As we stated in last year's Restitution Day message, 'On every Restitution Day,10 November, we shall take stock of what has been done since the last celebration to bring us nearer to achieving reparative justice for the African peoples who have been deprived of their artefacts and other resources for more than hundred years. We shall also examine whether Western States have done anything about returning the human remains of our forebears kept in their institutions. We want to bury our forebears so we can retain contact between the dead and the living intact. For many of us, the dead are not gone.' (1)
We start by pleading with our ancestors to pardon us for not having been able within the last hundred years to persuade the imperialist forces of the United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and others to allow us to bury our ancestors as required by African customs and traditions. Our powerful ancestors and Oyankupon, creator of Heaven and Earth, may use all their infinite wisdom to convince the colonialists that such flagrant disregard of elementary human customs does not benefit humankind. But do colonialists and imperialists listen to any God at all?
The complete disrespect of the African and his traditions, as we observe frequently in all issues of restitution, shows itself particularly well in the matter of the return of the human remains of our ancestors that have been lingering in Western museums and other places for hundreds of years with no solutions in sight since the Western nations that stole them do not seem to have developed any greater respect. The German President recently paid a visit to Tanzania, where the issue of human remains was in question (2) The President was there to promote the exploitation of Tanzanian and Zambian mineral resources by German companies. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was on a visit to the Maji-Maji Memorial Museum and held talks with descendants of Chief Songea Mbano on 1 November 2023.
According to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 'Songea Mbano was not a traitor. Prolonging the suffering of his own people, switching sides to join the oppressors – for him, that was out of the question. He was willing to die rather than live under the yoke of colonialism. This steadfastness, this determination is plain to see on the photo that we saw in the Maji-Maji Memorial Museum. This is not the face of someone who abandons his people. The revenge that the German colonial troops took was brutal. They hanged and beheaded him together with 66 other Ngoni warriors.' (2)
The German President regretted the brutality of the German colonial authorities and asked for forgiveness. The German President plans to visit Ghana and Nigeria, which have become crucial for their natural resources.
However, the recent visit by the British King Charles III to Kenya was no particular recognition and respect for the African nationalist anti-colonial rebels whom the British brutally murdered during the British repression of the so-called Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya, the so-called "Emergency" of 1952-1960, when colonial authorities imposed a state of emergency in response to the Mau- Mau guerrilla uprising against European settlers. Despite many calls for the king to make an apology for British genocidal brutalities during the colonial period, the king refused to make such an apology. The Kenya Human Rights
Commission urged him to make an "unequivocal public apology for the brutal and inhuman treatment inflicted on Kenyan citizens" and pay reparations for colonial-era abuses.
"We call upon the King on behalf of the British government to issue an unconditional and unequivocal public apology (as opposed to the very cautious, self-preserving and protective statements of regrets) for the brutal and inhuman treatment inflicted on Kenyan citizens." (3)
African governments should not encourage visits by Heads of State or Heads of Governments of former colonial States if these persons are not willing or capable of expressing apology for the genocidal and criminal actions of their colonial predecessors. Such visits allow them to partially satisfy their conscience that they have done what needed to be done without really doing much. They may regret the actions of their predecessors, but they do not denounce those evil deeds with a promise not to repeat them and face the consequences. They also refuse to return looted artefacts.
We should only invite Heads of State or Heads of Government of former colonial powers that are willing to make unequivocal apologies for colonial crimes and are ready to return our human remains and looted artefacts. Visits without such promises remind us of our powerlessness and open wounds whose effects we still feel. We should be spared the spectacle of British, French, and German high officials pretending not to know the brutal acts in their colonies and coming to Africa to learn about them. What about the experts on colonial history in the Western capitals?
France is discussing a new law that should facilitate the restitution of human remains, but we still need to find out how many human remains the French are keeping in their public institutions. Musée de l'Homme alone is said to hold over 18,000 human remains. Many of these are likely from the former French colonies in Africa. (4)
France has issued a new report on the restitution of artefacts, Le rapport Martinez which is more likely to delay the restitution of looted African artefacts, seems to have been issued to counteract the effects of the Sarr-Savoy report, which proposed that stolen African artefacts should be returned to their owners. (5)
Côte d'Ivoire and other African countries have rejected the Martinez Report since its tendency is to hinder the restitution of looted artefacts. (6)
Readers may remember that in May 2023, a decree of the President of Nigeria reaffirming the rights of the Oba of Benin in the Benin artefacts that have been returned to Nigeria was used as a pretext by some Western circles to halt actions on restitution . The University of Cambridge was to sign an agreement with Nigeria to transfer two hundred artefacts to postpone the signing ceremony. The Nigerian Commission on Museums Director declared he was awaiting clarifications on the new decree. Whether he received the desired clarifications on the new decree and what these were has not been reported. The confusion created in the minds of those less enthusiastic about restitution has been used to delay further restitutions.
Nevertheless, restitution has gained more support even in Great Britain despite the well-known reactionary position of the British Government, the British Museum, and the British elite. Everywhere in Britain, groups are urging the Government to repatriate looted African artefacts. The all-parliamentary group Afrikan Reparations APPG organized a successful conference on Reparation and Restitution-21 October 2023. The group made recommendations on restitution, which include, among other things:
- A review by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Arts Council England on the treatment and restitution of ancestral remains within heritage/museum settings in England.
- the proposal of new legislation that applies similar provisions of the 2009 Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) to stolen African artefacts and ancestral remains in UK collections. (7) . Although entirely in agreement with the group's proposals, we would suggest that efforts be made simultaneously to persuade the British Museum to interpret the British Museum Act, 1963 to permit the restitution of looted colonial artefacts.
