Nigerian royals have welcomed moves at Britain’s Cambridge University to return a bronze cockerel stolen with other artifacts during colonialist looting in the 19th century.
Jesus College earlier this month said it was taking down the statue, known as R, pillaged from the former kingdom of Benin and was looking at the possibility of its repatriation.
The move followed a student protest and came as their counterparts at Oxford University mounted a campaign to remove a statue of British imperialist and donor Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.
The kingdom of Benin was one of the greatest and richest in West Africa and at its height extended as far as modern-day Ghana.
The younger brother of the Oba (king) of Benin, Prince Edun Akenzua, described the cockerel’s removal as a “welcome development”.
“We knew we have this kind of thing in Cambridge and we have always called for its return and the other 3,500 to 4,000 artefacts carted away during the 1897 invasion of the palace.
“We commend the initiative of the Cambridge students. They have done what they should do.
“We appeal to European countries to return our cultural properties dotting museums and galleries in London, Paris, Berlin and other cities around the world,” he said
‘Pages of our history’
The tale of the artifacts began when nine British officers were killed while on a trade mission to the then-independent kingdom of Benin in 1897.
The British reaction was fierce, leaving several thousand local people dead as the city set ablaze and forcing the Oba into exile as his palace was looted.
Hundreds of artworks were removed, including the Benin Bronzes, which showed highly decorative images of the Oba and his courtiers from centuries earlier.
In June 2014, two statues were returned to the palace by a British retired medical consultant whose grandfather was involved in the original invasion.
The statues were presented to the current Oba, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, at a colourful ceremony in the city.
Nigerian calls for the repatriation of all the bronzes was reignited when the Cambridge students urged the cockerel to be removed from Jesus College’s main hall.
The protesters called the sculpture, which was donated to the college in 1929, a celebration of Britain’s racist and colonial past.
Some academics and historians criticised the students, saying they had “declared war on the past”.
Prince Akenzua, who is also known as the Enogie of Obazuwa, said replicas of the stolen treasures could be made for foreign museums should they still be wanted for display.
But the originals would be better appreciated at home rather than abroad, calling them “pages of our history”.
The issue of the repatriation of looted treasures and compensation was raised in the early 1990s, when former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida set up his African Repatriation Movement.
But the organisation made little headway before Babangida left office.
– Preservation –
A senior official of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Benin City, who asked not to be identified, said Nigeria would use “whatever means possible” to get back the art.
“We will enter into negotiation with museums, private and public institutions where these works are kept so that we can have them back,” he added.
James Ezomo, a member of the Oba’s court, however, doubted whether locals would be able to preserve the artefacts once they were returned.
“In as much as I want those works back, my fear is whether we will be able to maintain them as priceless treasures,” he said.
“The white people are using technology to preserve the works and I don’t think we have the wherewithal to do the same here.”
But Prince Akenzua disagreed: “If a man stole my car and admitted that he stole it and returned it to me, what is his business whether I have a garage or not to keep the car?
“These artefacts belong to our ancestors. They must be returned to us. It’s nobody’s business how we preserve them.”