Since the fervent calls for the return of over 2000 Benin Bronze works looted by Britain during its infamous 1897 ‘punitive expedition,’ controversies have enveloped the art world. From debates about Western museums holding on to the precious treasures, to concerns regarding preservation, access, and restitution post-repatriation, numerous issues have been raised.
The most recent controversy, stemming from Germany’s ongoing repatriation of 1100 Benin Bronze works, revolves around matters of ownership, protection, and restitution. Questions arise surrounding the details of the agreement between the Nigerian government and Germany, which, as a government-to-government transaction, surprisingly does not explicitly mention restitution or a financial settlement. Additionally, the agreement stipulates a ten-year loan period for some of the artifacts to be displayed in German museums.
Critics argue that if the repatriation is indeed a government-to-government affair, why hand over the bronze works to the Oba of Benin? Concerns are raised about the security of these priceless treasures within the Oba’s palace, fearing theft or potential resale to their original possessors. There are also apprehensions that once under the custody of the Oba, the works might no longer be accessible to the public.
To address these pressing issues, the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), in collaboration with the German cultural agency Goethe Institut, organized the thought-provoking roundtable discussion, “Abuja Conversation: Benin Bronzes and Nigeria: Self-serving Cultural Diplomacy or a Service to Nigeria?”
During the event, John Asein, lawyer and Director General of the National Copyright Commission (NCC), emphasized that the rightful custody of the bronze works belongs to the Oba of Benin based on the concept of ownership within traditional societies. Asein highlighted that ownership is multifaceted and extends beyond individual ownership, encompassing the dead, the living, and the unborn. He underlined the significance of the Oba as an institution embodying the traditional society from which the objects were taken.
Addressing concerns about the safety of the artifacts within the Oba’s palace, Asein dismissed them as unnecessary fears. Supporting Asein’s stance, Prof Ken Okoli, former Head of Department of Fine Arts at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, emphasized that there is no safer and more protected place for the artifacts than the Oba’s palace. Placing the bronze works in the palace not only provides the Benin ancestors with rightful rest after 500 years but also enhances tourism and economic development in Edo State.
While restitution is deemed applicable in this case, panelists contend that it should occur after the return of the artifacts to the people of Benin to reinstate their spiritual functions and purposes within the community. They believe restitution should be demanded from the true looter – Britain.
Part of the repatriation agreement between Germany and Nigeria is that Nigeria will assist in the smooth transition of the artifacts back home, including funding a museum space for the treasures. However, the decision on where these works will be housed entirely rests with Nigeria. The Nigerian government will determine how the bronze works will be exhibited and made accessible to the public.
The agreement also allows some of the Benin Bronzes to be loaned to German museums for a ten-year period, as they are considered ambassadors of Nigeria. However, the extension of this loan period will be subject tofuture decisions.
Despite the agreement, the question of Nigeria’s inclusion or request for restitution in the future may carry legal implications. Some Nigerians argue that post-repatriation solutions should be locally financed to ensure complete ownership. Furthermore, they emphasize the need for intentional efforts to promote the teaching and dissemination of information about the Benin Bronzes to the average Nigerian, as well as responsible media coverage that highlights the significance of these artifacts to Nigeria as a whole.
By delving into the heart of the Benin Bronzes controversy, this captivating story sheds light on the battle for their return, restoration, and reparation. It unravels the complexities surrounding ownership, protection, and the path toward healing the soul of the Benin Kingdom. Ultimately, it beckons us to contemplate the profound cultural and historical significance of these magnificent treasures.