The recent announcement to return the looted Benin artefacts, which were stolen from Nigeria in 1897 when the British Empire clashed with the Benin Empire, has resulted in the ever-running Nigerian question, can we maintain them? Do we have the resources to make our museums run at a profit for them? Will people be willing to go all the way to Benin to see these artefacts? Is it not better to leave them in European museums while Nigeria gets paid?
However, not everything is denominated in naira and kobo! The artefacts are an important part of West African history, stolen in a raid during the scramble for Africa, and their return should be seen as a test in nation-building, as we may never have a chance at this conversation again.
Fortunately, the Nigerian government seems to be on the right side of nation-building for once, and recognises the value of storing historical artefacts at home. The process to return the looted treasure began in 2020, when the Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, disclosed that his administration was bracing up to build a museum, as discussions were underway for several returns of Benin Bronze from western museums and private collectors in 2021.
The British Museum raised concerns over the objects that would feature in the new museum in Benin and how many would be determined through discussions with Nigeria, to which the Governor responded by saying, “A private collector returned one item in August and four others have expressed interest in recent months in doing the same as early as next year.”
An independent trust has been set up to raise funds including representatives of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the royal palace of the Oba of Benin. Funds will be raised over the next two years to build the three-storey Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), and work on a research office to store the first returns which would start in March.”
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Let’s fast-forward to June 2021, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s museums, announced that it had started the process to return looted Benin bronzes plundered in the 19th century. The Foundation runs the Berlin Ethnological Museum, which holds around 530 artefacts from the former kingdom of Benin, including around 440 bronzes, which were looted by the British in 1897.
Last week, in a meeting between the German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Monika Grutters, German Foreign Minister, Mr Heiko Maas, and the Nigerian Government, Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed stated that Nigeria wanted the full and unconditional return of the 1,130 Benin Bronzes that were looted from Nigeria in the 19th century and domiciled in German museums.
Mr Mohammed added that the issue of provenance, which has to do with the place of origin of the artefacts, should not be allowed to unduly delay the repatriation of the artworks, saying, ”That they are known as Benin Bronzes is already a confirmation of their source of origin.”
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German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Grutters, said: ”The way we deal with the issue of Benin Bronzes is important to addressing our colonial past.”
He described the issue as ”an important personal concern,” proposing that the 1,130 artefacts would be returned to Nigeria from the beginning of 2022.
The federal government also informed the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the 1,130 Benin Bronze artefacts looted from the Bini Kingdom in 1897 must be returned in a year, under a proposed deal for the full return of the country’s artefacts from Germany.
”For us, the most important issue in the road map is the signing of the agreement and the date of return. We won’t move forward if we don’t have a clear date on signing and return. Full return should be completed in a year’s time, not beyond August 2022,” Lai Mohammed said.
A case for the return
The artefacts have maintained their value due to the expert handling they have received from the museums holding them. The Benin artefacts today, are one of the most recognisable pieces from West African history, even having an entire scene about them in the Disney Blockbuster, Black Panther, where the sanctity of the artefacts was emphasised.
In a heavily divided nation as Nigeria, history is an important factor for nation-building; having the capacity to protect this history also solves multiple problems ranging from history, economics, geography, geology, cultural tourism and infrastructure.
For Nigeria to maintain these artefacts, it needs well built and maintained museums in peaceful areas where the risk of insecurity can be neutralised with ease. It needs a growing middle class who have the disposable income to visit and fund the museums, and also, the educational interest to boost relative studies on the impact of the artefacts in West African art, politics and history.
From an economic standpoint, the artefacts would be better off in European Museums who pay annual royalties to the Nigerian government to maintain them, but from a nation-building perspective, their non-return would be a Cultural own-goal as Nigeria will lose out on a key input needed to boost the local tourism industry.