Eighty years after colonialism ended in most African countries, the continent is still counting its losses in enslaved citizens and intrinsic cultural objects plundered by colonial powers.
While it’s hard to repatriate enslaved Africans and their descendants, many African culture activists and governments agree the looted artefacts can’t just go with the wind.
In Nigeria, the looted Benin Bronzes have been a major talking point over the years because of their cultural value and numbers.
It has been estimated that up to 90 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s material cultural legacy is housed outside of the continent, according to the French government-commissioned 2018 report by the Senegalese economist,
Felwine Sarr, and French historian, Bénédicte Savoy. Most of these African assets were looted during ethnographic missions, wars waged by Europeans, or acquired under questionable conditions and auctions in various markets. Other elements of African cultural heritage missing during the colonial times included archives, ceremonial objects, human remains and natural history specimens. There were also intangible cultural heritage like sound recordings and photographs.
Today, it’s hard to find in the archives of any sub-Saharan African country’s national museum one that has more than 3,000 artefacts. Even the quality and importance of these available artefacts are drab in comparison to those housed in European museums.
Number of looted African artefacts in Europe
Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium, has 180,000 African artefacts, while Humboldt Forum, Germany, has 75,000 African artefacts. Similarly, Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, France, stores 70,000 African artefacts, while British Museum has 69,000 African artefacts. Weltmuseum of Vienna, Austria, is keeping 37,000 African artefacts.
Specifically, in Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, you will find 9,296 looted artefacts from Chad, 7,838 from Cameroon, 7,590 from Madagascar, 6,910 from Mali, 3,951 from Ivory Coast, 3,157 from Benin, 2,593 from Congo-Brazzaville, 2,448 from Gabon, 2,281 from Senegal, and 1,997 from Guinea.
As of August 2021, Daily Sun’s findings showed that most of these looted objects have not been returned to Africa. While African governments and NGOs have been mounting pressure on their western counterparts for the restitution of these precious objects, George Soros’ Open Society has commuted $15 million to a four-year initiative to increase the speed in reparation efforts through legal, financial and technical support to governments, regional bodies, museums, universities and civil societies.
A close view of notable pillaged African antiquities
The image of the Man-eaters of Tsavo is one that has continued to haunt the East African country of Kenya. Historically, these two infamous lions from the Tsavo region in Kenya killed and ate dozens of railway workers constructing the railway line between Mombasa and Lake Victoria over nine months in 1898.
The predators were eventually shot dead by British engineer, Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson, who was supervising the railway project. In 1925, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, USA, purchased the stuffed lions from Patterson and catalogued them into the museum’s permanent collections. The Kenya National Museum is clamouring for the stuffed lions to be returned.
North of Africa, the 1.12 metres (3ft 6in) high Rosetta Stone, now kept in the British Museum, is another subject of restitution.
Originally from Egypt, it is made out of granodiorite, which is a coarse-grained rock, and a broken part of a bigger slab with text carved onto it that has helped researchers learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. It features three columns of the same inscription in Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic Egyptian, and is reported to be the text of a decree written by priests in 196 BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy V.
Discovered in July 1799 by soldiers fighting with Napoleon Bonaparte near the town of Rashid (also known as Rosetta) in the Nile Delta, the British took possession of the stone, following Napoleon’s defeat, under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801. After it was transported to England, George III offered it to the British Museum.
Another contentious African object looted is the 32in (81cm) Bangwa Queen sculpture, a wooden carving from Cameroon, representing the power and health of the Bangwa people, currently owned by the Dapper Foundation in Paris, France.
Sculptures were made of titled royal wives or princesses referred to as Bangwa Queens in the Bangwaland of present-day Lebialem district of Cameroon’s South-West region.
The sculpture was taken over by the German colonial agent, Gustav Conrau, in 1899 before the territory was colonised, ending up in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, and later bought by an art collector in 1926. Traditional leaders of the Bangwa have been in touch with the foundation, requesting its return to Cameroon.
The Maqdala treasures of Ethiopia are some of the most celebrated African assets looted in 1600-1850. Admired for the filigree designs and religious embossed images, the Maqdala treasures include an 18th century gold crown and a royal wedding dress taken from Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) by the British Army in 1868. Such was the magnitude of the looting that 15 elephants and 200 mules were needed to cart away all of them from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros II’s northern capital, following a raid by Maqdala protesting the detention of its consul. Some of the treasures were later deposited at the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2007, Ethiopia lodged a claim for the return of the antiquities.
