Expectation is high following the collaborative effort of the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, and Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, to build N500m Oba Palace Museum to house stolen artefacts by European explorers on their return. PATRICK OCHOGA (Benin City) writes
The decades of struggle, agitation and suffocating pressure from Nigerians, especially the Biins on the British and other European governments to return the over 1,000 artefacts scattered and looted during the 1879 invasion of Benin Kingdom may soon be realised.
This indication came to light following the renewed collaborative effort of the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II and governor Godwin Obaseki to retrieve these artefacts. During the recent visit of the heir apparent to the British throne and head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles to Nigeria, the Benin Monarch seized the opportunity to appeal to Prince Charles to assist in facilitating the return of the stolen artefacts carted away from the Royal Court of Benin.
The Oba in his plea had told the visiting Prince that the stolen treasures represent the symbol and heritage of Benin Kingdom and noted that if done, the gesture would support efforts at establishing the Oba Palace Museum and thus, enhance the tourism potential of Edo State.
He said, “Nigerians in general and Bini people in particular would be most delighted to have your Royal Highness throw his Royal weight behind our efforts to have some of our ancient artefacts that were taken away from our Royal Court returned. This is because; we intend to establish Oba Palace Museum for the promotion of tourism in Benin City, Edo State.”
Earlier in the year, the Oba of Benin who received the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, at his palace emphasised the need for the return of the items comprising bronze artworks. He had said that the artworks have some emotional connection with the Bini people.
The Oba had told the director of the museum that the palace was reviving the bronze casting guild responsible for producing the artwork in order to keep it alive.
He however, welcomed the idea of the museum to collaborate with the palace to develop a world class museum to accommodate the stolen artefacts, adding that it would not only be of benefit to Edo people but also to Nigerians and tourists.
Fischer, on his part had told the monarch that he was in the palace to inquire about the possibility of the British Museum offering assistance, in terms of fundraising and training of personnel, for the proposed museum in the Oba’s palace.
In order to expedite action towards the quick return of these artefacts, the Benin dialogue group, which also comprises members of several European museums, the Royal Court of Benin, Edo State government and National Commission for Museums and Monuments were said to have finalised talks to have these artefacts returned.
It was gathered that the return of the artefacts is predicated on the completion of the Royal Museum of Benin, whose designs, according to spokesperson to Governor Godwin Obaseki, Crusoe Osagie, are being finalised.
“We are grateful these steps are being taken but we hope they are only the first steps. If you have stolen property, you have to give it back,” Osagie said.
A spokesperson for the British Museum was quoted to have said, “That he was thinking of how partners can work together to establish a museum in Benin City with a rotation of Benin works of art from a consortium of European museums.
Meanwhile, as concrete steps are being taken to see to the return following conditions by European government before the return of these iconic items, Governor Obaseki had proposed for the construction of a N500 million Benin Royal Museum to house theses artefacts in collaboration with the Benin Dialogue Group and Benin Monarch.
Recall that the campaign for the return of the prized heritage objects has raged for decades, with Nigerian authorities mounting pressure on European governments and museums to return them, while the Europeans argue that holding the work was best for the preservation of the artefacts, as there were no structures in Africa to properly hold them.
Obaseki stated that the construction of Benin Royal Museum would make Benin the culture capital of West Africa with the planned return of the artefacts.
“To fulfil our commitment towards making Edo the culture capital of West Africa, we have earmarked N500 million in 2019 proposed Budget, to commence the development and construction of the Benin Royal Museum,” the Governor said. “This will be done in collaboration with the Palace of His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan.
“The French government recently approved the return of 26 artefacts stolen from Benin Republic after a report recommended the move, raising the prospect of more of such moves from the European country.”
After the approval for the return, the Elysée Palace said, “There will be a meeting at the start of 2019 between African and European nations to develop a new policy on the exchange of stolen artefacts.”
The French President was quoted as saying that he would ensure that “African youths have access to their heritage objects and the common heritage of humanity in Africa,” and assured of “a new intellectual connection between France and Africa.”
The Benin Dialogue Group, which is a major partner in the construction and management of the Benin Royal Museum, is also working on something similar.
It has built a coalition that will set a framework for the European partners to provide advice, as requested, in areas including building and exhibition design, while European and Nigerian partners will work collaboratively to develop training, source funding, and legal frameworks to facilitate the permanent display of Benin artworks in the new museum.
The Benin Dialogue Group consists of museum representatives from Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom with key representatives from Nigeria.