The federal government hinted yesterday that it would take possession of repatriated looted artefacts, saying it was the government’s duty to do so in line with extant laws.
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who disclosed this noted that the federal government had always exercised this right in cognizance of the culture that produced the artworks.
Addressing a press conference on efforts by the federal government to repatriate looted or smuggled artefacts from around the world, Mohammed said his ministry and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments had always involved both the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that had resulted in the impending return of the antiquities.
Alhaji Mohammed, however, said the federal government was aware of the widely reported controversy on who would take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany.
He said in line with international best practices and operative conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts was being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany.
He said Nigeria was the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.
The minister said relevant international conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups.
“For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention in its Article 1 defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation.
“This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property. Nevertheless, the Nigerian state through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments had, in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate our looted artefacts, carried along our important traditional institutions and state governments,” he said.
He noted that the government was not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts but also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala and Jukun, etc.
“Recall, gentlemen, our efforts over the Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie’s in the year 2020, and the fact that we took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ife Object,” he added.
Speaking on efforts to repatriate the looted artefacts, he said the work ahead remained tough and daunting, but we will not relent until we have repatriated all our stolen and smuggled antiquities.
He said, “The artefacts are cherished all over the world and we realize that if they are returned to Nigeria and properly exhibited within and outside the country under our control, they stand to increase the influx of tourists to our nation and earn us good money.”
Mohammed said the timeless and priceless pieces of work were an important part of the nation’s past, history, heritage resource and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs the country of its history.
He noted: “Even though not everyone in possession of these artefacts is willing to return them, we remain undeterred as we have deployed all legal and diplomatic means and we have been recording successes in our quest for repatriation.
“Here are some of the successes we have recorded since that press conference in 2019: In October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.
“In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year. In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico.
“The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece.
“We have also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These antiquities consist of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite Ife Bronze head.
“We are currently before the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris, where we have instituted a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least.
“This Ife Bronze antiquity has been seized by the London Metropolitan Police, pending the decision on who the true owner is. Of course, we all know that the true owner is Nigeria.”
Nigeria Insists On Unconditional Return Of Looted 1,130 Artefacts From Germany(Opens in a new browser tab)
Oba Of Benin Keeps Mum As Socio-Cultural Group Threatens Legal Action
Meanwhile, attempts to get the reaction of the Benin monarch on the federal government’s assertion were futile yesterday as several calls placed to the secretary of the Benin Traditional Council (BTC), Frank Irabor and secretary to the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, were unanswered.
A source close to the palace however said the monarch would respond to the minister’s statement at a later and appropriate date.
But a socio-cultural organisation, the Benin Solidarity Movement (BSM), which has been at the forefront of ensuring that the looted artefacts are returned to the Royal Museum, has threatened to take the federal government to court over the matter.
The group described the minister’s statement as “vexatious, evil and an attempt to steal the common cultural heritage of the Benins”.
President of the group, Comrade Curtis Ugbo, “The stand of the Benin Solidarity Movement worldwide is that Lai Mohammed is a man without character and doesn’t understand the meaning of tradition and culture, we are going to resist them and their evil plan to steal our common heritage and the over 150 million Euros that is coming with the Benin artefacts.
“How can he say it is Nigeria that owns the artefacts? The Benin artefacts belong to Benin Kingdom and the Oba of Benin is the custodian of the Benin tradition and culture in Edo State and across the world. It is Benin artefacts and not Nigeria artefacts please.
“We members of the Benin Solidarity Movement worldwide are ready to drag Mr. Lai Mohammed and whoever is trying to steal our common heritage to the highest court in the world.
“We are calling on President Buhari to call Lai Mohammed to order, because his utterances on the ownership of the Benin
Bronzes are nothing to write home about and not in support of the unity of Nigeria.
“Our Oba’s palace will respond to this obnoxious statement by Lai Mohammed by Monday.”
LEADERSHIP Sunday recalls that controversy over who will take possession of the expected artefacts had pitched the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II against Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki.
But the governor later downplayed the controversy, saying the state government had ordered that no one, whether in government or acting independently, should engage in “disrespectful exchanges” with Oba Ewuare II over the stolen artefacts.
The two were reported to be having a disagreement over where the repatriated artefacts will be.
The governor was reported to have wanted them kept in a government museum while the Royal Palace wants it at the Benin Royal Museum, inside the palace. The state government said there was no conflict, and that Governor Obaseki would maintain his respect for the Oba of Benin.