The University of Aberdeen on Thursday completed the return of a Benin Bronze to delegates from Nigeria, at a handover ceremony in Scotland.
This comes after the Jesus College of Cambridge University on Wednesday handed over a sculpture of a bronze cockerel, which was one of the artefacts that were looted by British troops in 1897.
The sculpture, which depicts the head of an Oba (king), was also looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City by a British military expedition.
The sculpture was purchased by the University of Aberdeen at an auction in 1957.
In a statement, the University noted that recent research into the origin of the artefacts confirmed that it was one of ‘bronzes’, acquired under immoral circumstances during the Benin Punitive Expedition in which the royal palace of the Oba was burned and looted.
Following the development, the University in 2020 instigated a conversation through Professor Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in Babcock University, Nigeria, with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, the Edo State Government and the Royal Court of the Oba, regarding its return.
A formal request for repatriation by the Nigerian Federal Government and supported by the other parties was then proposed, and in March 2021, was unanimously approved by the University Court following discussion by an expert panel, which included representatives of the University, the Director of the Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow and Professor Sodipo representing the Nigerian partners.
Commending the University for returning the stolen artefact, the statement quoted Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, to have said: “Much has been said about the significance of heritage art and, despite the occasional attempts in some quarters to downplay their cultural and religious relevance, these works are often imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken.
“Regardless of the resistance in some quarters, the return of stolen art is the right thing to do. Some say that they acquired their collections. This is like saying, well, I know this item was originally stolen but because I bought it somewhere, then I’m okay. That notion is completely wrong and unfortunate.
“In any event, we thank the University of Aberdeen for this noble act of returning our bronze work. We hope that other institutions worldwide will see the injustice when they insist on holding on to items which in fact should be a reminder to them of the great injustice that was inflicted on a people so far away and so long ago.“
On his part, Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, was quoted to have said: “We at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria appreciate the initiative of the University of Aberdeen to release the Benin Bronze head in their collection.
“The University commenced this move without being instigated. This is unprecedented. On its volition, the University felt it ought to return to Nigeria an important cultural object it obtained some decades ago through what can pass in the United Kingdom as legal acquisition. I must appreciate Professor Bankole Sodipo who linked up with Lawyer Babatunde Adebiyi of the Commission to ensure that an avenue for discussion was created.
“The synergy was an added impetus to the initiative of the University of Aberdeen. Today, we are witnessing the success story. The Commission intends to cement its relationship with the University of Aberdeen and also work with the University in fashioning mutual agreements with other universities and institutions in the region regarding Nigerian artefacts in their holdings.
“We earnestly expect without any doubt that other persons and institutions will reach out to us for talks on the way forward concerning Nigerian artefacts in their possession. The Aberdeen return should inspire all to a future of friendly returns.”
Also commenting, the Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said: “Nigeria warmly welcomes the return of the Benin Bronze Head by the University of Aberdeen and once again calls on all individuals, organizations and countries in possession of Nigerian artefacts to voluntarily return them to where they belong – Nigeria.”
On his part, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, Professor George Boyne, said: “Over the last 40 years the Benin Bronzes have become important symbols of injustice. It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.
“The University took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do and we are extremely grateful for the collective approach taken by the partners in Nigeria, which has facilitated this return.
“We are delighted to welcome our guests representing the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Kingdom of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and commend their spirit of co-operation in making this possible.”