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Tue, 02 May 2023 Feature Article

Does Affirmation Of The Rights Of The Oba In Benin Artefacts Confuse Some Western Museums?

Gelede mask, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in Muse du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, France.Gelede mask, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, France.
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Readers will recall that in a previous article, I mentioned the recent Declaration of the Nigerian Federal Government that recognizes the ownership of the Oba of Benin in the repatriated Benin artefacts, including his right of control and administration of the Benin treasures. We also suggested that this new Declaration should end any disputes or doubts about the Monarch’s rights in the Benin treasures and reaffirm his rights before the British looted and burned Benin City in 1897. The words of the new Declaration were unambiguous and left no doubts. (1)

I was, therefore, surprised to read some days later that some considered this new law as adding further controversies and creating confusion or uncertainties for Western museums that had already entered into agreements with Nigeria’s National Commission on Museums and Monuments(NCMM). The Art Newspaper under the headline,’ Nigeria transfers ownership of Benin bronzes to royal ruler-confusing European museums’ plans to return artefacts wrote:

The move may complicate plans to house the works in future museum such as the Edo Museum of West African Art.’ (2)

Western commentators must hold their disappointment at the recognition of the Oba’s rights within normal limits of respect and decency. How could a Western commentator state ‘ The Oba’s approach to ownership of some of the greatest artworks ever produced in the continent of Africa – as essentially a personal collection that exalts his slave trading ancestors and his own status – hardly meets the expectations of contemporary museums or of public policy. Especially not today, when museums are constantly being exhorted to present “truths” about oppression and exploitation.’

As for ‘slave trading ancestors,’ a Westerner should be careful in transforming the nefarious transatlantic traffic into a purely African affair, especially if she comes from a country whose history and society are dominated by the notorious crime against humanity. Would she apply such a description to the monarchs of Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden or the presidents of France and the United States of America? (3)

If Western museums need clarification, then they must have had an assessment of ownership rights in the Benin treasures that is entirely different from that of the Benin people and their Monarch.

The fact that museums have made agreements with the NCMM transferring rights to Nigeria in the repatriated artefacts should create no problems as the Commission never pretended to be receiving these rights as an owner but as acting on behalf of the Nigerian Government.

The NCMM is an organ of the Nigerian Federal Government and works on behalf of the Federal Government. (4)

The distinct but complementary roles of the Oba of Benin and the NCMM were defined in a decree by the President of Nigeria dated 21 February 2022.

These artefacts are part of the records of the history of the Benin people.

“My directive to return these artefacts to the Oba of Benin marks the beginning of another aspect in the highly valuable relationship between the Federal Government of Nigeria and our traditional rulers, who are indeed the true custodians of our history, customs, and traditions.

“This directive is also significant because it will introduce a working relationship between the Federal Government as represented by the NCMM and the traditional institutions whereby the Commission negotiates the release of antiquities from foreign museums and institutions on behalf of Nigeria and the traditional institutions that lost the antiquities and jointly they all take steps to ensure the valorisation of Nigeria and Nigerian peoples through these great arts and cultural emblems.” (5)

From the above citations from the Presidential Decree, it is clear that the MCMM representing the Nigerian Federal Government negotiates with foreign governments on behalf of Nigeria and the traditional institutions for the lost artefacts; they cooperate to safeguard and preserve Nigerian culture. The traditional leaders are considered the true guardians of Nigerian customs and traditions.

How can anybody or an institution still be in doubt about who should receive the looted treasures and guard them?

No doubt, the constant doubts Western museums and others raised about the Oba’s ownership rights and the Benin people’s abilities to protect and guard their treasures have led the Nigerian President once again to affirm the rights of the Oba and leave no doubts on the matter.

Some never wanted this issue settled because such divisions between groups in Nigeria offered them what they considered valid grounds for further delays in restituting the looted Benin artefacts they have held for more than 125 years. They greet attempts to settle disputed ownership issues as creating confusion.

Others had schemes for receiving and administering the returned Benin treasures without referencing the Oba or consulting the revered Monarch and his administration. One can understand, without accepting their motives, their disappointment. Sometimes, it seemed as if there was a

plan to deprive the Oba and the Edo people of their artefacts and their resources’

A body independent of the Oba could transfer, sell, or loan the treasures of the Edo people without any Edo representatives being aware.

Some hoped there would eventually be no need to render an apology or pay compensation when elements independent of the traditional Monarch control the repatriated treasures.

The Presidential Declaration of 2023 recognizes the ownership of the Oba and vests in him the management and custody of the repatriated looted Benin

artefacts settle finally the question of who the owners of the repatriated treasures are.