The Zimbabwe Bird is a soapstone sculpture of a fish eagle. Eight of these were plundered from the ruins of an ancient Shona city. In the past, they were positioned on the walls and monoliths of the ancient city built between the 12th and 15th centuries by the ancestors of the Shona people.
This sculpture ended up in the hands of a German missionary who sold it to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907. Its journey round the world continued to Leningrad, having been stolen by the Soviet Army during World War I. It was later returned to Germany after the Cold War.
In Benin Republic, the authorities have been mounting pressure on France to return its anthropomorphic (half human-half animal) statues that were looted during the sacking of the Abomey Place in 1892. They are part of 5,000 artifacts the country has requested from France, which have been mired in legal challenges.
The Federal Government of Nigeria is also engaged in the repatriation of Benin artefacts, Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu sculptures, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun, etcetera.
Benin Bronzes and much ado about restitution
The ancient Benin Kingdom represented the bulk of the most valuable looted Nigerian artefacts abroad. These bronzes are a collection of delicately made sculptures and plaques that adorned the royal palace of the legendary Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. Carved out of ivory, brass, ceramic and wood, many of these objects were cast for the ancestral altars of revered kings and queen mothers. In reaction to a devastating attack by Benin warriors on a British diplomatic expedition in 1897, the British launched a punitive expedition against the kingdom, razing one of Africa’s remarkable ancient civilisations to the ground and carting away bronze sculptures, plaques and royal objects, among others. Following auctions by the British, some of the bronzes, with their deep cultural significance, ended up in museums and private collections across Europe and elsewhere.
According to historians, the ancient Benin Kingdom had earthen walls longer than the Great Wall of China, which were also destroyed in 1897 by Britain.
Interestingly, on June 20, 2014, a British pensioner voluntarily returned two of these artefacts, a long-beaked bird and the monarch’s bell.
Top museums in Europe have also agreed to “loan” precious artefacts back to Nigeria for the proposed Benin Royal Museum.
The British Museum in London, which is housing many of the looted Benin artefacts, admitted that they were given to it in 1898, a year after the Benin expedition by Britain, by the Foreign Office and the lords commissioners of the Admiralty; 900 Benin bronzes, which have become unfortunate symbols of colonialism, are in the British Museum, which has declared it is “committed to facilitating a permanent display of Benin material” in Edo State, but was not categorical how many items would be returned.
Though France has since approved the restitution of its collection of pillaged Benin Bronzes, it is Germany that has taken the lead to return looted Benin artefacts to Nigeria. Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum alone houses more than 500 artefacts from the Benin Kingdom, mostly bronzes.
Explaining the rationale behind its decision to return the plundered artefacts, Monika Grutters, the German Minister of State for Culture, announced in April this year, “We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonisation,” hinting that the first returns were expected to take place in 2022.
FG to take possession of Benin Bronzes
Regarded among Africa’s greatest artworks, the news that Germany had agreed to return over a thousand Benin Bronzes led to the Edo State Government, led by Godwin Obaseki, and His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, the great-great-grandson of the toppled Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, staking claims to being its repository.
At an emergency meeting summoned by the Oba in his Benin palace early July, the monarch warned of an attempt by an “artificial group” to divert the return of the Benin Bronzes. He was referring to the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), which enjoyed the support of Governor Obaseki, that was planning to house the Bronzes in an Edo Museum of Western African Art (EMOWAA).
The Oba affirmed that the right and only legitimate destination for the Bronzes would be the proposed Benin Royal Museum sited within his palace grounds, from where they were looted. More so, he was “the custodian of all the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom.”
Before now, the Edo State governor had come up with grand plans for the Bronzes, and had started working with iconic architect, Sir David Adjaye, to design a different museum to house the artefacts. However, the Oba warned that anybody dealing with the LRT was doing so “at their own risk and against the will of the people of the Benin Kingdom.”
Downplaying the outburst by the Oba of Benin, the Edo State Government, represented by Secretary to State Government, Osarodion Ogie, said the governor would “Continue to make efforts to secure a private audience with His Royal Majesty to discuss his concerns.”
He ordered that “On no account should anyone, whether in government or acting independently, engage in disrespectful exchanges and/or altercation with our revered Royal Majesty and the Benin Royal Palace.”
