ARTS & MAGAZINE
The official handing over of the Benin bronze artefacts by two British universities as well as the submission of official Nigerian requests for the return of its looted artefacts bodes well for a more promising prospect for the recovery of other antiquities in the custody of Western museums. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke Reports
Recent milestones in the past week should boost the morale of supporters of returning looted items to Nigeria. First, there was the official presentation on Wednesday October 27 of the bronze rooster of Benin, called “Okukor”, to officials of the Nigerian National Commission of Museums and Monuments by Jesus College of the University of Cambridge, in England, at its premises. . Then, in the wake of this event, the next day was the return of a Beninese bronze head from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
There was also, of course, the welcome by the British Museum of the Benin Dialogue Group for a discussion with museum administrators in Europe and Nigeria on how to repatriate the Beninese bronzes scattered around the world. Perhaps the highlight of this event was the delivery of the Nigerian government’s request for the return of the country’s antiques to the British Museum. The seven-page letter, signed by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, was delivered by the Director General of the National Commissions for Museums and Monuments, Prof. Abba Isa Tijani, on Monday, October 25. . It was addressed to the administrators of the British Museum and to its president. , Sir Richard Lambert, through a museum director, Dr Hartwig Fischer.
Back on the historic handover of Okukor by Jesus College. Hopes that he would bring further repatriation ceremonies in his wake are further bolstered by the Nigerian government’s tenacity in keeping concerns about the ethics of looted historic objects front and center. The college had previously reiterated its commitment to return the stolen bronze rooster to its original owners. A statement from the Master of Jesus College, Ms Sonita Alleyne, called the gesture “historic”, adding: “We look forward to welcoming representatives from Nigeria and Benin to the award ceremony and to celebrate the return of this bronze”.
The events that culminated with this handover, since hailed by the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, dated back to February 2016. It was at this time that student activists demanded in an 11-page report he had presented to the college student union, urging the statue, which was then removed from public display the following month, be returned to the “community from which it was stolen”.
The bronze rooster was believed to be one of the items acquired by George William Neville, a member of the Lagos Colony Legislative Council and businessman who had accompanied the British expedition to Benin City in 1897. Neville had, upon his return in the UK, displayed in his home in Weybridge.
Neville had offered Okukor in 1905 to Jesus College, where his son was studying. College records corroborate that he had “gratefully accepted” the “donation of the bronze figure of a rooster which was part of the booty captured in Benin, West Africa and to thank Mr. Neville for ‘having made that gift appropriate’.
Thus, until March 2016, when the college withdraws it from the exhibition and agrees to reflect on its future, the statue adorns its dining room. Three years later, in 2019, he admitted that he “belongs to the current Oba at the Court of Benin” and should be returned to Nigeria. This was supported by an authorization from the Charity Commission for England and Wales in December 2020 for the transfer of the bronze statue to the Oba in Benin. This was after the college’s request under Art. 106 of the Charities Act 2011.
As for the return by the University of Aberdeen, Thursday, October 28, of the bronze head from Benin, it was a promise made a few days after the Humboldt Forum Museum in Berlin declared that it was continuing the return of his Beninese bronzes.
This was the fallout from a conversation the university initiated in 2020 through Babcock University law professor Bankole Sodipo with the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments through from its legal adviser Babatunde Adebiyi, the government of Edo State through the Attorney General and State Commissioner. for Judge Professor Yinka Omoregbe and Oba of the Royal Court of Benin through Prince Professor Gregory Akenzua.
The conversation, which led the Scotland-based university to become the first institution to accept full repatriation of the Beninese bronze in its custody, was also approved by the Nigerian government through its Department of Information and Culture and its Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.
The bronze sculpture, which depicts an Oba, was acquired by the university in 1957. It attests to the high quality skills in metallurgy of the ancient kingdom of Benin, which was sacked by the British military expedition in 1897. A review of the university’s collection, according to its head of museums and special collections, identified the bronze head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way they considered “extremely immoral.”
This led the university to organize a meeting with the potential applicants. After deliberation by a panel of experts, which included academic scholars, curators, representatives from the university court, officials from the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow and Nigerian claimants, it was agreed to l unanimity that the looted object be returned to Nigeria. The move was welcomed by both Information and Culture Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed and University of Aberdeen Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor George Boyne.
While Alhaji Mohammed hailed it as “a step in the right direction,” Professor Boyne said: “It would not have been fair to retain an element of such great cultural importance which has been acquired in also reprehensible circumstances “.
Meanwhile, extracts from the letter, handed over by the Director General of the National Museums and Monuments Commissions, Professor Abba Isa Tijani at the request of the Minister of Information on Monday 25 October, explicitly called on the British Museum “to return the Nigerian artifacts to the UK. Museum in Nigeria so that our museums and palaces can have something to show the present generation. “
The letter also alluded to previous requests made by Nigeria to the British Museum at various forums. For example, when a replica of the mask of Queen Mother Idia had to be used as the official mascot of FESTAC ’77 (the second edition of the Festival of Black Arts and Culture) after the British Museum refused to lend or to sell the original to the Nigerian government.
While acknowledging the difficulties and constraints which the British Museum could face in the event of relinquishing the stolen objects in its possession, the Minister argued that the reflections which led to the said provisions were brought up during the time of the Empire British, hence the “The British Museum cannot preserve the arts and antiques of other friendly nations now under these conditions.”
The letter also echoed calls, made over the years by activists, for source nations to be allowed to derive certain benefits from their heritage. Among other proposals, he insisted that “new agreements must be concluded the effect of which is, firstly, the legal transfer of Nigerian antiquities from the British Museum to Nigeria and, second, the physical return of Nigerian antiquities from the British Museum to Nigeria. . Subsequently, agreements on joint traveling exhibitions, loans and other similar arrangements that are common in the museum world can be discussed.
In a related development, Nigeria comes closer to the traces of the theft of the bronze head of Ife, known as “Ife 2”, which was stolen in a burglary at the National Museum Jos, Nigeria in 1987. âIt was stolen along with eight other very important antiques of great value,â revealed a document signed by Adebiyi. âThe museum guard was beaten and nearly killed.â
According to Adebiyi, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) duly reported the theft to local police and INTERPOL. “Nigeria also reported to UNESCO, which prompted UNESCO to announce the loss of the object to the world through its 1987 Quarterly Report.”
This explains Nigeria’s ongoing submission – presented by Adebiyi as his counsel – against Britain and Belgium before the Intergovernmental Committee for the Promotion of the Return of Cultural Goods (CIPRCP), which was heard on Monday. September 27. Alhaji Mohammed had alluded to this matter at the press conference he held in Lagos on Saturday July 17th. a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction off an Ife bronze head worth at least $ 5 million, âhe said. âThis bronze antique from Ife has been seized by the London Metropolitan Police, pending a decision on the identity of the true owner. Of course, we all know the real owner is Nigeria.
Likewise, Nigeria is eagerly awaiting the month of December when the agreement for the repatriation of Beninese bronzes held in Germany (which should be concluded by August 2022) would be signed.