Mon, 11 Mar 2013 Feature Article

“benin Plan Of Action” (2): Will This Miserable Project Be The Last Word On The Looted Benin Artefacts?

Members of the British Punitive Expedition which invaded Benin in 1897 posing proudly with the Benin artefacts they looted.Members of the British Punitive Expedition which invaded Benin in 1897 posing proudly with the Benin artefacts they looted.

"There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also these seemed to a fate. Here was this head center of iniqiuty, spared by us from its suitable end of burning for the sake of holding the new seat of justice where barbarism had held away, given into our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into every corner and ........ fire only could purge it, and here on our last day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it

(1) R. H. Bacon, the Punitive Expedition's Intelligence Officer wrote on the burning of the Benin Royal Palace.

We have just read a detailed report from Tajudeen Sowole on the so called Benin Plan of Action for Restitution (2) and would like to make a few comments on some of the issues arising that we did not deal with in our previous article on this subject. (3)

The meeting at which this miserable document was prepared on February 19, 2013, happened to be the same date on which the British carried on their nefarious attack on Benin in 1897. Was this a mere coincidence? We can only hope that at least a minute's silence was observed in the honour of all those who lost their lives in one of the most egregious acts of British imperialist aggressions in Africa. (4)

We learn from the report that the British Museum was invited but could not attend because of unresolved travel difficulties. Can anyone believe this? Or were the officials of the venerable museum playing again a game similar to the one they played with the notorious Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums which they inspired and engineered for support against Greece but did not eventually sign?(5)

Regarding the 1970 UNESCO CONVENTION (Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970) which the meeting hoped to discuss and review next time, Prof. Folarin Shyllon, an expert on the Convention, pointed out that the Convention has no retroactive effect and that no State would enter into a treaty with retroactive effect. It is not clear to me which side raised the issue of the Convention but the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National is reported to have pleaded with the visitors and noted “the hurdles placed on our way by the various Conventions and applicable international laws that govern repatriation of heritage objects”. This suggests to me that some participant must have created the misleading impression that the UNESCO Convention and other rules of International Law place obstacles on the way to restitution. Nothing could be further from the truth than this myth deliberately and knowingly entertained and spread by some Westerners.

Plaque of Oba Ozolua with warrior attendants, Benin, Nigeria,Ethnology Museum, Vienna.

That the UNESCO Convention has no retroactive effect is accepted by all and is indeed common knowledge. This means that the Convention does not affect acts done before its entry into force. It neither approves nor disapproves of past events. That is all. From this, some Westerners have developed the notion that the looting and other wrongful acts done before the entry into force of the Convention are saved by the Convention and one is prohibited by the Convention from reclaiming artefacts looted or stolen before 1970. They thus give the Convention a retroactive effect in their favour. But this is surely wrong.

That the Convention does not provide a basis for reclaiming acts done before its entry into force clearly does not mean it prevents or prohibits reclaiming artefacts looted before 1970. The various restitution to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Peru show that no international law prevents restitution if States are willing to do so. (6)

The Convention itself provides in its article 15 that

“Nothing in this Convention shall prevent States Parties thereto from concluding special agreements among themselves or from continuing to implement agreements already concluded regarding the restitution of cultural property removed, whatever the reason, from its territory of origin, before the entry into force of this Convention for the States concerned.”

States are thus free to enter into bilateral agreements to effect restitution. They may also bring legal action on the basis of International Law or Municipal Law, independent of the Convention.

We hope that the legal experts at the meeting pointed out some of the difficulties involved in trying to revise a convention and the time it would take to reach an agreement concerning the text of a convention on a subject where there are great divergences of views. The 1970 UNESCO was ratified by many major European States only 30 years after its entry into force and many African States have not yet ratified it.

Ivory hip mask. Benin, Nigeria, now in Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany.

What the representatives of Western museums tend to omit in their statements on restitution is the fact that the United Nations and UNESCO as well as several international conferences have urged the return of cultural artefacts to their countries of origin. (7) These museums are also required by the Code of Conduct of ICOM (International Council on Museums) to take the initiative in starting discussions with the owners of the looted artefacts.

Some of the statements attributed to Dr. Peter Junge, Director of the Etnologisches Museum, Berlin, are remarkable. ”Between 160 years ago and now, nothing has been done, but the dialogue has started now.”

