The last may not have been heard about the purported return of the artefacts looted from Benin Kingdom by the Europeans in the dark days of colonialism. The recent decision by the German government to return those in its possession is generating dust that is yet to settle as the Benin palace authorities, the Edo state and the federal governments engage in needless controversy over who’s right it is to take custody of the cultural items.
The German government had acknowledged that some of these heritage objects from Benin were in its custody, and that they were discussing with relevant stakeholders, especially with the Oba, on how to return the Benin artworks. The director-general of the directorate of culture and communications of the German Embassy in Nigeria, Andreas Görgen said this much when he led a top German delegation on an assessment tour of the Oba’s palace in Benin City, the Edo State capital.
During that visit, the Benin monarch Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, told his guests that it was the wish of the palace that the artefacts looted from the Oba’s palace during the invasion of 1897 by the British colonialists and other foreign nations should be returned to their original home. In his opinion, the artworks have deep spiritual, traditional and cultural significance to the kingdom, and would boost tourist traffic to the state.
However, the Edo State Governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, had earlier in 2019, while presenting his appropriation bill to the state House of Assembly, assured of his administration’s commitment to construct a N500 million Benin Royal Museum to hold the Benin artefacts when returned. In June this year, he unveiled a plan for the Benin City Cultural District, which he said would house the Edo Museum of West Africa (EMOWA) and other facilities of historical importance to the state. This, according to him, will be done in collaboration with the palace.
The governor noted that by working with other European governments, the state has reached an advanced stage in getting the resources to start the first phase of preparing for the return and acceptance of these works. To demonstrate the governor’s willingness to partner with the palace, the crown prince of the Benin Kingdom, Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare, was part of the delegation to Germany, which was led by the minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. The trip was put together to heighten the campaign for the return of the looted Benin artefacts.
Part of the controversy is that while the palace wants the artefacts kept in the Benin Royal Museum, which will be built within the palace, the state government wants the items preserved in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA).
As this was going on and while the minister’s delegation was still in Germany engaging the authorities of that country on the same matter, the Oba of Benin hosted his subjects in his palace in Benin City, and asked the federal government to temporarily take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts when they are eventually repatriated from Europe, until the Benin Royal Museum is ready. This request has since been granted by the federal government.
We are worried that this seeming misunderstanding may further delay the return of these highly prized objects that can boost the socio-economic profile of Edo State, more so given the current economic challenges facing the country.
Experts in Benin tradition are of the opinion that the Benin monarch, who is believed to be the rightful owner of these priceless artworks, according several historical literatures, deserves his respect on this matter and should be consulted before any final action is taken on what should be done with the items and where they should be displayed when they are returned.
In our considered opinion, the Edo State governor, being a “son of the soil” do understand the role of the palace in matters of this nature. It is our conjecture that he means well with his projection to house the artefacts where they will be beneficial to the Benin people, become a centre of tourist attraction and in so doing, form a source of revenue to the state.
We also point out that what is important at this point is for the items to be returned as we see no difference between the government and the palace as both of them are concerned about the expected relevance of the artworks in the life of the people. This newspaper is satisfied with the role the federal government is playing in the unfolding drama and hope that it will take a decision that will, in the long run, serve the best interest of Nigerians as a whole and the ‘Bini’ people in particular. In our candid opinion, the dissipation of energy presently going in Edo State is needless and might delay the return of the artefacts.