Reacting to the controversy emanating from Benin, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, declared that the about-to-be-returned Benin artefacts were as a result of his ministry’s campaign for the Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts in 2019.
He hinted that the repatriation was expected to be concluded by August 2022. Nigeria and Germany, he said, had also agreed to Nigeria’s proposal to use the repatriated artefacts and other works of art to inspire Nigeria’s creative industry towards realising its high potential, to which the Germans agreed to facilitate the establishment of an academy in Nigeria.
He stated categorically, “Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria. The relevant international conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups.
“What I am saying in essence is that the Federal Government will take possession of these antiquities, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws. But we have always exercised this right in cognisance of that culture that produced the artworks.
That is why the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have always involved both the Edo State Government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities.”
‘No, the looted artefacts belong to the Oba’
Responding to the Federal Government’s declaration, Chief Charles Edosanwa, SAN, the Obasuyi of Benin, a close ally of the Benin monarch, told Daily Sun the Federal Government of Nigeria was working for the benefit of the Benin monarch as the rightful owner of the looted artefacts and was bound to return them to Benin eventually.
“It’s the right of the Federal Government to take possession of the artefacts when they are coming in, because it is the government’s right to do so, because the negotiations for the return of these artefacts are between two sovereign countries. But the Federal Government is conducting these transactions on behalf of Benin. Benin on its own cannot enter negotiations with Germany.
“When I say Benin, I mean the Oba of Benin. In spite of what our political architecture is, the Benin man holds the Oba in extremely high esteem. They see him more relevant in their lives than any other person. We are still thanking the Federal Government for agreeing to carry these transactions on behalf of Benin. What the Federal Government is doing is called adoption in international law.
“The ownership of these artefacts is not in doubt. They belong to the Oba of Benin, for they were looted from his great-great-grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen. The practice these days in returning looted artefacts is to pass them onto the heirs. Looted artefacts are being returned all over the world. Oba Ewuare II is a direct descendant of Oba Ovonramwen.
“An Indian chief just got a jacket that was taken from his great-grandfather, a Native American. So, we are not disturbed when the Federal Government said it would take possession of the looted artefacts. The owner of the artefacts is the Oba of Benin, and the artefacts will be returned to the Oba by the Federal Government, eventually. If these artefacts are returned to the Oba and he makes them available to the viewing public, Nigeria gains.”
The Benin chief dismissed the attempt by the LRT to house the artefacts. “They are just pretending. Are they the owner of the artefacts? No! From what I gathered, LRT has no connection with art at all. LRT has the right to open a museum and put content in the museum, but you can only deal with content to which you have a legal right, either by licensing or ownership or by loans. But if you have no connections with the pieces of art, can you display them in your museum? I am sure there are so many things they can find in the Benin area and West Africa and put in their museum —it is a welcome thing — but the Benin looted artefacts belong to the Oba of Benin, and they are going to be showcased at the Benin Royal Museum to be built by the Oba of Benin.
“The plans for the museum are already advanced. It would have been ideal if the governor, as agreed before, had gone with the Oba of Benin with the idea of the Benin Royal Museum. That would have been ideal. And they have worked together before. They can work together again.”
Speaking in the same vein, a socio-cultural group, the Great Benin Descendants Worldwide (GBD), has moved against any other institution other than the Oba of Benin taking possession of the plundered Benin artefacts when they are returned. Coordinator of the group, Imasuen Amowie Izoduwa, said the Federal Government could not lay claim to the artefacts, for they were taken away from Benin before the amalgamation of the country in 1914.
“These artefacts were not stolen from Nigeria; they were stolen 17 years before a geographical location called Nigeria was formed. So, the edict of the law is not binding on those artefacts as far as the palace where those artifacts were stolen is still existing till date. So, the Oba of Benin is the custodian of the traditions and the heritage of the Edo people. The voice of Edo people is very clear, not based on sentiments,” he said.
Prof. Union Edebiri, former director-general of the Centre for Black Arts and Culture, who now teaches at the University of Benin, Edo State, told Daily Sun returning the looted artefact was not an elite concern, as it concerned everybody.
He queried, “For those who think it’s an elite argument, what are the artefacts doing where they are now? These objects belong to Africa. They took them by force when they conquered African countries, and they must be returned to Africa.