It should be recalled that after the defeat of Benin in 1897, following the notorious British invasion, the Kingdom of Benin became part of the British colony of Nigeria which gained its independence in 1960. Thus for most of the period Dr. Junge is talking about, only the British could have done anything about the looted Benin artefacts. They should indeed have returned the objects at the Independence of Nigeria. Nothing of the sort happened. According to the great Ekpo Eyo, after Independence, when a museum was to be opened in Benin City, a request was sent to all the holders of Benin bronzes, including Dr, Junge's own country, Germany, asking for the return of some of the Benin bronzes. Not a single item was returned.

Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Leipzig, Germany.

In the last decades several demands have been made to the holders for the return of the artefacts. The late Bernie Grant, a Member of the British Parliament, requested several times the return of the Benin Bronzes but his appeal fell on deaf ears; Nigerian Government, Parliament and other constituted bodies have also called for the return of artefacts but to no avail.

We recall the request made for FESTAC 77 by the Nigerian Government for the loan/return of the hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia which was last worn by Oba Owonramwen. Nothing came out of this. It was said by the British that the mask could not travel and were also asking for a horrendous amount of money for insurance. Prof. Tunde Balewale renewed this request and got an answer from Neil MacGregor who did not even mention the hip mask. (8) We recall also that the Oba of Benin presented a petition to the British Parliament, known as Appendix 21...That also received a negative answer. Above all, in the last decades, the holders of the Benin Bronzes developed all kinds of arguments to resist claims for the artefacts. They developed a strategy of denying that there has been any demand for the artefacts at the very moment the demands were being made.

There have also been several Benin exhibitions, for example, Benin: Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria, 2006 in Vienna, which went to Paris, Berlin and Chicago as well as an exhibition in Stockholm. The Oba of Benin, as owner of the looted artefacts, has on these occasions requested the return of the artefacts. These facts must be borne in mind when one looks back at the last 100 or more years. The unwillingness of those holding the looted artefacts even to discuss the issue was much evident in the last decades. Much time was also spent in insulting the original owners of the artefacts by arguing that they are or were unable to protect the artefacts. This is difficult to counter-attack, coming from the States that stole or connived at the stealing of the objects. The very acts of invasion and looting appear to be irrefutable evidence of our inability to protect our artefacts. This argument would also apply to Ethiopia (Maqdala) and Ghana (Asante) where similar acts of invasion and plunder were committed by the British Army.

It is therefore not entirely correct to say nothing was done in all those years since the notorious invasion. Benin tried to regain its stolen property but to no avail because of the resistance of the holders of the illegal property.

Further statements are attributed to Dr. Junge: “The idea of Benin objects will change in our minds”, he assured. “I am sure, you will see the objects in Nigeria.” He however cautioned that “I am not saying in three days, next month or next year, but it will happen.”

According to report, Junge's idea of bringing the works to Nigeria was on the understanding that they would be returned to the current holding museums

What Junge means by “the idea of Benin objects will change in our minds” is not clear to me but I wonder what that has to do with restitution. Was he trying to heighten the interest of Nigerians in their own artefacts? Or was he reminding them that they had not seen the excellent 580 artefacts that his museum has been keeping for more than 100 years since the Germans acquired them in the same year of the notorious invasion in 1897?

But what is clear is the statement, regarding when the objects will be seen in Nigeria: “I am not saying in three days, next month or next year, but it will happen.” This can be interpreted as “never” or that this could happen in some years or decades. Thus you have a plan of action with no time framework. In other words one makes promises or raises hope which need not be realized within a specific time limitation hence it may never be fulfilled. Worse, if the objects ever come to Nigeria, they will be returned to the illegal possessors. What then do the peoples of Benin and Nigeria gain from this plan which merely hopes to show them their looted cultural objects at a distant future and then return them to the Western museums? The whole performance here could be part of an absurd theatre piece or from children's book.

Oba Esigie on horseback with retainers.Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua, Enogie of Obazuwa, representative of the Oba at the meeting which discussed the so-called Benin Plan of Action, is reported to have declared that:”there is nothing in the Plan of Action that really addresses restitution“. It is difficult not to agree with the opinion of the prince who is well versed in the issue of restitution of the Benin artefacts, having represented the Oba at various places where the matter was discussed.

It is remarkable that the demand for the return of the Benin bronzes is met with such resistance whereas Egypt, Italy, Greece and Turkey have received a considerable number of artefacts without much difficulty. Why is Nigeria having so much trouble in getting anything back? What is the difference between Nigeria and the other States? Could racism and colour be an important factor here?

