By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
Nigeria, through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture yesterday in Lagos launched a campaign for the return and restitution of Nigeria’s cultural property from around the world.
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Speaking at a press conference held to announce the campaign, the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said with this announcement, Nigeria is putting on notice all those who are holding on to her cultural property anywhere in the world that she is coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.
“We are under no illusion that this will be an easy task,” the Minister said, “but no one should doubt our determination to make a success of this campaign. We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past.
The Minister pre-empted some cynics who might wonder what is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that would warrant the launch of a campaign to return or restitute them. “Our answer is simple: These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history,” said the Minister.
He said it is unfair that those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are making nothing out of those artifacts.
“Of course, as you all know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play. How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others who describe them as their properties? The Minister asked.
Alhaji Mohammed said the campaign is strengthened by Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region meeting in December 2018 in Abuja, in which they adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. “We are bound by this Declaration, which has further brought discussions towards a Plan of Action.”
The minister commended the work of the discussion group, ‘Benin Dialogue Group’, which is working to resolve this issue. He also noted some positive steps taken by some countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, on this issue, saying “but those are yet small steps.”
Alhaji Mohammed also alluded to what he described as the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of antiquities in war time in the 19th century, when most of these antiquities were looted, saying Nigerians will not will not be deterred by such arguments. “We will not agree that our claims are statute barred. We will also not be swayed by the insulting argument that Nigeria, and Africa in general, does not have places to keep the antiquities. After all we kept them somewhere before they were looted. If those who make that argument so desire, they can join us to build more museums that will house such returned antiquities,” he said.