Germany is consolidating on its resolve to lead the plethora of museums in Europe and across the world in returning looted artefacts to Nigeria, and by extension Africa. This is following a German delegation to Edo State on 19 May 2021 to complete modalities for the restitution.
Governor Godwin Obaseki who has been a strong proponent pushing for the return of Benin artefacts hosted the German officials in the state capital, Benin. The German delegation visited the palace of the Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, on 20 May 2021.
The Governor of Edo State who couldn’t hide his elation stated that the development was a major milestone in bringing to fruition the dream of restoring the heritage of the Edo people and preserving their sense of identity and culture.
This development is coming on the heels of Germany’s announcement in April where it disclosed that she was setting up machinery and modalities to return the works in her museums beginning from 2022.
It is noteworthy that the world’s finest artefacts are in many European museums, especially in Britain. A good number of them are from Africa where they have whisked away during the colonial period. In recent times, many countries on the African continent have been clamouring for the return of these cultural and historical treasures.
Stakeholders within and outside Edo State, especially Benin, a major place where this plunder was carried out in Nigeria with particular reference to the 1897 loot, have made several demands for the return of these cultural items. Benin Bronzes and other totems have remained in British and other European museums for decades.
French President, Emmanuel Macron, however, spearheaded the move in 2017 following his announcements to return all looted African artefacts in France to their countries of origin. Emmanuel Macron had commissioned a report whose authors proposed that laws in France be adjusted to accommodate the restoration of these artefacts back to Africa.
The report disclosed that nearly 90% of African art is in museums and private collections outside the African continent, including and not limited to manuscripts, statues, and thrones. This was emboldened by Quartz Africa when it reported that there are almost 90000 African artworks in French museums.
Since Macron’s statements that these artefacts would not be loaned back but rather returned permanently, other former European imperialist powers have followed suit.
The calls in recent times have, nonetheless, remained consistent. Most African historians, leaders and artists have asked for the repatriation of Africa’s artistic and cultural heritage because in the words of University Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, “You cannot claim to be an encyclopaedic collector of stolen objects.”
The question of stolen artefacts, however, has always met with intense debate. In the context of imperialism, some analysts argue that there is no such thing as “stealing” when it comes to these artefacts. They argue that it is the primordial practice that when a particular country, state, or group conquers another, it leaves with what is described as the “spoil” ranging from human beings to non-living things which ordinarily becomes the conquerors’ only as a reference point in history. If you go to many museums in Europe and inquire about a particular artefact, they would never deny the fact that they were spoil from an earlier century.
As earlier mentioned, this was the primordial practice and the idea of a steal is rather debatable. It is nevertheless a good development that European countries are heeding the calls for repatriation while setting up modalities and machinery to that effect.
In the actual sense, the repatriation should ordinarily provide a boost for the economy of many African countries like Nigeria. This is because of research from the Arts Council England that every £1 paid by the arts and culture sector generates an additional £2.01 in the industry caused by “attracting visitors” and “creating jobs”. Therefore, museums should be an African agenda, and the overall repatriation great for tourism.
While it may not be clear the actual economic value of the repatriation of these artefacts, analysts have said that they should be given a chance to exist in Africa for their cultural and historical essence, especially because of promoting the African identity and consolidating on the heritage of the continent.
But there is more beyond the clamour for the return of “stolen” African artefacts and the benefits accrued to it. While some have said the biggest constraint would be the safe transportation and maintenance of these historic artefacts, part of the concern has always been in terms of security.
For instance, does the Edo State government have the security to preserve these artworks from being stolen? This is particularly because of the current security challenges. This is the outcry by most European art dealers who cite conflict on the continent and corruption at the government level for why the artefacts should remain in Europe.
Besides, these great works of African art speak in terms of value to Africa because they are appreciated abroad and given due prominence. They were valued the moment eyes were set on them in Europe. Many of them have been placed alongside the best works from Italy and Greek. In the words of British Museum’s former director, Neil MacGregor, he described the artefacts as “great works of art” and “triumphs of metal casting.” The question therefore is: do we Africans value what is ours?
It should not be in doubt that these beautiful works have the likelihood upon their repatriation to be neglected, destroyed, or sold back to the highest bidder in foreign currency. For instance, President Mobutu Seso Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1973 pleaded for Europe to repatriate looted artefacts of his country.
He was quoted as saying to the United Nations General Assembly that same year in October: “During the colonial period we suffered … from the barbarous, systematic pillaging of all our works of art”. Over 144 of the artefacts were returned, but it was not until long before they found their way back again to Europe: this time in the markets.
Even so, some of these artefacts are often not displayed in European museums. Hence, instead of wasting away, they should be returned for their cultural and historical value for the continent
It is, nonetheless, clear that there are several constraints following the prospective return of these artefacts. How governments in Nigeria and by extension Africa, intend to address some of these challenges will determine the point in their clamour for repatriation in the first place.