The Arts

December 20, 2022

Germany returns 22 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

Benin (where they will be kept) will become a cultural hub for Africa — Lai Mohammed

We are here to right the wrong. It was wrong to take them; it was also wrong to keep them — Annalena Baerbock, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Federal Republic of Germany

…We closed our eyes for too long — Claudia Roth, Minister of State for Culture, Federal Republic of Germany

…Though the artifacts belong to us, we should share it the world — Geoffrey Onyema

By Osa Mbonu-Amadi, Arts Editor

The Federal Republic of Germany, Tuesday at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Abuja, handed 22 Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government. The artifacts, which had stayed outside Nigeria for 125 years, were looted from Benin by the British and over the years, had moved to different countries before arriving in Germany.

The German Government delegation was led by Annalena Baerbock, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Federal Republic of Germany and Claudia Roth, Minister of State for Culture, Federal Republic of Germany.

Speaking at the ceremony, Annalena Baerbock, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, “we are here to right the wrong. It was wrong to take them; it was also wrong to keep them. The bronzes, she said, are not just objects, they tell stories. They are part of your history. They are part of who you are.”

Also speaking, Claudia Roth, Minister of State for Culture, said  “We closed our eyes for too long.” Heritage, she said, is handed from generation to generation. “For 125 years, Nigeria was denied this heritage.” Roth promised that more of those Benin Bronzes will be coming home where they belong. She pleaded to Nigeria to consider loaning some of the bronzes to German museums.

Quoting Prof Wole Soyinka, Roth said “We take friendship very, very, very seriously.”

Earlier In his opening speech for the historic event, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed disclosed that the Federal Government is embarking on infrastructural development in Benin City where the repatriated artifacts will be kept. With those returned bronzes, Benin will become a cultural hub for Africa, Lai said.

“A moment comes in the history of mankind that we are beckoned upon to do what is right. This moment beckoned and Germany seized it.

Forever, Nigeria, Africa and indeed all of humanity, will remember and always cherish this period in human history when Germany stood by us,” Lai Mohammed said.

He continued: “When Germany mooted and announced the idea of returning Nigerian Benin Bronzes, the entire globe treated the news with

disbelief. However, Germany did not stop at a mere announcement but followed up with a visit to Nigeria by high ranking officials in March 2021 to further assure us.

“Because of what Germany has done, negotiations with other nations, institutions and museums for repatriation of the Benin Bronzes in their possession became swifter.

“Subsequent meetings by Nigeria with Germany were on modalities, and the Germans were gracious throughout. Finally, on July 7, 2022, with the eyes of the whole world glued to their television screens, Germany signed the declaration with Nigeria to release all 1,130 Benin Bronzes in Germany public museums.

“Prior to the various events narrated above, I had, at a World Press Conference in Lagos on 28th November, 2019, launched the National Campaign for the Restitution/Return of Nigeria’s antiquities from all parts of the world.

“Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, nobody could have anticipated these bronzes returning to Nigeria, because the obstacles to achieving repatriation were seemingly insurmountable. But today, with the pioneering gesture of a friendly nation, Germany, the story has changed.

“The negotiations were not as easy as things look today. They were stormy at times. But the sincerity of the Germans played a big role in resolving knotty issues. In this regard, my special gratitude goes to Andreas Gorgen and the Directors of the various museums for their patience and understanding.

“And to those who say there are no infrastructures to take these bronzes in if they are returned, I am happy to inform you that the

Federal Government of Nigeria is embarking on infrastructural development around the National Museum in Benin City. This will be in addition to the infrastructural developments that are being initiated by other stakeholders in Nigeria and the immense support of foreign partners, particularly Germany. Easily, Benin City will become a cultural hub for Africa.

“We want to thank the Federal Government of Germany and its officials for these unprecedented moves that culminated in this event. In particular, we want to thank the heads of government and governments of the various German regions and their officials, as well as the administrators of the regional museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Berlin and all the other museums that have made the repatriation possible.

“We understand that Germany, like Nigeria, practises a federal system of government, hence we know that it must have taken a lot of uncommon understanding, efforts and synergies to achieve this feat. We appreciate this and thank you all. We also want to thank other persons and groups that had struggled over the years in the cause of pursuing this dream. They worked subtly behind the scene to make all these happen.

“We call on all other nations, institutions, museums and private collectors still holding on to Nigerian antiquities to release them.

Particularly, we call on the British Museum to release the more than 900 Benin Bronzes in its hold. A year has rolled by since Nigeria submitted an official letter to the British Museum demanding the return of Nigerian antiquities in this museum. Yet there has been no reply of any kind. I visited in July this year hoping that the success recorded with the Germans will nudge the British Museum to do what is right. But I met a brick wall.

“The British Museum and all those holding on to our artefacts must understand that repatriation is a cause which time has come. They must also understand that many of these cultural objects are not mere art to us but the true essence of our being. They are not mere decorative works but our culture and heritage. They belong here, not anywhere else!

The minister also used the opportunity to thank the Netherlands, which in October 2020 returned a 600-year-old Ife Terracotta; the University of Aberdeen, and Jesus College of the University of Cambridge, for returning the Benin Bronzes in their holding; the Metropolitan Museum in New York which returned Ife and Benin Bronzes; the Horniman Museums and Gardens in London which in October, 2022 signed the legal transfer of 72 Benin Bronzes.

He also thanked the Smithsonian in Washington, the National Gallery of Art of the United States and the Rhodes Island School of Design for releasing the Benin Bronzes in their holdings. I seize the opportunity to commend the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford; the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Cambridge; Glasgow City Council in Scotland, National Museums of Scotland and other institutions like them that are working assiduously towards repatriating the Benin Bronzes in their possession.

“I want to announce that Nigeria is not only seeking the return of Benin Bronzes but all Nigerian antiquities that were illegally or illicitly exported. It is upon returning these artefacts that true justice will be seen to have been done.

“Once again, I welcome our esteemed guests from Germany and thank them most sincerely for their courage, their sincerity and their sense of justice in returning the highest-ever number of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. History will record this moment with a smile,” said Lai Mohammed.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema, narrated the frustration Nigeria experienced during the 1977 FESTAC, when she requested for the looted terracotta mask kept in the UK museum for the event, but the request was turned down.

Onyema emphasized the importance of international friendship in foreign relations, saying although the artifacts belong to Nigeria and should be where they belong, “we should share them with the world; they belong to all.”