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Antiquities trade in Nigeria: Looting in the midst of crisis

By Samarkeolog

African nations’ cultural objects have been harvested by foreign powers; attacked by religious movements and political factions; and, sometimes under duress, reduced to commodities and sacrificed for subsistence or survival. Still now, Nigerian ‘archaeological sites’ are ‘daily looted’ ; as Neil Brodie observed, nearly half of the objects on the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) list of African ‘cultural goods most affected by looting and theft ‘ are Nigerian artefacts. In this post, Samarkeolog outlines the nature of the illicit trade in Nigerian antiquities, and of the struggle against that trade.

Smashing and stealing: colonial plunderers, religious zealots, political activists and modern pirates

Africa During the colonial period, a ‘priceless portion’ of the cultural heritage of many oppressed peoples was ‘robbed’, ‘plunder[ed]‘, ‘despoiled’ . Simultaneously, foreign, “civilising missions” destroyed non-Christian ritual objects.

After independence, ‘greed[y]‘ ‘modern pirates‘ continued to plunder vulnerable cultural heritage sites around the world; and they continued to indulge in ‘large-scale theft and pillaging‘ at African archaeological sites, monuments and museums.

And alongside the chronic problem of theft, there have been programmes of destruction – for instance, the Apartheid regime’s ‘war and destabilization’/’total strategy’ against guerrilla resistance, which involved destruction of churches, mosques and villages.

*Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

Nigeria

In Nigeria, local community Muslim iconoclasts have smashed idols, and looted for non-ideological profit. Primarily African Christian evangelists have smashed cultural objects (indeed, one evangelist leader, Uma Ukpai, ‘has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone’); and they have committed pillage-as-sacrilege. In addition to these activities, communities have been gouged by economic forces; they have been forced to tear their archaeological heritage out of the ground and sell it in order to subsist.

This family-splitting mess of motives and acts has happened in the context of ten coups and military junta rule between 1966 and 1979, and 1983 and 1998; and it is now happening in the context of a ‘war‘ between the secular state and Islamist militants striving to establish a Shari’ah state.

Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (whose name means “Western Education is Sinful”) have ‘claimed responsibility for bombing churches‘; Nigerian security forces have burned villages, and police have chosen not to stop other violence. In disturbances tied to elections, political factions have burned down churches and mosques.

An example of colonial plunder: the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition

The looting of (now-)Nigerian antiquities began long before the birth of the independent Federation of Nigeria in 1960. In 1897, British rogue agents ignored requests and warnings not to interrupt a religious festival, and tried to plan an unauthorised invasion of the Kingdom of Benin to depose the king (Oba).

The agents ‘hope[d] that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool’. But the rogue force was literally stopped dead in its tracks. On the 4th of January, tribal chiefs ‘defied‘ the Oba’s orders and committed the Benin Massacre (of 9 British officers and 250 African mercenaries).

Then, Britain decided to retaliate against the Kingdom of Benin for its insubordinate chiefs’ massacre of Britain’s insubordinate and aggressive soldiers. On the 10th of February, the British Admiralty sent British Marines and Niger Coast Protectorate troops on the Benin Punitive Expedition, to burn down and demolish Benin’s villages, its (religious) Juju houses and its (royal) palace; and to loot its cultural property, to pillage blood antiquities.

The conquest of Benin City began on the 18th of February; and, on the 21st, they ‘torched the city and burnt down practically every house’. British Marines plundered 900-1,000 ‘bronze plaques‘ (actually, brass plaques) from the king’s palace; and, in total (including other bronze, iron, ivory and wooden artefacts), they looted at least nearly 2,500, reportedly more than 3,000, pieces of cultural property. Absurdly, the plundered property was auctioned in Paris to cover the cost of its plunder; and the material is now scattered across Europe and North America.(1)

There are hints that the power relationship between Nigeria and market countries prevents Nigeria recovering its property from self-identified universal museums, which can provide or withhold programmes of capacity-building (for the preservation of cultural heritage still in Nigeria).

An example of museum robbery(?): ten terracottas and a piece of carved ivory

At least up until the 1990s, Nigerian museums had no alarms and no insurance, as well as impoverished employees. Thieves and a less-than-$3-a-day-waged museum guard took 200 million (perhaps 250 million) dollars’ worth of artefacts from the National Museum in Ile-Ife in a single heist; and it was robbed repeatedly. Thieves have ‘viciously attacked‘ and even ‘killed‘ museum staff.


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