Information and Culture Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed has called on every museum and individual across the globe that is in possession of Nigeria’s priceless artefacts to initiate dialogue with Nigeria on the basis of return and restitution as well as circulation and loans. He said such museum or individual must acknowledge that ownership resides in Nigeria and must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) leading to the release of some of these antiquities for Nigeria.
The Minister who spoke with Art Editors in Lagos on Thursday disclosed that federal government will by next year begin an annual national conference on restitution of cultural property in line with the recommendation in the Declaration by ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments last year at Abuja. The essence of this campaign, he said, is to keep the issue of return and restitution on the front burner of national discourse.
“Meanwhile, we are kick-starting the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts with a quest to retrieve the Ife Broze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into. After it was brought to an auction in London two years ago, the auction house observed that it was an Ife Bronze Head which belongs to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List of cultural goods that are deemed to be the most vulnerable to illicit traffic.
“These lists are made available to national police and customs authorities by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization as well as to museums, auction houses, and galleries. They are intended to help users identify the kinds of artifacts etc that may have been stolen or smuggled so that they can be confiscated and returned to their rightful owners if an attempt is made to sell them illegally,” he said.
Mohammed stated that Nigerians cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. “We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past.
“Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them? Our answer is simple: 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.
He lamented that those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not. He noted that tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy adding that these priceless heritage resources have a role to play. “How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe as their properties?” he wondered.
He stressed that the ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever. To him, ‘under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours.’
“They represent important pages in our history. In other words, whether these heritage resources are presently domiciled in Nigeria or are in any other part of the world, whether they are in public or private museums, in collections or in private households, they were wrought by the genius of our forebears. They shall never belong to any other person or nation but to us,” he added.