However, we can expect untenable excuses from those who never supported restitution and believe the return of a few looted artefacts has taken the matter too far. They may frame their doubts or objections regarding inadequate museums in Nigeria, but the main objective is to delay the restitution of looted colonial artefacts.

The racism, underlying colonialism, and, consequently, the looting of African artefacts comes to light when museums present baseless arguments. We see a solid determination to support and offer any idea, however weak it may be, so long as it serves as an excuse for delaying the restitution of looted colonial artefacts.

An innocent bystander hearing current discussions on restitution of African artefacts may be forgiven for thinking that Africans were asking Westerners for the masterpieces of Western art and not for the return of African treasures looted with violence during the colonial period.

Kwame Opoku.
NOTES
1. K. Opoku, Are Western Museums Entitled to Loans of African Artefacts after Reluctant ‘partial’ Restitution? https://www.modernghana.com/news/1224865/are-western-museums-entitled-to-loans-of-african.html

2. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/04/26/who-will-museums-partner-with-over-benin-bronzes-now-eyebrows-raised-as-latest-nigerian-government-announcement-makes-oba-owner-

Nigeria transfers ownership of Benin Bronzes to royal ruler—confusing European museums’ plans to return artefacts

https://usaartnews.com/news/who-will-museums partner-with-over-benin-bronzes-now-eyebrows-raised-as-latest-nigerian-government-announcement-makes-oba-owner-of-artefacts

3. Nigeria Gives Benin Ruler Exclusive Ownership of Bronzes

https://culturalpropertynews.org/nigeria-gives-benin-ruler-exclusive-ownership-of-bronzes/

There is overwhelming evidence that certain non-African countries benefited more from the notorious Trans-Atlantic slave trade than African countries.

The economic consequences are obvious: the most developed countries in the West are largely those whose modernity is rooted in the Transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery. The African body was a commodity; and manpower, a cheap resource. Note that this was continued in the colonial era where, once again, African human and natural resources were cheap for the colonialist European buyer who determined the price and worth of that which he was buying. Don't we see echoes of that today in the unequal trade practices where the West still determines the price and worth of what it gets from Africa while also determining the price and worth of what it sells to Africa?’

UN CHRONICLE ; Learning from Slavery– The Legacy of the Slave Trade on Modern Society https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/learning-slavery-legacy-slave-trade-modern-society

We can say with Aimé Césaire:
‘And I say to myself Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint and my calcaneus on the spines of skyscrapers and my filth in the glitter of gems!

Who can boast of being better off than I? Virginia. Tennessee. Georgia. Alabama Monstrous putrefaction of revolts stymied, marshes of putrid blood trumpets absurdly muted Land red, sanguineous, consanguineous land.’

NOTEBOOK OF A RETURN TO THE NATIVE LAND ... by AIME CESAIRE translated by Clayton Eshleman & Annette Smith

https://kboo.fm/sites/default/files/AIME%20CESAIRE0NATIVE%20LAND.pdf

French :
‘Et je me dis Bordeaux et Nantes et Liverpool et New York et San Francisco pas un bout de ce monde qui ne porte mon empreinte digitale et mon calcanéum sur le dos des gratte-ciel et ma crasse dans le scintillement des gemmes !

Qui peut se vanter d'avoir mieux que moi ? Virginie. Tennessee. Géorgie. Alabama Putréfactions monstrueuses de révoltes inopérantes, marais de sang putrides trompettes absurdement bouchées Terres rouges, terres sanguines, terres consanguines.’

https://susa-literatura.eus/kaierakm/aime-cesaire-cahier_d'un_retour_au_pays_natal.pdf

See Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

1956, p.44.
4. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) was established through Decree 77 of 1979 as a replacement to the Federal Antiquities Department. The function of the Commission is to manage the collection, documentation, conservation, and presentation of the National cultural properties for the purposes of education, enlightenment, and entertainment. Decree 77 of 1979 has been re-enacted as NCMM Act, cap N19,

Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.’ https://museum.ng/

5. K. Opoku, Nigerian President Clarifies Principles on Restitution of Looted Artefacts https://www.modernghana.com/news/1142063/nigerian-president-clarifies-principles-on-restitu.html



DOES AFFIRMATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE OBA IN BENIN ARTEFACTS CONFUSE SOME WESTERN MUSEUMS?

Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Weltmuseum, Vienna, Austria.

Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Gelede mask, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, France.

Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nigerian Nok terracotta bought by the French, now in the possession of the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac/ Louvre, Palais des Sessions, Paris, France, with a dubious post factum consent of the Nigerian government.

