The return of Benin artefacts from Europe and the internal fight for possession

As Benin awaits 1, 130 of its stolen artefacts by the Europeans over a century ago, the fight for possession and preservation of these national treasures has erupt between the state, the royal house, and the descendants of Bini bronze casters.

As a result, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan’s appealed to the Federal Government of Nigeria to temporarily take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts in Germany after they are repatriated from Europe.

Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, has expressed the Federal Government’s determination to take possession of the artefacts. 

The Benin Palace and the Edo State government are currently fighting over the landing ground for the age-old Benin Kingdom artefacts.

While the royal power wants the artefacts kept in the Benin Royal Museum, to be built within the palace area, the state government is looking at EMOWAA, the Edo Museum of West African Arts as the preservation center for tourists attraction.

The royal powers with concrete points argued that the looted artefacts are the cultural heritage of the Benin kingdom created by the ancestors and forefathers within the traditional norms and rites of the kingdom.

They drew a conclusion from the grounds stating that the artefacts are to remain in custody with the grassroot custodians and not the state government or any private entity that is not a creation of the Benin kingdom.

But it seems that whether or not the the royal house appealed to the Federal Government for a temporal possession of the Benin Kingdom artefacts, the Federal Government wants to retain it as national treasures. The Minister of Information and Culture said yesterday that “because it is its (Federal Government) duty to do so, in line with the extant laws.”

In the fight for the artefacts, the descendants of Bini bronze casters have also called on the Federal Government not to release the looted artefacts from Germany to the Oba of Benin (if at all the government would).

The descendants claimed  that thousands of Bronzes and Ivories were stolen from their ancestral shrines in their quarters at Igun, Owina, and Igbesamwan respectively located outside the ancient palace. 

According to their claims, the Bronze Smiths of Igun, Owina and Igbesamwan who “were the ancestral producers of all Benin Bronzes were our fathers and owners of over 75 per cent of the looted Benin artefacts” even before the Portuguese and Christian missionaries explored the Benin Kingdom:

“During the infamous British expedition of 1897, Benin treasures that were soft targets for looting of artefacts were Igun, Igbesamwan and Owina quarters, because, these were the production or factory bases of the artefacts.

“Our forebears traded on them as their core means of livelihood from generations to generations. It is absolute falsehood to continually reel out contrived rhetoric to deny the ancestral makers of the artefacts, and we appeal to the Honourable Minister, that this injustice must stop forthwith.”

“A good number were also gifted to neighbouring important traditional rulers and aristocrats from Owo, Okenusen and others. Likewise, some artefacts were gotten as spoils of war by Benin native soldiers during invasions and expansionist movement of successive Obas from those they conquered by force of war.

“Overtime, there have been mischievous and contrived rhetoric to sideline the all-important position these ancient quarters played in the making of these artefacts rather they are being smitten day and night from the scorching lights of truth, and we sincerely call on the Federal Government through you to wade into this facts of history, with a view to ensuring justice for us.

“Apart from losing tens and hundreds of our bloodlines to the ravaging military assaults of British invaders, thousands of artefacts made by the sweat and blood of our forefathers with the rapt support of our great grandmothers – which are at the verge of their glorious return to Nigeria should not be handed to His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin, as doing so will be fueling the proceeds of crimes. Crime in the sense of carefully and mischievously contrived rhetoric aimed at claiming ownership of thousands of looted Bronzes and Ivories from Igun, Igbesamwan and Owina shrines. The ones that belong to the Oba palace were gifts as required by tradition to pay homage to our Obas.“

The federal government should take custody of all artefacts of Igun, Igbesamwan and Owina originality, pending the finalisation of an ongoing accord by descendants of these aboriginal quarters of Benin kingdom.

“Let it be known now and always, that, the vexed Benin Artefacts are the intellectual property rights of our forefathers who used their God given talents to serve the palace until it was invaded in 1897 and resumed so in 1914 when Oba Eweka ascended the throne.

“Under no threat or arm-twisting shall we give up our inheritances to anyone, without a mutually agreed terms and conditions.”

The fight for other looted Nigerian artefacts in Europe

But Lai Mohammed gave explanations saying that:

“in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany. Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.”

He added that:

“we are also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun…

“These artefacts are so cherished all over the world and we realise that if they are returned to Nigeria and properly exhibited within and outside the country under our control, they stand to increase the influx of tourists to our nation and earn us good money.

“Of course, these timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history.”

By Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.

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