. The Oba named me chairman of the Committee.
In that capacity, some members of the committee and myself, travelled to the United Kingdom, Europe and places where the looted bronze and elephant tusk works were domiciled. It was then I met MP Bernie Grant with whom we carried on the campaign for the return of the looted cultural properties.
Which of the artifacts were returned during and the reign of Oba Akenzua II, and Oba Erediauwa?
A British medical doctor, Dr. Walker returned two bronze works, Ahiamwen Oro and a Gong on June 20, 2014, to Oba Erediauwa. Dr. Walker’s grandfather was an intelligence officer, a major in the British troops that invaded Benin in 1897. Their Commander allowed the officers to take any of the items that they fancied as a memento. Major Walker took the bird and the gong, which passed on to his daughter, Dr. Walker’s mother, to his grandson. The story and return of the bronze works make an interesting reading.
The doctor did not have a pathological love for the items as his grandfather. Being a professional man, he was also not money driven like most people. He saw how his grandfather ‘worshiped’ the items. One day, it just got into his mind that if his grandfather doted on the object that much, how much will the owners from whom they were looted dote on them? He made up his mind to return them to the owners. Then, the drama began.
He had heard of my campaigns for the Benin bronzes returned. He got in touch with someone who knew some Benin persons in London. They finally got in touch with me through my daughter, Vivian.
I called Engineer Uwoghiren who is the Odionwere of the Binis in the UK and urged them to go to the Nigeria House and see the High Commissioner, Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida and that I will speak to him and request him to facilitate the process by giving Dr. Walker and his team, the Nigerian Visa. They saw Dr. Tafida; he was very excited to hear from me that Dr. Walker was bringing the item to the Oba free and he was charging nothing. Dr. Tafida then offered to give them tickets along with Visas.
By coincidence, the Minister of Culture and the then Director General of Nigeria Council for Museum and Monuments, NCMM, visited London. The High Commissioner was at the airport to pick them up. Back in his office in Nigeria House and still excited by Dr. Walker’s gesture, he told the Minister of what the English man planned to do and how he (Dr. Dalhatu) offered to give them ticket to travel to Benin.
The DG told the High Commissioner to route the trip to Abuja so that they hand the items to the President. They called me from London and told me of the development. Dr. Walker said they would rather come to Benin, because his grandfather got the items from Benin.
What a sense of history!
Surprisingly, the Minister told the Commissioner that if Dr. Walker will not go to Abuja, the High Commission should not issue the tickets. Just a few days to their flight schedule, they were told the High Commission would no longer issue them flight tickets. I called the immediate past Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole. He said, ‘don’t worry, your Royal Highness, I will send them tickets.’
He gave me the name and address of the State’s travel agent in Lagos and asked me to send Dr. Walker’s name and the other three members of his team to the agent. The former Edo State Governor called the agent and graciously told him to give the four of them first class tickets to Benin.
Is it apt to use the word ‘loot’ or ‘stolen’ in describing what the British did after the war in 1897? Did the British troops not simply take away the spoils of war?
The war lasted twelve days. When Benin fell, the British meticulously searched for the bronzes and ivories, which they carted away; they were about four thousand pieces. After that, they torched the city, including the Palace; we have a copy of Capt. Philips letter.
The second reason is this. When Dr. Walker brought back the Ahianmwen Oro and the Gong, they also brought a diary, which his great grandfather kept during the war in 1897. I told you earlier that his grandfather was a Major, One Star General in the army that fought in Benin. The diary was kept and written by the Major and contained photographs of Benin and the war, which he personally took. Under two of the pictures, he captioned ‘loot’ and ‘more loot.’ Those captions show that the British knew in 1897 that they were looting. He brought two replicas of the diary; he presented one to the Oba and he gave one to me.
How possible was the conquest expected to end in favour Benin Kingdom when British troops fought with artillery guns, rocket and rocket launchers, and maxims against Benin troops armed with only bows and arrows and powerful charms?
Before the 1897 war, Capt. Philip who was the Assistant British Consul in the so-called Protectorate of Benin had written to the British Home Office, urging them to remove King Ovonramwen from his throne so that British Companies in Benin such as Millar Brothers will have access to trade. Their main interest was Palm Oil, which the British needed to prop up their Industrial Revolution.
He told the British government that they did not have to worry about the cost of the war because they would find sufficient ivory and elephant tusk works whose value would compensate for the cost of the war.