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In Lagos, 'Benin 1897.com' spurs looted artefacts' debate

Nigerian exhibition causes much debate on the return of Benin artefacts

Published on 20 April 2010

Author(s): Nigerian Compass/Emmanuel Agozino

Type:  News

Former heads of state easily gave away statues from the National Museum in Lagos to please their foreign counterparts

Global calls for the return of thousands of bronze, ivory works and other artifacts forcefully removed from Benin received a boost recently during a colloquium which held in Lagos. Organised as a topical kicker to the touring exhibition, entitled, Benin 1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question, mounted by the artist and art history don, Dr. Peju Layiwola, at University of Lagos (UNILAG), the event brought together leading members of the art community from within and outside Nigeria. There were papers and a day-long lively debate. The colloquium was aimed primarily at critically appraising the 1897 British expedition to Benin.

Interestingly, the forum of eminent personalities – cultural leaders, artists and shcolars among others – canvassed a vast range of the matter, and perhaps conflicting perspectives on how best to approach the issue of restitution. Views stretching from the openly cynical to the more familiar calls for Britain to return the looted artifacts competed for attention as the Main Auditorium Hall of UNILAG charged with intellectual contributions.

Those urging restitution cited the example of France which recently retuned antiques it forcefully removed from Egypt during the reign of Emperor Napoleon and Italy’s recent return of the Obelisks it removed from Ethiopia under the fascist reign of Benito Mussolini and called that United Kingdom should do the same on the looted Benin artefacts. One major point that got the nod of almost all the speakers was that the British expedition and the subsequent looting of Benin has no moral or legal justification as Britain’s role was not only deemed a rape but a criminal act inspired by greed and economic desire.

Several papers presented at the colloquium confronted this said injustice head on.

Father of the event was HRH Prince Edun Akenzua, Enogie of Obazuwa. Also present were the former minister of national planning and immediate past helmsman of Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), Chief Rashid Gbadamosi, who is the Vice Chairman of Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) was there along with renowned artist, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya among others who made useful contributions on the debate raised by scholars who presented the papers. Others include Prof. Dele Jegede of University of Miami, United States of America (USA), Director General of Centre for Black African Art and Civilsation(CBAAC) Prof. Tunde Babawale, Dr Tayo Adeshina, The Director-General of National Commission for Museum and Monument (NCMM), Mallam Abdallah Usman Yusuf who was represented by Aisha Katundah and the curator of the African Collection, Museum of Ethnology Vienna Austria, Barbara Plankensteiner, Dean of the Department of Creative Arts, UNILAG, Prof. Duro Oni and a teeming number of academic researchers from several African academic and non-academic institutions.

The colloquium opened on Thursday, April 8, with an introduction by the former Vice Chancellor of UNILAG, Prof. Akin Oyebode whose brief but incisive address urged participants to feel free and contribute positively to the topic. Having said that, the erudite legal scholar set the ball rolling. Oyebode informed participants that he came across many of Nigeria’s looted artifacts in several museums in Stalingrad, Russia, France and Britain, when he was a student in Europe lamented the inability of the nation’s authorities to protect its cultural heritage. According to him, time has come when Nigeria should take the issues of preserving its cultural heritage serious. “While Nigeria and the rest of Africa may not see the values of these works, many European nations have for long known their worth,” he observed

Paper presentation by, among others. Prof. Folarin Shyllon, former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan and Prof. Demola Popoola, Dean Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife followed. Shyllon through his paper entitled, Towards Strategy for Curbing Illicit Trafficking and the Return of Cultural Property, established that looting artefacts and antiquities is an ancient practice. But going futher to prove his points, he argued that in the 20th Century, the phenomenon has grown exponentially. According to him, apart from countries like Greek, Italy and Turkey, African countries has suffered the most through unauthorised excavations of archeological sites and trade in stolen antiquities. The don posited that it in the 1960s and 1970s the plundering of African cultural property assumed gigantic proportion. His paper however moaned the inability of Nigerian leaders to protect the country’s artistic heritage, adding that the nation stands to lose should leaders continue to pay lip service to this danger.

