French MPs Back Return of Looted African Artefacts in Museums to Benin and Senegal

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MPs in France have voted to return to Senegal and Benin prized artefacts that were looted during colonial times.

French MPs Back Return of Looted African Artefacts in Museums to Benin and Senegal
Royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

France will return prize colonial-era artefacts in museums to Benin and Senegal within one year, following a unanimous vote by the National Assembly on 17 December.

Overriding late opposition from the Senate, the National Assembly gave its final approval to a restitution bill transferring ownership of some 27 plundered royal artefacts from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac to the Republic of Benin and a sword from the Army Museum to Senegal.

Benin will receive a throne taken in 1892 from the palace of Behanzin, the last king of what was then Dahomey. Senegal will get a sword that belonged to a 19th-Century sheikh.

Former colonial powers are under pressure to return looted artefacts – mainly from Africa.

According to a report by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, commissioned by the French government and published in 2018, there are around 90,000 sub-Saharan artefacts in French public collections, most of which are housed in the Musée de Quai Branly.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said President Emmanuel Macron intended to “renew and deepen the partnership between France and the African continent”.

Though the Benin-Senegal restitution marks a watershed moment for Macron’s presidency, culture minister Bachelot emphasised that it “will not create a legal precedent”, since it only applies to the 27 artefacts specified and “does not establish any general right to restitution”. The law “in no way calls into question” the principle of inalienability of France’s national heritage, she said.

Related:   This Spiritual Leader Was Hanged and Decapitated by the British in 1898 for Opposing Colonial Rule in Zimbabwe

French MPs Back Return of Looted African Artefacts in Museums to Benin and Senegal
19th-century looters. (Commons/Reginald Kerr Granville)

Benin will receive 26 pieces of the Treasure of Behanzin, including the throne of King Glele, a main attraction at the the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris, where around 70,000 African artefacts are housed.

Bachelot also stated that France accepts to return museum works on the condition that they “continue to be preserved and presented to the public in places dedicated to this [heritage] function”.

The Republic of Benin is currently building a new museum in the city of Abomey that will house the 26 returning artefacts, with support from the French Development Agency, while Senegal is already displaying the sword as a diplomatic loan at the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar.

In October, an activist was fined €1,000 (£901) for removing a 19th-Century Chadian wooden funerary post from the Quai Branly.

Related:   This Spiritual Leader Was Hanged and Decapitated by the British in 1898 for Opposing Colonial Rule in Zimbabwe

A new museum in Germany, which opened on Wednesday, has attracted controversy as it will hold many looted items, including Benin bronzes that British soldiers stole from Nigeria.

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