Nigeria Vows to go After Stolen Artefacts in Europe

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The federal government of Nigeria has pledged to use all “legal and diplomatic instruments” to demand the return of Nigeria’s stolen artefacts and cultural materials worldwide.

Nigeria Vows to ‘go after’ Stolen Artefacts Worldwide
Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, announced this in Lagos recently.

“We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th-century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past,” the minister said.

“These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not,” he noted.

The development comes on the heels of Wednesday’s announcement by a Cambridge University college that it would return a bronze cockerel statue looted from the former kingdom of Benin by the British in the 19th century.

”We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We are on a quest to retrieve the Ife Bronze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into,” he said.

The minister said after it was brought to an auction in London in 2017, the auction house observed that it was an Ife Bronze Head which belongs to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List of cultural goods that are deemed to be the most vulnerable to illicit traffic.

According to him, the lists are made available to national police and customs authorities by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization as well as to museums, auction houses, and galleries.

The minister also revealed that the London Metropolitan police has seized the object, and it has invited Nigeria to make a claim, otherwise they will have to
return it to the fellow claiming ownership.

“We have now started work on the return of the Ife Bronze head to Nigeria,” The minister revealed.

How many African artifacts are in Europe’s top museums?

Up to 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s material cultural legacy is outside of the continent, according to the French government-commissioned 2018 report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy. The report calls for the restitution of Africa’s stolen assets highlighting that most of these were looted by European colonial powers, stolen during ethnographic missions or acquired under questionable conditions in various markets.

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Stolen Ethiopian artefacts
Some of Ethiopian artefacts at the V&A Museum

While the public debate has mostly focused on African art, repatriation encompasses various elements of African cultural heritage. This includes art and archives, ceremonial objects, human remains, natural history specimens, and intangible cultural heritage like sound recordings and photographs. The best-case scenario figure for the number of artifacts any national museum archives in Sub Saharan Africa is 3,000—and even then, most of them are of little importance or significance when compared to those in European museums.

How many African artifacts are in Europe’s top museums?

Museum No
Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium 180,000
Humboldt Forum, Germany 75,000
Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, France 70,000
British Museum 69,000
Weltmuseum of Vienna, Austria 37,000

Since the release of the report, no objects have been returned to the countries they are from. A recent $15 million, four-year initiative by George Soros’ Open Society hopes to spur momentum in reparation efforts through legal, financial and technical support to governments, regional bodies, museums, universities and civil societies. Concerted efforts and significant funding are needed to support claims for restitution as communities demanding their looted items will undoubtedly come up against legal hurdles—such as the “inalienability of public French art collections.”

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Three large royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey are displayed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France
Three large royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey are displayed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France

This simply means there are laws stating any public French art collections belongs to the state and cannot be given back (even when said assets were looted.) This is the convenient legal barrier that has prevented countries and communities that have been asking for their treasured assets from getting them back.

Felwine Sarr, the co-author of the restitution report states that the path to restitution is not an easy one, but a vital one in the process of decolonization. Challenges that will be faced include European countries putting up roadblocks to restitution, but also the need to engage African citizens in the discussions.

“People first need to know what was taken from them. Then they will realize that this is not an elite discussion, but one that concerns them—their history, their heritage, their legacy.”

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Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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