Priest with a gong. Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Is he coming home or is he on permanent loan to the German museum?

Saltcellar, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Slit drums player, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.



ANNEX I
NOTICE OF PRESIDENTIAL DECLARATION ON THE RECOGNITION OF OWNERSHIP, AND AN ORDER VESTING CUSTODY AND MANAGEMENT OF REPATRIATED LOOTED BENIN ARTEFACTS IN THE OBA OF BENIN KINGDOM

Federal Republic of Nigeria Official Gazette No. 57 Lagos - 28th March, 2023 Vol. 110 Government Notice No. 25

The following is published as supplement to this Gazette :

Order. Short Title Page 1
Notice of Presidential Declaration — On the Recognition of Ownership, and an Order Vesting Custody and Management of Repatriated Looted Benin Artefacts in the Oba of Benin Kingdom .. .. .. .. A245-247

Printed and Published by The Federal Government Printer, Lagos, Nigeria FGP 45/32023/600

Extraordinary A 244 A 245
NOTICE OF PRESIDENTIAL DECLARATION ON THE RECOGNITION OF OWNERSHIP, AND AN ORDER VESTING CUSTODY AND MANAGEMENT OF REPATRIATED LOOTED BENIN ARTEFACTS IN THE OBA OF BENIN KINGDOM

[23rd Day of March, 2023]
3. WHEREAS, after the invasion of the Palace and the Kingdom, the looted artefacts were taken to different museums and private collections around the world through gifts, loans, exchanges, purchases and other means ;

4. WHEREAS, the earliest known auction of some of the looted artefacts was in 1897, through an advertisement in the British Times Newspaper in May, 1897, for the sale of the artefacts ;

5. WHEREAS, as the custodian of the culture, tradition and heritage of the Benin kingdom and people, the ownership and title of the artefacts and other art works such as crafts, creative works and other cultural endowments made of bronze, clay, charcoal, iron, ivory, raffia, silver, wood, are attributed, ascribed and known to symbolically belong to the Oba ;

6. WHEREAS, the Oba and the Federal Government of Nigeria have been making concerted and frantic efforts to secure the repatriation of the looted artefacts from the custody of all the museums and private collections located in distinct parts of the world, for the preservation of Benin culture, heritage and tradition in line with the —

(a) 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (The UNESCO Convention),

(b) 1978 UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP), and Commencement. Order No. 1 of 2023 A 246

(c) 1995 International Institute on the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects ; and

7. WHEREAS, in consequence of the request for the repatriation of these artefacts, the Oba received some artefacts repatriated from Jesus College, Cambridge, and is awaiting the release of further looted artefacts ;

8. NOW THEREFORE, as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and in the exercise of the powers conferred on me by section 5 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as altered, I, MUHAMMADU BUHARI, hereby give notice, declare and order that the — (a) ownership of the artefacts looted from the ancient Palace of the Oba and other parts of Benin kingdom be and is vested in the Oba,

(b) custody of the repatriated artefacts, shall, from wherever and whenever they are brought into Nigeria, be handed over to the Oba as the original owner and custodian of the culture, heritage and tradition of the people of Benin kingdom in Edo State of Nigeria,

(c) repatriated artefacts may be kept within the Palace of the Oba or such other locations within Benin City, or any other place that the Oba and the Federal Government of Nigeria may consider secure and safe,

(d) Oba shall be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated artefacts are domiciled or located,

(e) Oba shall work jointly with any recognized national or international institution to ensure the preservation and security of the repatriated artefacts for the benefit of humanity, and

(f ) repatriated artefacts shall not be taken out of the designated custody without the written consent and authorisation of the Oba, and upon such return, the artefacts shall first be inspected and authenticated by the Oba before it is accepted and restored to its designated custody.

Citation
9. This Notice may be cited as the Recognition of Ownership, and an Order Vesting Custody and Management of the Repatriated Looted Benin Artefacts in the Oba of Benin Kingdom,2023.

Interpretation.
10. In this Notice, —
artefacts” mean any work of art of Benin kingdom and people, which were looted and carted away, following the invasion of the ancient Palace of the Oba and other parts of the Benin Kingdom by the British Royal Marines in 1897, or immediately thereafter, some of which have been returned and include crafts, creative works and other cultural endowments made of bronze, clay, charcoal, iron, ivory, raffia, silver, wood, and of whatever materials ; and

“President” means the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

DATED this 23rd day of March, 2023. MUHAMMADU BUHARI President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.

MUHAMMADU BUHARI
President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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