July 31, 2022

BENIN ARTEFACTS: Row over new home

Benin bronzes

By Ozioruva Aliu

There have been some quiet in Benin Kingdom since February over the ownership of the stolen Benin artworks when the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Ewuare II, took physical possession of two artefacts returned by Jesuit College of Cambridge University and the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The returned items were a cockerel (Okpa) and Uhunwun Elao (Oba Head) and they were returned 125 years after they had been looted.

At an elaborate ceremony to receive the items, Oba Ewuare II said the artefacts are part of the cultural and spiritual life of the people of Benin hence his great grandfather, Oba Eweka II, immediately began the moves to retrieve the items now scattered across the world when he ascended the throne after the death of his father, Oba Ovonranmwen, in Calabar in 1914. The artworks were looted in 1897 during the British invasion of the Kingdom.

But last Thursday, a new controversy was stoked when Governor Godwin Obaseki unveiled Phase One of the Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) in Benin-City where he said there was no dispute between the state government and the palace of the Oba of Benin over the return of the artefacts.

There had been controversy on where the items to be returned are to be housed. Apart from the two already back, more are expected from Germany.

The Oba of Benin had said that there is no dispute over the ownership of the items and that where they should be returned shouldn’t be a dispute either, as he said he had proposed a Benin Royal Museum to be built in front of the palace where tourists can visit anytime of the year.

This, according to him, was to be achieved through the Oba Ewuare II Foundation and this plan got the blessing of the state governor who made provision for appropriation of N500m towards the building of the museum in the 2018 budget of the state.

But it was gathered that EMOWAA has become the tool the state government planned to use to receive the items and house them without involving the palace in this new decision as expressed by Oba Ewuare II when he had an open meeting with his subjects at his palace in 2021.

This did not go down well with the palace and many Benin groups, chiefs, members of the royal family and leaders who have publicly voiced their opposition to this new plan by the state government.

Meanwhile, Obaseki, while addressing participants at a stakeholders’ engagement and unveiling of Phase One of the EMOWAA, noted, “What is our plan for culture? As a people, we have a lot of assets from our past and it’s our responsibility to recreate them.

“So, it is beyond just several pieces of artwork; no, it’s beyond that. It is about using that as the contact point to bring out the best of who we are.

“There is a whole lot of research that still needs to be done. We can’t have things about us being explained to us from Europe. Nobody is going to do it for us.

“That is why we must insist that when these works come, we host them here in Edo State, their home, so that it’s available for everybody to see. There is no quarrel with the palace.
“It is not just about us but the people of the state. So, let’s facilitate it so everybody can access and benefit from it.”

He added, “I don’t see why we cannot achieve this. So, each and every one of you here, from your Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), have the responsibility to make sure we get the first phase of the EMOWAA done and then let those coming after us build on what we have started.

“If we have a million people coming into the state or into Benin-City for culture and tourism every year, and each one spends $1000, can you imagine the amount of money that will come into the state? Not from crude oil or the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC), but from culture and tourism.

“I think it’s another way to look at our development trajectory and please, I am encouraging all to provide whatever support you can to the team. Let’s do it because we must start this work this year and by the time we are leaving office, we should have the first phase completed.

“If the Egyptians are using what they have to represent the arts of Northern Africa, then we should, as a people, have something to represent the arts of West Africa. It is important to help you understand why we are doing what we are doing and why this project is very significant.”

The Chairman of EMOWAA Trust, Mr. Phillip Ihenacho, said that the core mandate of EMOWAA is to support the preservation of West African heritage and culture.

But a group known as Coalition of Benin Socio-Cultural Organisations that seemed to have taken over the opposition to Obaseki’s position on the artefacts says the EMOWAA project is an affront on the Benin monarchy and Benin customs and traditions.

They accused the governor of using his position to disrupt the traditional setting of the kingdom, citing alleged move by his administration to acquire some parts of Benin Kingdom which they said have very strong historical and traditional attachment to the palace.

Addressing a press conference shortly after the governor’s EMOWAA Phase One declaration, Coordinator General of the group, Mr. Osazee Amas- Edobor, asked questions on the ownership of EMOWAA which, he said, is alien to Benin.

“We would like to ask His Excellency, who owns the proposed Edo Museum of West African Art(EMOWAA) which is alien to the Benin race?”, he said.

“Is the proposed EMOWAA project owned by Edo State government or owned by a private venture called Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd?

“We also would want to inquire from His Excellency why you reneged on your earlier promise regarding the Benin Royal Museum in 2018 when you supported the idea of a Benin Royal Museum before the EMOWAA idea came from the blues.”

He said their interest is the protection of the artefacts, adding, “We have nothing against your plans to build museums or set up privately owned ventures like Legacy Restoration Trust LTD, building museums as long as the artifacts that will constitute the proposed museums are not part of the stolen historical Benin artifacts which are the cultural heritage of the Benin people which out rightly belongs to the our revered Oba of Benin Kingdom as the custodian of Benin culture, customs, and traditions, and it has already been settled as at last year that the proposed Benin Royal Museum would take custody of these Benin artifacts on behalf of his Majesty, not EMOWAA, the flagship project of your Legacy Restoration Trust LTD.

“We would like to remind His Excellency that your position as the Executive Governor of Edo State is time bound but our revered palace, throne and Benin Kingdom not time bound, so whatever decision you take, the long term effect is what we are looking at.”

The custodian of Institute of Benin Studies, Peter Obobaifo, on his part, insisted that whatever the plans of the governor is for EMOWAA does not in any way affect the ownership of the artefacts which, he said, is indisputably the monarchy of Benin Kingdom and the plan to house them at the Benin Royal Museum.

“There is nothing that can shake the Benin Royal Museum. I am not the spokesman for the government but the government has no powers to stop the Benin Royal Museum project”, he said.

“The Oba’s position is permanent, any governor that comes has a time limit but the Benin Royal Museum is going to be permanent as far as the monarchy remains and which means forever, there shouldn’t be any dispute between the two so the artefacts rightly belong to the Oba of Benin and whichever location or museum he chooses to house them is his prerogative”

The Federal Government, through the Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Professor Abba Tijani, has been actively involved in the quest to return Nigerian artefacts.

He was the one who, on behalf of the Federal Government, received the two artefacts returned in February and handed them over to the Oba of Benin and promised that the Federal Government was determined to bring back all Nigerian artworks stored abroad.

Also early this month, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, was quoted as saying the British authorities had taken care of the looted artefacts for so long and it was time for the cultural and historical works of art to return home.

Just before then, the Nigerian government signed a declaration that will see the return of 1,130 Benin bronzes from Germany.

According to a press release by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, the historic joint declaration will pave the way for the return of the bronzes 125 years after they were looted from Benin Kingdom during the Benin Expedition of 1897.