A meeting that was awaited with some hope that it would contribute to bringing back the Benin bronzes looted by the British in 1897, has by all accounts, sought to confirm the loot by the British: the meeting proposed keeping the artefacts in Western museums where they are now.

After very careful consideration of the so-called Benin Plan of Action for Restitution, I have come to the conclusion that the plan, which has no time frame-work or concrete restitution proposals, is not in the interest of Benin, nor of Nigeria nor of Africa.

It would be advisable for the Oba of Benin and his people to avoid participation in such meetings unless they have the following:

a) Firm commitments that the objective of the meeting is to secure the return of a considerable number of the more than 3000 objects that the British looted in 1897. The British kept part for themselves and sold the rest to Germans, Austrians, Americans and others.

b) Concrete time frame-work within which the artefacts are to be returned.

The Ethnology Museum, Berlin, which has some 580 Benin artefacts and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, which has some 167 Benin objects could have made a start and set a good example by bringing or promising to return some of the objects. Or do they believe they need these objects more than the people of Benin? Western museums do not show much sensitivity towards Africans who have been deprived of their artefacts. They could have taken advantage of the occasion of the meeting in Benin City, from where the objects were taken and meeting on the same date as the invasion in 1897, they could have returned some of the artefacts, in a symbolic gesture that could have earned them great sympathy. But concrete symbolism is not part of the strategies of Western museums that have unlimited and uncontrolled appetite for the cultural artefacts of other peoples, especially Africans and Asians.

We often have the impression that it is in discussions on such issues as restitution of cultural artifacts that Westerners show their deep contempt for Africans. Much of what is heard here would not be heard in discussions with other peoples. We would not hear any of this in discussions between Western museums and Italians or Turks, Much of what is said would not be said in discussions with successors to victims of Nazi plunders. Care would have been exercised to avoid any remarks or words that could be perceived as insulting. But with Africans, such museum officials are less inhibited or worried. But are the Westerners alone to be blamed? When have we heard African officials react strongly to remarks by Westerners?

On hearing the statements attributed to Dr. Junge, an innocent bystander might well believe that the Nigerians were asking for a loan of some of the icons of German culture and that Queen-Mother Idia and the others were ancient Germans whose memory is of more importance to German history than to Nigerian history. The hesitation to bring those artefacts soon and at definite dates then become understandable. Alas, we are here dealing with evidence and records of Benin culture and history which the Europeans have stolen and are reluctant to return.

Female figure, Benin, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany.

What is equally remarkable is that Westerners appear not to have any feelings of regret or remorse for what their predecessors did in violently dispossessing Africans of their cultural artefacts. On the contrary, many appear to be specialized in defending the past imperialist and colonial atrocities. Expressions such as “regret” or “sorry” are hardly heard.

There must be limits to the extent that a people can suffer indignity and humiliation, even for African peoples who have suffered colonial aggression, defeat, humiliation, slavery and colonial domination. That we could not resist imperialist aggression and slavery is painful enough but must we accept that successors to those who have looted/stolen our artefacts come to our cities to inform us that they will show us what was stolen but would not return them? Where then is our dignity? Would they dare to tell a meeting on restitution of Nazi looted artefacts such stories, advancing irrelevant arguments?

Those representing Nigeria in such meetings must bear in mind that they are also representing the rest of the African peoples who have claims to looted/stolen artefacts still in Western museums. A bad precedent set with the help of some Nigerians would be a disservice to our Continent that has suffered enough and has been robbed of its rich cultural heritage by the very colonialists who said we were primitive and had no culture.

One of a pair of leopard figures, now in the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force sent a pair of leopards to the British Monarch, Queen Victoria soon after the looting and burning of Benin City

After revealing the miserable project titled “Benin Plan of Action for Restitution”, which is no plan of action and does not deal with restitution, can anyone continue to affirm that Nigeria's approach to restitution is working?

We have defined restitution to mean the return for good, not for display, of a contested artefact such as the hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia. Has Nigeria received in the last 50 years or so any such artefact from the illegal holders?

Or is the mere fact of meeting face to face with representatives of the illegal holders in itself a success?

If an approach has not been successful for 50 years, surely we must change it. We must look at those who have been successful and learn from them. Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey have achieved considerable success and should serve as examples. Nigeria cannot continue to persist in an unsuccessful approach for another 50 years. We owe it to future generations, Nigeria, Africa and ourselves to look at reality in face and take the necessary consequential decisions and steps.

