The Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed on Wednesday said that culture is more important to Nigeria than petroleum especially if well preserved and given the value it deserved.
Mohammed made the statement in Lagos when he declared open an exhibition of stolen artifacts recently repatriated from Europe and America.
The exhibition of the no fewer than 150 artifacts was titled “Return of the Lost Treasure.”
Some of the artifacts on exhibition at the National Museum include NoK Terracotta head, Oba Esigie ivory pendant, Plague of One Ozolua Nibarami Eko and the Ogiurho Game Board.
The minister said the country’s diverse cultures had more value than any natural resource including petroleum.
Mohammed, however, said there must be conscious efforts by all stakeholders to appreciate and harness the potential of culture to drive the economy.
“Culture is as important to the economy as petroleum. As a matter of fact, culture is even more important to the economy than petroleum.
“This is because, petroleum is an exhaustive resource. Culture is not, because it is about us as a people,” he said.
The minister said the country’s artifacts were part of our culture as they told our history and represented our way of life.
While saying artifacts had immense economic value, Mohammed called for perception change of the works by Nigerians.
He said a good number of Nigerians erroneously linked artifacts with fetish practices, saying the belief had affected appreciation of the works locally.
He described as ironical that foreigners valued Nigerian artifacts more than Nigerians themselves, hence, why some of them were smuggled out of the country.
Mohammed said the repatriation of some of the most valuable artifacts from the West was cheery news in view of their historical, cultural, social and aesthetic values.
“Als,o the importance of these artifacts as a source of education and an enabler of tourism cannot be over-emphasised.
“Nigerian traditional art, the works of our forefathers bears testimony to skilled craftsmanship, and creative ingenuity of the great dynasties that once existed in our country,” he added.
He said the artifacts, some of which he claimed were centuries old, were repatriated after series of engagements between the government and governments of those countries into which they were smuggled.
He said other stakeholders, as well as international security agencies also helped in the repatriation of the works.
The minister said, but for legal challenges and the fact that some of the works were being hidden in homes abroad, more would have been repatriated.
He however said government was unwavering in efforts at combating the smuggling of artifacts and recovery of stolen ones.
He commended the governments of Switzerland, France, South Africa and the United States for their efforts in helping to repatriate the artifacts from their respective countries.
The minister also commended the Nigeria Customs Service for their efforts at tracking some of the artifacts especially at the borders.
He, however, said illicit trade in stolen artifacts was still a challenge and urged the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to double its effort in checking the trade in the cultural property.
“It is my wish that the commission will begin to look at the means and opportunities to re-invigorate its export and clearance permits operations and even devise other methods of checking the illicit trafficking in cultural property “he said.
The minister said he would liase with the police authorities to see the possibility of creating a special unit to fight trafficking in artefacts.
He also said the ministry would continue to study the cases of trafficking and see how it can domesticate the provisions of UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property.
In his speech, Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Alhaji Yusuf Usman commended the efforts of the minister in the repatriation of the artifacts.
He said the great synergy between the ministry and the repatriation unit in his office helped a great deal in achieving the feat.
Usman said the commission would come up with result oriented strategies to ensure a lid was put on illicit trafficking of artefacts.
In a remark, Chairman of Culture and Tourism of the House of Representatives, Mr Omoregie Ogbeide described the return of the artefacts as a welcome development.
Ogbeide, represented by Rep. Oghene Egoh however urged Nigerians to show more interest in artefacts by visiting museums in the country to learn more about them.
“The return of these artefacts is commendable but Nigerians especially young people should appreciate these artefacts by visiting museums.
“If the works are back in the country and nobody goes to see them at the museum, then what we are celebrating today is nothing more than a carnival “he said.
A culture expert at UNESCO, Prof Folarin Shylon said policing was central to combating trafficking of cultural property.
He, therefore, advocated the setting up of a special unit to fight the menace in the police, saying that is the practice in most advanced countries.