Amid controversy over who should take custody of the 1,130 Benin bronze artefacts when they are repatriated from Germany to Nigeria, the Federal Government over the weekend said it will take possession of the precious artefacts. Recently, Germany said it would begin the process to return hundreds of artefacts from the kingdom, including 440 of the famed Benin bronzes held at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, to Nigeria next year, after museum experts and political leaders struck an agreement on Thursday.
The move follows decades of agitation for the return of artefacts “that have become global symbols of western plunder during colonialism, and the ill-gotten cultural heritage of colonised peoples displayed in museums around the world”. While the palace wants the artefacts preserved in the Benin Royal Museum, which will be built within the palace, the state government wants the items preserved in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA). The Oba had said that the looted Benin artefacts “were not the property of Edo State government or any private corporate entity that was not the creation of Benin Kingdom,” and called on the Federal Government to take custody of the artefacts on behalf of the palace of Benin kingdom until the Benin Royal Museum was ready for their collection.
Reacting to the controversy over the possession of returned Benin bronzes artefacts, said the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Federal Government will take possession of the looted Benin bronzes when they are returned from Germany, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws. The Minister stated this last Saturday at a press conference organised by the ministry to update Nigerians on the efforts being made by the Federal Government to repatriate looted and smuggled Nigerian artefacts.
According to the Minister, the Federal Government is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin bronzes when they are returned from Germany, adding that it is the duty of the Federal Government to do so, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws. He added that the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany. “Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany,” he said.
Mohammed added that Nigeria is the entity recognized 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 comnation and not to individuals or subnational groups. For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its Article 1, defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation. This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property. Nevertheless, the Nigerian state – through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments – has in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate our looted artefacts carried along our important traditional institutions and state governments,” he said.
“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 cognizance of that culture that produced the art works. 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.
“Please note that we are not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts. We are also working on repatriating Ife bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun etc. Recall, gentlemen, our efforts over the Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie’s in Year 2020, and the fact that we took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ife Object,” the Minister further stated.