NEW YORK – It is 1897, following a massacre melted on the British by the Benin Kingdom when the former attempted to supplant a trade agreement and annex the latter; in retaliation, the British invaded the ancient city now located in southern Nigeria and besieged it.
Then the Royal Navy forces launched a brutal air and ground invasion, massacring women and children as they advance towards the King’s palace. In a ruthless scorched earth policy, the invading army destroyed the city’s infrastructures and burned down villages, including crops and other life-supporting frameworks and systems the kingdom has. With no regard to human life, they razed the kingdom, including the Oba Palace.
After capturing the city, the English marauders began widespread lootings, plundering their captives’ wealth, including cultural and spiritual heritage sacred to the natives. Among the stolen riches were thousands of treasured works, including ancient artifacts, rare sculptures, delicate and meticulously carved ivory masks forged from the finest and rarest materials on earth dating back a thousand years. To celebrate their heinous feat, the British, in a wanton display without regard to the cultural identity and heritage of the tribe, paraded the booty amid razed palace before carting them away to Britain.
The stolen artifacts were later sold to museums worldwide or gifted to the world’s best higher learning institutions. Some of the locations housing these arts are the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Ireland, the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, the Vatican Museums, the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts, Boston Museum of fine arts, and the Smithsonian Museum, just to name a few.
According to The Associated Press, a large assemblage of these treasures are in museums in Germany, including the Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, which houses the world’s largest collections of artifacts from the ancient kingdom.
In addition, scores of higher education learning institutions across the globe like Cambridge University, Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, University of California, Columbia University, Zurich University, etc., all unashamedly display and use the stolen bronzes for scholarly endeavors.
Shortly after Nigeria acquired her independence from Great Britain, the British brazenly sold back some of these looted artifacts to Nigeria throughout the 1960s until the contemptible practice was eradicated in the 1970s. A behavior that is reminiscent of Britain’s current exploitation of oil from Nigeria; reselling refined crude oil back to its source.
Despite decades of attempts by the Binis and the Nigerian Government to return these stolen arts, only recently has one Nation decided to repatriate a few thousand in its possession. According to reports, Germany has reached an agreement with the Nigerian Government to return its share of the loot. While other countries and institutions still in possession of these items are refusing to relinquish them. If in a perfect world where a Nation-State or an international organization can get indicted with a crime, Germany, France, the Vatican, etc., are all criminal accessories-after-the-fact because they’ve contributed to and aided in the commission of a crime against the Benin people and its heritage when they accepted and continue to be in possession of stolen goods. It is doubtful that the Benin people will get respite anytime soon.
Now the Federal Government of Nigeria, charged with ensuring the return of these items and ensuring that the Bini tribe gets justice, has directly inserted itself in an ownership dispute over the items. A family discussion that should have been resolve amicably is now making headlines around the world. No wonder the world thinks that Africa is incapable of managing its own affairs. Otherwise, why would a non-controversial matter be turned into a contentious harangue between the Nigerian Government and the Benin royal palace? A needless quarrel if the former understood its role.
On the one hand, the Federal Government is claiming ownership of the plaques and sculptures because she is in a bilateral negotiation with Germany as representative of the Nation where the items were removed. According to the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, “Nigeria is recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.” On the other hand, the Benin Oba palace maintained that the bronzes, ivories, and sculptures are the ancestral heritage of the Benin kingdom, depicting faces of the Obas and in addition to deep cultural and spiritual connections that the people have with them. As a result, the palace added, it is proper that the items be returned to their rightful owner.
Only one side is correct in this dispute – it is the Oba’s palace. Here is why:
1. The arts were stolen from an independent sovereign kingdom of Benin long before the kingdom was annexed to be part of Nigeria or long before the British formed the colony that is now Nigeria. Hence, the treasures cannot belong to a nation that was not in existence when initially plundered. Nigerian was incorporated in 1914, while the artifacts were unjustly removed from the Benin kingdom in 1897. The treasures and their carting away predate the formation of Nigeria; therefore, they cannot belong to the national Government of Nigeria.
2. Although the Federal Government is the lawful entity to negotiate and hold in trust the stolen goods under the United Nations Convention on cultural property, it is not the rightful owner. The Government of Nigeria must recognize that its role is that of lawful bailee charged with taking temporary custody of these artifacts, with no ownership right or right of conversion.
There is only one obvious possessor to these artifacts; it is the palace of the Oba of Benin. The National Government of Nigeria must adequately negotiate the returning Arts from Germany and others across the globe, take interim custody of them, and in due course, return them to the people who have both a cultural and divine affinity to them and who are also the rightful guardians.
Failure to do so is tantamount to be in cohort with the invaders who despoiled the Benin cultural heritage, the abettors who continue to hold these artifacts and display them in their museums, and, in doing so, implicitly contributing to the ruination of the Benin heritage.
Because now is not the time for a reckless profusion of browbeating or reverberating quarrel between the national Government and traditional rulers’. Our problems are many howbeit, fighting over artifacts should be the least them.