African countries want our history back – Britain must return the Benin Bronzes

    (Lai Mohammed)

(Lai Mohammed)

Last month, I visited Germany to sign an agreement for the return of 1,130 Benin Bronzes – the hand-crafted sculptures that once lined the historic palaces of the Kingdom of Benin in my home country of Nigeria. Looted during a punitive colonial expedition in 1897, this act of repatriation returns our bronzes to their rightful home.

However, Germany was not the former colonial power in Nigeria. Nor did they steal the intricate narrative plaques that once decorated the pillars of palaces, the bronze commemorative heads of rulers that hung on altars, or other religious and cultural ceremonial objects.

It was the British who sold our treasures to them, in part to pay for the destruction of the kingdom of Benin. However, despite acquiring them legitimately, Germany knew that returning the bronzes was the right thing to do.

Perhaps it is thanks to Germany that some British institutions are following suit. This week, the leadership boards of Oxford and Cambridge universities agreed to return a total of 213 Benin bronzes held by Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museums and Cambridge’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The decision must be signed off on by the Charity Commission but, if signed into law, would constitute Britain’s largest repatriation of its kind.

However, despite the commendable actions of these smaller, non-national institutions, the British establishment by and large refuses to keep up with the times. The British Museum, holder of the largest single collection of bronzes, refuses to return the objects that connect our country to a time before colonial rule. At best, they offered to lend our own cultural heritage to us. Had to remind you, when visiting the museum this month, we are still awaiting a response to an October 2021 letter demanding the repatriation of antiquities.

The British Museum alone has 69,000 African artifacts from across the continent. How can we be equal partners when it denies so many of its heritage?

Theft is not denied. The curators explained that the circumstances of the takeover – the destruction and looting of one of West Africa’s great powers – are now more transparently displayed alongside the objects. This is welcome, but it also leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Why display the illegal means by which these precious artifacts were obtained if there is no intention to return them? Admission alone does not bring absolution.

One answer is that they have global cultural significance and must be preserved for posterity. The subtext is that Africans cannot be trusted as guardians of our cultural heritage. However, this omits that the bronzes survived for hundreds of years before being stolen; and that no harm befell those who were returned – either by others doing the right thing, or, perversely, by buying back what is ours.

Another claims that encyclopedic museums “serve not just the citizens of one nation, but the people of all nations” – promoting intercultural learning and placing them within a global context. Once rightful ownership has been restored, however, there is no reason why parts of the collection cannot be loaned back to the British Museum. Even if this were not the case, universal culture should not be enriched by erasing specific cultures. African heritage can no longer be held hostage in European museums to preserve such ideas.

For Nigerians, these are not just beautiful artifacts to be seen in foreign museums, but a connection to our ancestors. Through them, we trace our history, with many records of events, while others fulfilled spiritual or cultural functions. And it is by knowing our past, anchored in the rich heritage, that new futures can unfold. Refusing to return our historical artifacts deprives us of both.

That’s why governments and museums around the world are moving towards restitution. In addition to Germany, the Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art in the US and Jesus College Cambridge and the University of Aberdeen in the UK have returned or made arrangements to return their Benin Bronzes.

Among the broader streams of repatriation of African artifacts – 90% of which reside in Europe rather than Africa – Belgium, France and the Netherlands have made various commitments. For Nigerians, and many others around the world, the debate is settled, the moral calculus is in place. It’s a matter of when.

Britain and its museums are in danger of being left behind. Citizens of Nigeria and other African countries want their story back. Furthermore, it threatens to tarnish our broader relationship with the UK. Cultural issues are of increasing importance in diplomacy. Through this simple act of return, the friendship between the UK and Nigeria – Africa’s largest population and economy – would be strengthened.

If the British government is serious about strengthening Commonwealth bonds now that it is outside the EU – as it recently stated in Rwanda – it is a simple way to build trust. Germany has now set an example for the world to follow. A new museum is being built in the city of Benin. It would be an indictment of the UK to open up empty, just for British institutions to avoid gaps in their own collections.

Lai Mohammed is the Minister of Information and Culture in the Federal Government of Nigeria.

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