By Prisca Sam-Duru
As Nigeria’s Federal Government enters the fray for the custody of the yet-to-be-returned Benin artifacts, the contest takes a new dramatic turn, writes Prisca Sam-Duru
The promise by Germany to return Bini bronzes stolen from Nigeria during colonisation of Africa, by 2022, may well serve as the needed push that’ll spur other countries to act in like manner.
Germany had agreed to return hundreds of the priceless artifacts looted from Nigeria by colonial masters in Africa in 1897, with the first returns, expected to take place in August 2022. For art and culture advocates, Benin Kingdom and indeed, the entire country, this calls for celebration but so far, what `we’ve seen is a transition from convulsive pressure to return our stolen heritage, to controversies concerning their final destination once they touch down in Nigeria. The controversies trailing the cheery news of such feat recorded after decades of demand for restoration and restitution of the artifacts may well be confirming the trepidations of foreign experts about what happens to the works after their return.
During her visit to Nigeria in February 2020, Dr Clementine Deliss, a curator, publisher, and cultural historian, said, no doubt, the artifacts are necessary for the original owners as they’ll trigger a sense of history. She, however, worried about what happens to the artifacts, after restitutions have been made.
One of the looters’ arguments as disclosed by Deliss, was that Nigeria does not have the expertise and technology to conserve the works when returned. But one of the guests in the event where she spoke, assured her that Nigeria has the ability to receive the artefacts, as the world class museum at the Pan Atlantic University was ready for the works.
In the case of the Bini bronzes to be returned by Germany, it is viewed as the property of the Benin Kingdom which is why the disagreement concerning who takes custody of the works has been between the Edo state governor and the Oba of Benin, His Royal Majesty, Oba Ewuare II. Disappointingly, both the Oba and the state governor are still talking about establishing a suitable abode for the artifacts with August 2022, just by the corner.
Governor Obaseki had disclosed that he was “working on a tripartite arrangement, involving the federal and state governments, the Oba of Benin, and a private trust that would manage the artifacts on behalf of the palace and the people”. The establishment according to his plan, would be known as the “Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA), using Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd as a vehicle to receive the stolen artifacts.”
In a swift reaction, the Benin Monarch, Oba Ewuare II, rejected the possibility of handing over the stolen historical Benin artifacts to any other organization, individuals, or agency of whatever guise.
Oba Ewuare, while rejecting the plan, noted that “demands for the stolen items predate the emergence of this administration”. He further called on the Federal Government to take custody of the artifacts on behalf of the Palace until the Benin Royal Museum is ready for their collection, warning that under no condition should custody of the artifacts be given to any “privately contrived entity like the Legacy Restoration Trust”.
Following the Oba’s position on the matter, Governor Obaseki was said to have insisted that his intention has been to work with the Oba of Benin in an arrangement that would be led by the federal government. He, however, accused a palace chief of misinforming the revered monarch about his plans, promising to straighten things out with the Benin Monarch.
In an earlier statement, the Oba of Benin advised Obaseki, to “review his approach of using the private vehicle of the Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd and the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) and to see how he can genuinely collaborate with the Oba Palace in accordance with our original understanding”.
Oba Ewuare II further said that he had agreed with the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki to house the artifacts in a palace museum and that the controversy around it was absolutely not necessary. The Oba perceiving that Obaseki could be manipulated, asked that prayers be made on his behalf, “…because it seems there are some unscrupulous people behind this arrangement, who might be doing it for financial gain.”
The governor’s response in which he advised that under no circumstance should anyone whether in government or acting independently should abuse the Monarch or engage in “disrespectful exchanges” over the soon-to-be-returned artifacts, portrays the high regard he has for the Monarch as well as the fact that there’ll be no showdown between the duo after all.
Now, it appears the plea of Oba Ewuare has rather been heeded in the extreme. The Federal Government of Nigeria last Saturday asserted itself as the rightful entity to take possession of both the returned and yet-to-be returned stolen Benin artifacts. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, disclosed the Federal Government’s intention at a press conference in Lagos.
The minister said the return of the artifacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany, and that Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.
“The Federal Government,” Lai Mohammed said, “is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany. Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artifacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany. Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.”
The minister said that the relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups. “For example,” he said, “the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its article 1, defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation. This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property.”
A good number of people have posited that it’s best to leave the artifacts in countries where they’re being kept, while the hosts pay royalties to Nigeria instead of bringing them home where maintenance culture is at its lows. From an economic point of view, keeping the artifacts in European museums could actually be most viable. But many other individuals counter that opinion with the cultural and historical implications of the continued keeping of the works in Europe; which is also quite understandable.
And so, rather than engage in arguments over who takes over custody of the artifacts once they’re brought back, the most important issue should be whether they’ll be properly preserved. From reports, the artifacts have not lost their original value by reason of expert handling in the museums that have kept them. It is therefore the duty of the relevant authorities in Nigeria to ensure the adequate preservation and protection of these Bini bronzes which are among the most recognised cultural pieces on the continent and beyond.
The emphasis should not just be about preservation but very importantly, protection of the artifacts to ensure that some unscrupulous elements even in government, do not arrange a second ‘looting’ of the artifacts.