From Germany, 20 Nigerian artifacts on their way 'back home' to Nigeria

By Francis Tawiah (Duisburg - Germany)
Germany The German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Nigeria
DEC 20, 2022 LISTEN
The German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Nigeria

This Tuesday, the focus is on the reparations of the precious Benin bronzes which were stolen by the British soldiers in 1897, during the colonial days and sold to the Germans.

20 Benin bronzes are in German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's (Greens) luggage on her first trip to Nigeria. Arriving in the capital Abuja on Monday night, she will hand over the works of art to the Nigerian state on Tuesday.

In the 16th century, they decorated the palace of the Kingdom of Benin. The appointment is considered the most important point of the visit, said the German Foreign Minister, Baerbock before leaving Germany to Nigeria.

"We're taking 20 Benin bronzes from German museums back to where they belong, to their homeland," she said, adding that this could not heal all wounds, but could show that "Germany is serious about coming to terms with its dark colonial history".

High poverty rate in the country
What is accompanied by the excitement in Germany is at most a marginal note for most Nigerians. "They are busy with other things," says Pastor Yohanna Buru in the city of Kaduna. The biggest challenge, he says, is insecurity in the state of the same name in the north of the country. "We are recording many kidnappings and armed robberies. Just on Monday night, there was another one. This is really worrying people," says Buru.

Another problem, he says, is the high poverty rate. "Many people don't know how to finance their daily lives and buy food. That puts a strain." According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 133 of Nigeria's 220 million people now live below the poverty line. Additional tensions are caused by the elections in February and March. Then a new president, parliaments and governors will be elected. A phase in which there is always violence. "I would like German government representatives to talk to people about this and listen to them," says the pastor.

He himself, however, calls the return of the artifacts a "great thing". "We are very grateful that the bronzes are returning. This is late justice." He also says it should be acknowledged that Germany is returning the works from the former Kingdom of Benin. "They were looted, after all, by British troops."

Old Archbishop considers restitution important

In the capital Abuja, the archbishop emeritus, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, calls the restitution important. The bronzes are not only of cultural and historical significance for people from Benin City, where the center of the kingdom of the same name once lay, but for people from all over Nigeria. Under colonial rule, other regions that are part of today's national territory would also have suffered. "The works have been taken illegally."

There are also bronzes in the Welt museum in Vienna and the British Museum. In October, three museums and galleries in the USA announced,

to return 31 artifacts. Linked to this is the debate about a museum to be built in Benin City, regional capital of what is now Edo State, next to the Oba's palace from which the works were once looted.

The Edo Museum of West African Art, planned by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, is to be more than just an exhibition, Governor Godwin Obaseki stressed in the middle of the year. It is also to become a center for research. "Things about us must not be explained to us by Europe," he said at a presentation of the project. The opening date, however, has not yet been fixed.

For Obiora Ike, former vicar general in the diocese of Enugu and director of the Global Ethics Center Foundation based in Geneva, restitution is also long overdue. It is right and just. Ike also believes that an apology is appropriate, and possibly compensation for damages.

Objects with cultural and religious value

Cardinal Onaiyekan said that it should not be forgotten that these are not just objects of art, but objects with cultural and religious value for many people. "We hope the government will take good care of it and the world will visit Nigeria because of it."

In Benin City, Doris Ogbeifun wishes the same. "The bronzes finally show Nigeria in a good light," says the resident of the provincial capital. Benin City has so far been known internationally mainly as a hub for human trafficking.

More than 3,000 artifacts were looted from the royal palace of the Oba, the traditional ruler, by the British conquerors during the Benin expedition in 1897, taken to Europe and ended up in art collections, museums and universities.

Claims for restitution failed for many years. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, the restitution of artworks from former colonies. Since then, the issue has increasingly preoccupied museums in other countries as well as their governments.

Francis Tawiah (Duisburg, Germany)