By YUSUF ABDALLAH USMAN
A very large number of Nigeria’s priceless artefacts left Nigeria’s shores long before the country came into being as an independent nation. The high point was the infamous assault on Benin in 1897. Dispossessing Nigerians of their heritage went on throughout the period of colonial domination and more recently it has been rearing its ugly head through looting of heritage archaeological sites and museums.
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, the organ charged with the responsibility of preserving Nigeria’s antiquities considers the return of all these objects an issue of paramount importance that is why it is paying quality attention to it including setting up of a special unit to handle it.
It must be stated however, that since 1996 thefts of antiquities have not been recorded from National Museums collections. So the claim that the recently intercepted terracotta pieces in US were stolen from National Museum Lagos is absolutely false.
No object has been stolen from any Nigeria museum since the last series of burglaries in the early 1990s. Even then, Lagos museum was not involved and all the stolen pieces were put on ICOM red list. Indeed many of them have since been recovered and returned to the museums.
The looting of heritage archaeological sites and Museums has been an age-long and world-wide problem. In Nigeria the problem reached epidemic proportions in the 1990s when Nok and North-western Nigeria’s (Kwatarkwoshi) archaeological sites were massively raped and ripped of their priceless objects. These objects were spread throughout Western Europe and the USA illustrating the devastating scale of the problem.
While the problem abated in the beginning of the new millennium, recent field studies indicate that it has not fully stopped.
At the onset of the present Management of the NCMM in 2009 under the leadership of Yusuf Abdallah Usman, the issue of looting of archaeological sites by illegal diggers reduced due to the use of a multi-pronged approach. Within the last three years the Commission has embarked on several sensitization programmes involving law enforcement agencies,media, local community and traditional rulers at Abuja and Kaduna and also in the rural areas especially at Nok and Janjala. In the meantime , approval to employ six hundred security and crafts men to police our heritage site is awaiting cash backing from the budget office.
From the legal perspective, the Commission has made substantial progress in her bid to review her laws with a view to tightening the loose ends against the smuggling of antiquities.This review will give the Commission the power to the unequivocal proclamation that all antiquities buried under the ground are the properties of the Federal Government of Nigeria. It will also make it possible for the Commission’s Antiquities Inspectors to search and arrest, with or without warrant, malefactors. The Commission will equally be endowed through provisions in the reviewed law with the power of prosecuting offenders.
The Commission has some registered antiquity vendors who bring objects to it for acquisition. Through them, the Commission has acquired very good and invaluable objects. However, in recent times due to dwindling financial resources the Commission has been unable to pay as at when due.
When the vendors bring in these antiquities the Commission is obliged by its Act to collect them even when it does not readily have funds to pay compensation, for the simple reason that these are the heritage of the nation and so cannot be allowed to remain outside the protection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
We are currently dialoguing with the vendors with a view to finding means of compensating them. Thus we are seeking intervention funds from the Federal Government to enable us defray the debt owed them in order to prevent the objects from being sold to foreigners and private collectors.
It is important to note that the issue of purchase of Antiquities is of prime importance to the nation. Meanwhile, we appreciate the understanding and patience of the vendors who are helping us to continually increase the number of our collections besides other means of acquisition such as: field collection, donations, seizures and restitution.
It is pertinent to note that objects taken out of their archaeological context have little significance to social and historical reconstruction. Accordingly we try to regulate the activities of these vendors in order to balance curatorial needs with scientific archaeological considerations.
In the meantime the Commission in pursuing restitution and return, has adopted approaches that are firmly anchored within the framework of the foreign policy direction of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is principally dialogue rather than undue combativeness.
These efforts at dialoguing have brought us into discussions with nations, particularly our West African neighbours through the auspices of ECOWAS. This is necessary because most smuggled artefacts are taken out through the borders we share with these nations.