“As for the ownership status of the works, who does not know that Benin is the true owner despite the semantics and legalese by the international community?

We have had enough of these meetings which only end as academic exercise.”

Prince Edun Egharese, Enogie of Obazuwa. (9)
1. R. H. Bacon, Benin: City of Blood (pp. 107-108) cited by the great Ekpo Eyo, “Benin; The Sack that was”,



4. The story of Benin has been told several times but I found the short account by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie very useful: “In February 1897, an elite British force of about 1200 men (supported by several hundred African auxiliary troops and thousands of African porters) besieged Benin City, capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, whose ruler, the Oba Ovonramwen sat on a throne that was a thousand years old. The British Punitive Expedition used Maxim machine guns to mow down most of the Oba's 130,000 soldiers and secure control of the capital city. They set fire to the city and looted the palace of 500 years worth of bronze objects that constituted the royal archive of Benin's history, an irreplaceable national treasure. The king and his principal chiefs fled into the countryside, pursued by British forces that lay waste to the countryside as a strategy to force the people of Benin to give up their fugitive king. According to Richard Gott, for a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle were seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel down in front of the British military "resident" the town and to literally bite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed. Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered to stem the slaughter of his people. Many of his soldiers considered his surrender an unbearable catastrophe and committed suicide rather than see the king humiliated. A significant number, led by some chiefs, maintained guerrilla warfare against the British for almost two years until their leaders were captured and executed. The remaining arms of the resistance thereafter gave up their arms and merged back into the general population.”

5. K. Opoku, “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”

6. I reproduce here an opinion I gave with regard to China's claim for artefacts looted in the Franco-Britannic invasion of the Summer Palace, Beijing, in 1860.

Link That there are difficulties on the way to recovery of the stolen/looted artefacts cannot be denied but the non-retroactivity of the 1970 UNESCO Convention or the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention is no argument against pursuing the case for restitution. Non-retroactivity does not mean or imply approval. The real question here is whether this atrocious act of aggression and looting was ever approved by International Law and not by a few powerful States, notorious for acts of aggression and spoliation. I would encourage the Chinese to pursue vigorously their claim which would give us also a recent judicial view of a shameful, aggressive practice of a few States. The judges must eventually decide whether there were no rules of law, in Chinese, English and French Laws, as well as in International Law which prohibited the unlawful destruction and taking away of the property of others. Whether the laws of any particular country do or do not prohibit such wrongful dealings with property is not a matter to be settled with reference to the 1970 Convention.

There may be eventual questions of statute of limitation but that is an issue which must be determined by the judges as a preliminary issue. Above all, they must determine whether the ordinary rules of limitation, enacted for the usual domestic situations apply at all in such cases.

The judges would have to consider very carefully the meaning and extent of the provision of Article 10(3) of the UNIDROIT Convention which reads as follows: “This Convention does not in any way legitimise any illegal transaction of whatever which has taken place before the entry into force of this Convention or which is excluded under paragraphs (1) or (2) of this article, nor limit any right of a State or other person to make a claim under remedies available outside the framework of this Convention for the restitution or return of a cultural object stolen or illegally exported before the entry into force of this Convention.”

Lyndel Prott comments on this provision as follows: “This paragraph was the result, again, of the working group's compromise and provides that the UNIDROIT Convention does not legitimise any prior illegal transaction, nor restrict a State from claiming back such items, in private law, by bilateral negotiation, inter-institutional arrangements or through the UNESCO Committee mentioned above”. Lyndel V. Prott, Commentary on the UNIDROIT Convention, Institute of Art and Law, 1997, p.82.

Most Westerners, including lawyers are allergic to any claims for restitution from the colonial past. They must ask themselves about their instinctive negative reactions to such claims without subjecting the claim to rigorous examination of the law and all the background to such claims. Laws must be interpreted in accordance with the objectives of the law and not necessarily in the interest of the powerful. Would we accept a conclusion that the laws of France, Britain and United States permitted the wrongful treatment of the property of others before the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention?

7. General Assembly resolution, A/RES/67/80, titled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin.”

8. K.Opoku, Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Mother Idia Mask Auction: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?

9. Prince Edun Egharese, Enogie of Obazuwa, on the socalled Benin Plan of Action,