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Is France’s return of looted Nigerian artefacts an isolated act?

The French government has returned two looted artefacts to Nigeria. The question is whether this is the start of an extended process of dialogue over disputed cultural property, or merely a one-off isolated act of restitution.

Modern Ghana [1]

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | Sat, 30 Jan 2010

According to a report in the Nigerian Compass reproduced below, the French Government has returned to the Nigerian Government two artefacts looted during the colonial days. This is good news.

We have in various articles demonstrated the illegality, the illegitimacy and the immorality of detaining the cultural artefacts of others against their consent, whether the objects were looted, stolen or acquired under other dubious circumstances. We have urged Western museums that are full of such objects to endeavour to come to some acceptable arrangements with the owners. However, most Western museums have remained deaf to all reasonable pleas and demands for restitution.

Is the French decision to return two artefacts to Nigeria the beginning of a long process of restitution or simply an act of desperation, intended to buy time and breathing space for keeping the thousands of looted/stolen objects that are in the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée du Quai Branly and other French museums? Only time will tell whether this is an isolated act or part of a conscious policy from a State which prides itself of being the country of birth of human rights. In the meanwhile, we wish to congratulate the French for taking this step soon after returning to Egypt some stolen frescoes. We would like to encourage them to search their museums for looted/stolen objects and return them to the owners. So long have Western States and museums maintained a policy of holding on to stolen/looted cultural artefacts that one may even start believing that to return stolen artefacts to owners is somehow un-Western.

The French have made a gesture, however small it may be. But what about the British, Germans, Americans and others+- that have thousands of looted/stolen African and Asian cultural artefacts? Do they not feel in anyway obliged to return to Nigeria some of the thousands of Nigerian objects in their museums? Take for example, the Benin bronzes which were looted in the infamous bloody military aggression, usually called the Punitive Expedition of 1897. The British stole thousands of the Benin bronzes, massacred the inhabitants of Benin City, executed some nobles, burnt the city, and sent the Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen into exile.

The British kept many of the looted Benin items, but sold a lot to the Germans and others. The British Museum which refuses to state clearly how many of the bronzes it has is alleged to be detaining 700 bronzes whilst the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, has 580 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, has 167 pieces. These museums refuse to return any pieces despite several demands for restitution. They even refuse to respond to requests by the Oba of Benin and other Nigerian bodies for restitution. On the other hand, they constantly proclaim that there has been no demand for restitution. Their lawyers could tell them that there is no rule in International Law or Municipal Law preventing a holder of a looted/stolen item from returning it to the owner even if there has been no demand for restitution.

The continued detention of the cultural artefacts of the African and Asian peoples constitutes a permanent and constant violation of the human rights of peoples to develop their culture and to transmit to subsequent generations their knowledge and culture. How can those who constantly proclaim the need to observe human rights and the various international conventions keep permanently the cultural objects of others? Surely, they are aware that they are thus preventing others from developing their culture whilst at the same time proclaiming the importance of cultural development.

Nigeria, Egypt, China and others should ensure that the Cairo Conference in April sends a clear message to those detaining the cultural objects of others that the time has come to adopt more serious measures to solve this problem which will not go away as long as the African and Asian peoples have not recovered the cultural objects stolen/looted in the heyday of Western imperialism. Contemporary Westerners cannot condemn colonialism and at the same time refuse to return any of the objects that symbolize the subjugation and oppression of peoples.

Kwame Opoku.

France returns Nigerian artifacts
Friday, 29 January 2010 00:00 Nigerian Compass

THERE are indications that Nigeria’s efforts to repatriate some of it’s stolen artifacts have started yielding dividends as officials of the French government handed over to Nigeria two artifacts dated over 400 years which were unlawfully taken away from the country during the colonial times.

The works which prices in local and international market have risen immensely, have been in the collections of French galleries.

A representative of the French government handed over the monoliths to a representative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe in France. At the international workshop on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property held early this week at the Reiz Continental Hotel in Abuja, the artifacts were handed over to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Senator Jibrin Gada who left it in the custody of the Director General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Usman.

Also, the government is about to recover two Nok cultural artifacts in Canada and bring them back to the country as early as possible, the Federal Government informed.

Maduekwe who was represented at the event by Mr. John Shama Shaga, reiterated that the governemt of Nigeria is not leaving any stone unturned in its quest to bring back the stolen artifacts to where they rightfully belong and commended French government for returning the two monoliths.

Accepting the returned antiquities on behalf of the government, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Senator Gada, urged museum professionals and agencies with the responsibilities of protecting the nation’s cultural property to come up with concrete workable measures for protecting Nigeria’s vast cultural heritage.

“I wish to reiterate that our cultural property represents the soul of our nation, the pages of our history and the source of inspiration to our country which therefore must be safeguarded for future generations of Nigerians. I wish to express my gratitude to French government and call on other countries to follow suit,” Gada said.

