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13.08.2008 Feature Article

Safeguarding Nigeria’s Cultural Treasures

NOK TERRACOTTA ACQUIRED ILLEGALLY BY FRANCE -Seated person. Nok cultural object, 500 BC - 500 AD. Quai Branly, depot of Louvre, inv. No. 70. 1998.11. One of the three stolen items from Nigeria now in Paris, with the agreement of the Nigerian Government.NOK TERRACOTTA ACQUIRED ILLEGALLY BY FRANCE -Seated person. Nok cultural object, 500 BC - 500 AD. Quai Branly, depot of Louvre, inv. No. 70. 1998.11. One of the three stolen items from Nigeria now in Paris, with the agreement of the Nigerian Government.

There are probably few countries in the world that can boast of such an abundance of cultural treasures as Nigeria, one of the richest countries in the world. But Nigeria has also an enormous amount of organizational problems which are also reflected in the cultural area. The constant lamentations about the weak security in many Nigerian museums often cause distress to those concerned about the fate of cultural objects that were unlawfully taken out of the country and which have to be returned in the future. Those conscious of these problems are discussing how to combat corruption in this area and how to achieve high standards of security.

The report below shows that many concerned groups and individuals are seeking ways to ensure that museum officials are accountable and that the authorities responsible for cultural matters are working towards high standards.

It should be mentioned though that the question of restitution is by no means linked to the availability of high standards or security. Greece possesses all these necessary requirements and is not getting the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Indeed, Greece has built a new museum for that very purpose and the British do not appear in anyway to be impressed. Those holding illegal cultural property are not likely to be impressed by any improvement in the architectural design of museums or in increase in security. In any case, as I have explained at length elsewhere, it is not for the thief to determine whether the owner is qualified to hold his or her property. In other words, the need for better organization and security in Nigeria and elsewhere should not be linked to the issue of restitution, however important the issue may be. Those who took the treasures away did not advance safekeeping as their motive!

We should encourage individuals and organizations that are trying to improve the conditions of museums in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Kwame Opoku. 13 August, 2008.

Nigeria: Safe-Guarding Our Treasures

Daily Trust (Abuja)
12 August 2008
Posted to the web 12 August 2008

The original Benin bronze-head, the exquisite symbol of the creative ingenuity of the Bini, Nigerian and indeed African people still lies in some British museum where it is being kept, after having been stolen by the British colonialists.

Sporadic efforts at reclaiming it a few years ago became a court case and the British Court ruled that the bronze head may have originated from Nigeria but it is now a priceless world cultural heritage and therefore can be kept by any country, particularly when the country holding it would do a better job at its safe-keeping.

The bronze head is one of many Nigerian cultural artifacts stolen by the British during the colonial period. The pillaging however has not stopped. Whereas in colonial times, many of these artifacts were taken by force, these days the perpetrators are the researchers and tourists who talk Nigerians, particularly workers in museums, into parting with these artifacts for pittance.

The result is that the nation's museums have allegedly been swept clean of these important cultural possessions. The ministry of culture and tourism, apparently has defined its brief only as the promotion of tourism, it therefore hardly undertakes any audit of these artifacts; but where it remembers to do so, the outcome is left to gather dust, forgotten in some disused cupboard. Hence under our noses our priced cultural possessions are being carted away, albeit in a surreptitious manner. Thankfully, a group named Benin National Congress {BNC} has taken up the challenge.

Recently it instituted a case at the Federal High Court sitting in Benin City, against the Federal Government to conclude and publish its investigations on some missing national art works. The group joined as respondents the Attorney General of the Federation, the minister of Tourism and Culture, National Commission for Museums and Monuments and others. It is seeking an order to compel the release and publication of an "investigation into the allegation of theft, looting or disappearance of priceless Bini artifacts in the Benin Museum." While we await the ruling of the court, similar investigations should be carried out into other museums across the country to ascertain what is remaining of the art works in their custody. The Benin museum's case illustrates the sad circumstances that has befallen museums in the country where those employed to safe guard the artifacts are sometimes the same people that are stealing and selling them. A similar case of disappearance of archival materials from the ministry of information comprising of important historical photographs, which was retrieved from a retired staff of the ministry, is a case in point.

Before its retrieval, the ministry of information paid this former staff for documents he illegally took, whenever it needed to mount these pictures during official occasions. All this shows that due to lack of proper supervision and the needed, vigilance important national treasures are taken away and sold, invariably cheaply thereby depriving the nation of its historical and cultural assets.

Two challenges stare us in the face in the attempt to halt this pillage. First, the Federal Government urgently should constitute a committee or panel to undertake an immediate audit of what remains of the artifacts in order to know the scale of what have been lost. After this, it should find a way of re-possessing the lost items through whatever means, but more importantly through the threat of legal action, as being in possession of a stolen item makes one liable. Secondly, an urgent re- organization of bodies and structures charged with managing the nation's arts and artifacts need to be undertaken to weed out thieves masquerading as workers. All said, nothing should stop any attempt at protecting what constitutes an important aspect of our cultural and historical heritage.

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

This author has authored 249 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

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