“In 1971, the Director of the then Antiquities Department of Nigeria, Ekpo Eyo warned that unless the theft of Nigerian collections was arrested, nothing will be left of Nigerian antiquities in about ten years. In 1996 while inaugurating an Inter-Ministerial Committee on the looting of Nigerian antiquities, the Minister of Culture said that Nigeria is losing its cultural heritage at such an alarming rate that unless the trend is arrested soon we may have no cultural artefacts to bequeath to our progeny. The situation that gave rise to the comments of the Minister and director of antiquities is not unique to Nigeria.

In 1996, in a general overview, Drewal urged that drastic steps be taken to curb the activities of those plundering Africa’s past, otherwise Africa will soon have a landscape barren of cultural heritage. It is submitted, that if during the colonial encounter military force was used to take over land and resources of the people in the colonies, and if the missionaries destroyed and pillaged because their existence hindered the liberation of the African mind from demons, today the offer of hard currency by western collectors to thieves of art works encourages the plundering of the cultural heritage of African countries,” Shyllon stated.

Denouncing the action of former Military Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (rtd) who was said to have during a State visit to England in 1973, deliberately taken, from the National Museum Lagos a 17th Century Benin bronze to offer as gift to Queen of England, Shyllon pointed out that such careless attitude demonstrated the Nigerian leadership’s lackadaisical approach to its items of cultural heritage.

A similar incident happened under President Olusegun Obasanjo. “In 1999 the French bought three Nok and Sokoto terra cotta knowing fully well that they must have been looted and illegally exported from Nigeria since the objects are on ICOM’s Red List of African Cultural Objects at Risk. Eventually France had to acknowledge Nigerian ownership of the antiquities. Unfortunately, France was allowed, under a very dubious agreement sanctioned by the President of Nigeria to keep the items on loan for a period of twenty-five years which is renewable. This pusillanimous action of Nigeria contrasts most unfavorably with the forthright approach of Zahi Hawass of the Egyptian SCA ... in the confrontation with the Louvre (in France),” Shyllon argued.

In his paper titled Between Reparation and Repatriation: Legal Issues in the Recovery of Nigeria’s Plundered Cultural Property, Popoola corroborated most of Shyllon’s argument especially from legal perspectives. He noted that contemporary international law supports the demand for restoration of displaced cultural property. According him, “It is, therefore, not surprising that since the adoption of the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Property (1999), which provides, in no mistakable terms, for the return of such property, big western museums have come under pressure to return objects (even whole collections) on the grounds that the museum holding the object(s) is not the legal owner.” But Nigeria has not taken advantage of that legal provision.

However, earlier during his opening speech, Prof. Babawale, a historian had lampooned Great Britain for looting Beninfs artifacts. The CBAAC boos who held the audience spellbound thorough his presentation pointed out how the 1897, event contributed to the setback in Nigeria’s and Africa’s cultural heritage. He disclosed CBAAC’s intention to associate with the event in promoting the cause of the restitution campaign and more African culture. Nonetheless, despite the condemnation of Britain throughout the event, it was a drama as few voices rose in the hall to criticise Nigeria for not protecting its cultural treasures and failing to keep its art houses as well as museums in order before demanding for return of looted artifacts from the West.

“Go to National museum Onikan, it is dead. What of Ojukwu bunker in Umuahia, nothing has been done to keep such place. I was recently at Lord Lugards house in Lokoja, Kogi State, the whole place is being destroyed. What I a sayng is that instead of asking for Britain to return these things, we should first keep our house in order,” a man shouted from the audience during open contributions.

Another issue which found disparate reactions throughout the colloquium was wether Nigeria should be asking for reparation or restitution from Britain. On the issue, Prof. Oyebode said Nigerians should get it right. “We should stop clamouring for restitution. Rather, the major thing should be restoration. Benin should be calling that those works should be returned. That is what is presently happening all over the world.” Oyebode said.

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