It is now five  months since the issue of looted African terracotta was raised in connection with the exhibition entitled “African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage”, at the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva and brought to the attention of all concerned.  A group of renowned scholars alleged that many of the objects on display had been looted from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

It appeared at that time that some consideration would be given to the matter by those responsible for the preservation and protection of Nigerian cultural heritage. To this day, there has not been any public information, directly or indirectly, that action has been taken or is contemplated. It could well be that one has missed relevant information in the mass media.

This is a matter on which silence is not an available option: either the terracotta on exhibition is looted or it is not. One way or other, the public must be informed about Nigeria’s position.

Nigerian authorities need information

Information from the Nigerian authorities would be helpful in assisting the public to understand the underlying issues and the interests of African States in combating illicit traffic in cultural objects.

In the meanwhile, an article on Nigerian terracotta in the popular German magazine Der Spiegel, gives the impression that Nigerians are not interested in their terracotta which has been left to German and Austrian scholars who, through good relations with a local chief, have access to an area where even Nigerian police authorities dare not venture.  However, we know from reliable Nigerian sources that this is not the case and that the Spiegel article is misleading. But so far the report has not been rejected or corrected. The impression created that Nigeria is not properly organized to protect its cultural artefacts from predatory Westerners and their helpers thus still remains.

*Janus Head, Katsina, Nigeria, now at the Barbier Mueller Museum, Geneva, Switzerland (left) and Spirit vesselMbirhlen’nda, Ga’anda, Nigeria, now in Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, Switzerland

Is this a case where one language is used when dealing with African collaborators but for the general public, an entirely different language is used which creates different, often misleading, impressions? If we look at the Spiegel article, we could think only the Germans and Austrians were interested in Nok culture and the puzzles it presents. Nigerians are totally absent from the article. Not even a mention of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments can be found. Moreover, the Nigerian Police is presented as not having the right or ability to visit the area which is described as being under the tight control of a local potentate on friendly terms with the Europeans.

Do we have here the familiar pattern where Africans lead Europeans to the source of the river or the mountain and are perhaps materially compensated for their efforts? But who turns out to be the discoverer of the river or the mountain? Whose name is forever linked to the discovery? Recognition in scientific publications is not enough. How many people read such publications? Unless Africans insist energetically, loudly and openly for equal general public recognition in such enterprises, this game will go on forever. Even if such projects were financed by European entities this should not lead to their complete control over the projects and the dissemination of information thereon.

In the context of the present dispute over looted Nigerian terracotta, we recall the 2002 case of the Nigerian Nok terracotta which were looted and eventually turned up at the Musée de Quai Branly, Paris. The French had bought the three Nok and Sokoto terracotta knowing fully well that they must have been looted and illegally exported from Nigeria since the objects were on the Red List of International Council of Museums (ICOM).

The intervention of ICOM was necessary to preserve  Nigeria’s ownership of the terracotta. The arrangement between Nigeria and France to loan the artefacts for a renewable period of 25 years raised doubts and scepticism about the will to enforce the observance of laws prohibiting illicit traffic in artefacts.  Moreover, the text of the curious agreement does not appear to have been published.

How would the lack of vigorous public reaction by Nigerian authorities to the display of alleged looted Nigerian terra cotta be interpreted?

The scholars who protested against the exhibition of looted objects in Geneva would probably feel that their identification of the stolen artefacts is not very important for the Nigerian authorities who do not intend to act on their research and information. They may thus feel discouraged from pursuing in future such active identification of stolen/looted artefacts.

Artefacts looters  may continue unless..

Looters of the artefacts could understand that they may continue with their activities so long as they are not caught red-handed with the objects since the Nigerian authorities will not pursue investigations on the basis of the objects successfully deposited in Switzerland and other Western countries. Museums in those States may well be reinforced in their mendacious and self-serving propaganda that they are rendering a service to art and humankind by purchasing those objects. They persistently refuse to acknowledge that by offering a lucrative market for looted objects they maintain and sustain, directly or indirectly, illegal traffic in cultural objects.

The Nigerian public could well understand that even though Nigeria has laws against looting of cultural artefacts, there is no intention on the part of the authorities to deprive anyone of earnings acquired from the illicit trade.

Members of the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM may gain the impression that despite all statements and declarations to the contrary, Nigeria’s commitment to the fight against illicit traffic in artefacts is only lip-service with no serious intention to achieve effective implementation of the various laws and regulations. Some may argue that actions speak louder than words. Professor Shyllon has written that:

“It is a matter of surprise indeed that to date Nigeria which at various times served on the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (she was in fact a foundation member of the Committee)has never sought the good offices of the Committee or the  general public in the rest of the world may well conclude that the Nigerian authorities are not very keen to seek the return of looted artefacts. Usually, it is very difficult to know where looted objects are and who is in possession.

It is seldom that we have many such objects displayed in an exhibition and in its catalogue. A lack of interest or passivity must necessarily discourage those interested in assisting in more complicated situations. As has been amply demonstrated in public opinions polls, for example in Great Britain, the general public is in favour of returning looted objects or objects acquired under dubious circumstances.  Interested States must encourage or at least, not discourage this sympathetic public.

In his excellent article on the Benin invasion by Britain, Prof. Akin Oyebode mentioned Zik’s reference to the “manifest destiny” of Nigeria.  This was a phrase used often in the days preceding and following Independence. In those days, the average school pupil understood that given its size, resources, both human and natural, that great country was destined to play an important role on our continent and thus contribute to shaping the world and the future of the African peoples.

But this manifest destiny would not be fulfilled if those in charge of the administration and governance of the country do not create the conditions propitious for the fulfilment of this potential. ‘Manifest destiny’ is a potentiality and not inevitability. It is a potentiality that must be cultivated and nurtured. How is Nigeria to play its role, manifest or otherwise, if its rich cultural heritage is seen to be open to pray by all and no attempts are made to convey the message that its cultural heritage is not up for grabs by predators?

A great nation with a rich and old cultural heritage that does not care about protection and preservation? Failure to demonstrate a resolve to preserve cultural heritage has wider implications. Not only does such a position lead to an enormous loss of prestige but also to great financial losses in so far as these objects are worth millions. It is also likely that failure or unwillingness to protect cultural heritage may be considered a symptom of general failure to protect national interests in other areas.

The will and resolve to protect Nigerian cultural heritage in particular and Nigerian interests generally, must be emphasized and demonstrated in all cases in order to imprint the message on the minds of all. Nigeria’s cultural heritage belongs to Nigeria and it is intended to keep it that way.

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