In his welcome address at the colourful ceremony held at the Reiz Continental Hotel in Abuja, the NCMM helmsman, Mallam Usman noted that “unauthorised and illicit movement of cultural objects and property” have become high issues of concern in the country. According to him the development gives so much concern to experts in the field of the arts and cultural studies as well as lovers of art that the topic now takes a prime place in international discourses. Therefore, several countries around the world have been putting in place various means of monitoring and controling the illegal movement of cultural materials to stem the now tidal vicious practice.

He moaned that the trend diminishes and impoverishes the growth potentials of a country’s art and cultural sector adding that the act also undermines a country’s tourism potentials and most unfortunately, exposes the apparent lapses of security procedures.

“Nigeria has suffered greatly from unlawful pillaging of her cultural property. This assault which has come in various forms and guises over the years has further depleted our national collections and added to those of other nations.

“Just like other nations, Nigeria has over the years put in place various legislations and means of checking this embarrassing practice by appending signatures to various international conventions entered into by the international community,” Usman informed at the occasion.

In the keynote address entitled, Towards a Strategy for Curbing Illicit Trafficking and the Return of Cultural Property, which was presented by Prof. Folarin Shyllon, the scholar recommended that Nigeria should commence bilateral negotiations with the governments of the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany for the return of the Benin bronzes adding that if negotiations fails, Nigeria should seek the assistance of the international committee to facilitate her request for the return of its antique treasures in UK, Germany and other European countries.

During the colonial era, an immense number of Nigerian and other African nations’ artefacts were plundered and taken to Europe prompting the growth of art movements and socio-cultural trends that built on African artistic culture. Several palaces, shrines, communual art collections and communities were sacked as the colonialists went for the cultural materials. The looting was grandly executed by the European who at some events obtains the items through the force of arms and via the abduction of cultural costudians and dethronement of kings as in the case of the plunder of the palace of Oba Ovurawon in Benin City in 1897.

Under the guise of Christian evangelism, trade exchange and others cummunities were made to part with their artefacts, masquerades, totems and other masterpieces which ended up in western collections. As a result, such cultural items as masks, bronze sculptures, ivory pieces, ancestral drums and others from Oron monoliths to highly ornamented Igbo Ukwu artefacts, Benin bronze, Nok teracotta pieces, Awka traditional door posts, Ife sculptures among others are found in large numbers in big art collections in western world including the such highly rated art houses as the British Museum in London, The Luvre in Paris, Museum Island in Berlin among other places.

In September last year, France made a surprise hand-over of four fragments of an ancient tomb mural to Egyptian antiquities authorities. the four pieces were priceless tomb murals that are originally from Egypt. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France who handed over the pieces to Mubarak during a lunch at the presidential palace in Paris further pledged his country’s willingness to return a fifth piece in the first week of October, 2009 to the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That pledge was fulfilled. The move set art authorities around the world abuzz with discussions on the repatration of artifacts.

Most experts at home narrowed the questions to what the Nigerian government is doing in the campaign to retreive its thousands of antiques scattered across the western art collections and museums filled Internet-based art discourse platforms.

An Associated Press report claimed that the fragments were acquired in good faith by the Louvre between 2000 and 2003, but their provenance was called into doubt in 2008 after the discovery of the tomb from which they were believed to have been taken.

France said in October that the return of the highly treasured fragments held by the Louvre museum was its way of showing the country’s determination to fight the illegal traffic in cultural objects.

Under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention of 1970, countries agreed measures to prevent the illegal export of national treasures. Based on that article of the UNESCO convention countries of the west and central Africa such as Nigeria, as well as Ethiopia, Algeria and other black nations who were heavy victims of the looting of artifacts by western countries have been engaged in a quest for a return of their treasures in European collections.

In January, 2002 the National Assembly communicated Nigeria’s demands for the return of its treasures in Britain. Through the House of Representatives the Nigerian parliament called for the return of Nigerian works of art in the British Museum. The legislators called on the then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, to request the repatriation of the artifacts, taken away during British colonial rule in the 19th Century.

Explaining the quest, the late Dr. Omotoso Eluyemi, who was then the director-general of NCMM told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): “If you go to the British Museum, half the things there are from Africa.”

The motion, sponsored by 57 legislators, was passed unanimously. It urged the government to safeguard Nigerian museums from being “burgled” by hired agents.

In 2001 Time magazine reported Eluyemi as saying: “These objects of art are the relics of our history – why must we lose them to Europe?

“If you go to the British Museum, half the things there are from Africa. It should be called the Museum of Africa.”

The French handover of Nigerian artefacts marks a beginning of substantiable result in the still simmering campaign for the return of the artefacts to its orignal homes in Nigeria and other parts of Africa which is enjoying increasing global support.

By Lekan Olaseinde (Abuja) and Chuka Nnabuife (Arts Editor)