“Those born long after these artefacts were stolen would have been inheritors of these artefacts —their father and great-grandfather’s property. Abroad, in many places, they are kept in museums where people go for tourism, and the museums make money from the tourism they generate. So, if they are returned here, they can also serve the purpose of generating funds, which can be used for all sorts of things, which would be beneficial to all and sundry.”
Edebiri was not worried about where the returned artefacts would be stored, amid fears of re-looting, “There are museums all over Nigeria now. We have the National Museum for Arts and Culture, and some states have, too. So, they know the artefacts aren’t going to be kept like that. I understand the situation, for instance, Germany is even putting money to help us put up some buildings to keep them. But, even if they don’t, they should respect the communities, government and all concerned to return them. I am not sure anybody would like to re-loot them, because their value in the market must have dropped after being returned, so they are not going to be profitable to any would-be looter.”
Regarding the controversy surrounding the possession of the looted artefacts, he submitted, “I think the government will work it out. I think the Minister of Information and Culture was right.
German government cannot deal diplomatically with the Oba of Benin or with the state governor. It has to deal with the federal government. So it is a relationship between the German state and the Nigerian state. When the artefacts are returned, the federal government knows what to do.”
Contemporary Benin bronze casters call for truce
Igun Street, located off Sakponba Road in Benin City, is the home of bronze casters, sculptors and other artworks in Edo State. The famous Benin Bronzes found in Europe and the western world were produced here but looted from the Palace of the Oba of Benin in the aftermath of the British punitive expedition against the Benin Kingdom towards the end of 19th century.
Originally, the bronze works and carvings were produced for the Palace at the request of the Oba but that changed long ago when the Oba granted the guild members permission to commercialise their products.
Aigbe Anthony is one of those involved in the production and sale of bronze and other artworks at Igun Street. He told Daily Sun that the business was doing well with more patronage coming from foreigners.
“By the grace of God, the business is moving. We have more patronage than before. I said so, because I believe now there is more awareness in more persons when it comes to artworks, because, before, they were being patronised by foreigners, but, now, our brothers and sisters who are travelling back to Europe, after visiting home, purchase to give to their friends or co-workers as gifts, telling them that it is part of their heritage and culture. But the foreigners patronised us more,” he said.
Commenting on the proposed return of some of the looted artefacts, Aigbe expressed joy that the artifacts are coming back to Benin, “I am very happy that the artefacts looted away from Benin in 1897 are finding their way back to Edo State. The artefacts symbolised our pride, and I am very happy that they are coming back.”
On who should take custody of the artefacts when returned, Aigbe said, “To me, I don’t actually know what they have put in place to house the artifacts, but, originally, they were taken away from the palace, but since the federal and the state governments are involved, I think that decision should be for them.
“On my own also, I think we have a museum, which is still active till now. I think even though they said they are building a new museum, to me, I don’t know the plans the Oba and the state government have; and that is why I said the decision is best known to them.
“I believe the artefacts should be placed in a place where foreigners and other people can see them, but because they were taken from the palace, that is why the Oba is saying it should be brought to the palace.”
On his part, Mr. Alex Agbonmwenre, an artisan at Igun Street, said, “Long before now, according to history, the artefacts were mainly for the Oba as a way of keeping records for him, but, as at 12BC or thereabout, the Igun bronze casters guild was given a charter on a right for them to sell or commercialise the productions. But, before 12BC, it was mainly for the palace”.
He noted that, over the years, the business, in terms of patronage, was mainly for the white men, but, due to high level of civilisation, education and cross boundary awareness, “We have more of our people that are buying the art works to decorate their homes.”
However, “In those days when it was newly commercialised, it was mainly for the white people, because our people here in Benin were seeing those artifacts as an act of idol worship. Anybody who saw them in his or her home, they believed that such a person was a priestess or an herbalist, but it is only recently they now found out that it is another way of beautifying the home.”
Like Aigbe, Agbonmwenre is happy that some of the looted artefacts would be returned. Commenting on where they should be kept, he said: “For now, the issue is still between the state government and the palace, but I have this strong belief that there will be a harmonisation between them. That they will have a way of resolving the best place where the repatriated artifacts should be kept and be used for the overall benefits of all the Benin people.”
As time ticks away, the plundered Benin artefacts abroad are cocooned in cold embrace, hoping the long journey home won’t be delayed any longer with cant and rhetoric.