The APPG-AR continues the work of the Honourable Bernie Grant MP (1944–2000) on the restitution of African artefacts and ancestral remains. The group has the support of true Pan-Africanists and is following the tradition set by Bernie Grant, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney, and others of the Diaspora to support the legitimate demands of African States for restitution and reparation. They realize that the African Diaspora's interest is bound to Africa's success. They do not follow theories that seek to oppose the Diaspora to the Mother Continent but instead count on the continuous cooperation between Africa and her Diaspora in all matters.
Recent reports on massive thefts in the British Museum by officials have led to a significant fall in the confidence many people had in the British Museum and its pretence to be a safe and secure place for the thousands of looted artefacts found in the venerable citadel. People have begun to question the legitimacy of keeping the precious treasures of Africans and other peoples. Egypt, China, Nigeria, Greece, and other countries have reiterated their claims for the return of their artefacts from the British Museum. The old imperial institution can no longer rely on an unquestioned authority to keep colonial spoils and thefts. (8)
Ghana has reiterated its demand for the restitution of the Asante Regalia and other golden artefacts looted by the British Army in 1874. These precious treasures are still in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection, all in London. What needs to be made clear is whether the Ghanaian request was for loans of the artefacts, as the British museum's websites would seem to indicate, or whether the demand was for a full restitution of ownership rights to Ghana, as many would want. We unequivocally favour the restitution of full ownership rights to Ghana, as Nigeria received ownership rights in the Benin artefacts that Germany restituted in 2022. (9)
An equally important development is the number of international conferences and seminars on restitution that have taken place:
- University of Maastricht, MACCH Conference 2023: Provenance, Restitution and Return https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/events/macch-conference-2023-provenance-restitution-and-return
- Shanghai University, China. Museums, decolonization, and restitution: a global conversation 20th- 21st March 2023.https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Museums-decolonisation-and-restitution-Expert-Seminiar-Programme-1.pdf
- Open Society's Global Convening for the Restitution of African Heritage, Accra, Ghana. W.E.B Dubois Centre for Pan-African Culture. https://na.eventscloud.com/website/59673/home/
- Yale Law School, INTERSECTIONS: Dialogues on Memory, Restitution, and Justice. 3 March 2023. https://law.yale.edu/yls-today/yale-law-school-events/intersections-dialogues-memory-restitution-and-justice
- University of Ghana, Legon, Restitution, Museums, and Cultural Policies in West Africa, 22 June 2023. https://www.ug.edu.gh/mias-africa/sites/mias-africa/files/images/Programme%20MIASA%20Restitution%20Conference%202023%2016.06.23.pdf
The time for restitution has come, and there is no going back to the imperialist silence to requests for return by former colonies. African States should not slow the rate of progress by entering into compromises that tend to restore the status quo, even if such offers are couched in the language of cooperation and accompanied by suggestions of scholarships, training, and visits to imperial capitals. Training is no substitute for treasure. (10) Our mothers and fathers created these national treasures without the help of Western conquerors, and we kept them safely before colonialist invasions. We can keep our treasures without any further education from colonialist museums and institutions.
‘African art, like any great art, some would say, in any case more than any other, and for a long time if not always, is first of all in man, in the emotion of man transmitted to objects by man and his society.
This is the reason why one cannot separate the problem of the fate of African art from the fate of the African man, that is to say the fate of Africa itself’
Aimé Césaire, Discours sur l’art africain 1966.
1. K. Opoku, Restitution Day: Remembrance And Reckoning https://www.modernghana.com/news/1193895/restitution-day-remembrance-and-reckoning.html
4. Art Daily.com A Paris Museum holds 18,000 skulls but refuses to say whose.
5. K. Opoku, Does The Martinez Report Constitute A Pre-Announced Burial Of African Cultural Artefacts In French Museums?
6. Analyse critique du Rapport Martinez et recommandations par les experts ivoiriens. Power Point presentation, private communication.
The conclusion of an analysis of the Rapport Martinez by Ivoirien experts is categorical:
8. K. Opoku, Can We Trust The British Museum With Our Cultural Treasures? https://www.modernghana.com/news/1257371/can-we-trust-the-british-museum-with-our-cultural.html
9. K. Opoku, Reclaiming Looted Asante Gold (Ghana): Triumph Of Morality Over Brutality?
https://www.modernghana.com/news/1206933/reclaiming-looted-asante-gold-ghana-triumph.html K. Opoku, British To Loan Looted Asante Gold Artefacts To Asante/Ghana? https://www.modernghana.com/news/1232230/british-to-loan-looted-asante-gold-artefacts-to.html
Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures
10. K. Opoku, Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures https://www.modernghana.com/news/320680/queen-mother-idia-and-others-must-return-home-training-cour.html
Gou, God of Iron and God of War, Republic of Benin. Created by Akati
Ekplekende, Benin in 1858, and now in Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac at the Palais des Sessions, Paris, France. Among the most impressive objects in the Pavillon is the sculpture of Gou, God of iron and of war the French looted in 1892 from the former colony, Dahomey, now in the Republic of Bénin has requested the restitution of Gou but this was not among the twenty-six artefacts that France returned to the Republic of Bénin in November 2021.
Gold mask,20cm in height weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold seized the British from Kumase, Ghana, in 1874 and now in Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom. Wallace Collection states that this is the most important and famous work of Asante art. Yet they are not worried that this work is not available to Asnate and Ghanaian artists. How would European art have developed if the famous and important European art works were in Africa?
Nefertiti ,Egypt ,now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. Will the Germans allow the Egyptian queen to return home to Egypt?