Opinion

Benin artifacts and the choice facing Robin Hood

When you find two people from the Benin kingdom talking these days, chances are that they are talking artifacts. That kingdom never ceases to amaze me with the mythical, almost perplexing rootedness of its people to the past, side by side with a modern, avantgarde spirit.

Not that bread-and-butter issues have disappeared in Bini talk. Or that safety and security are no longer a concern. It’s just that the news of the possible return of artifacts stolen from the Benin kingdom over 120 years ago has somehow displaced current misery, however temporary.

Yet, the conversation is also a statement of reckoning, an indication of how far the world has moved from Robin Hood, the decorated thief in English legend.

Part of the legacy of slavery and colonialism was that the spoils belonged to the victor. Humans were chattel, and artifacts, side menu. In the world of the marauders of the time, humans, animals and artifacts were part of the spoils of war.

Aborigines in North America and Australia; blacks in Africa and minorities in different parts of the world were victims of this travesty for centuries.

The world has come a long way since, yet the vestiges of that horrific era linger on. Not only in our memories but also in the private collections and museums of private and institutional thieves who keep making money and excuses at the same time, for delaying restitution.

The value of art stolen from Africa alone is worth billions of dollars by current estimates. But it is worth even more in spiritual currency. A BBC report three years ago quoting the New York Times, said, US art collector, Harry A Franklin, bought the Bangwa Queen, a wooden carving from Cameroon, for $29,000 in 1966. After his death, the artifact was sold for $3.4 million.

At Sotheby’s, the famous British-founded American auction house, the Clyman’s Fang Head, a Gabonese masterpiece, was offered for sale at between $2.5 and $4 million last year.

On a visit to Africa in 2018, French President, Emmanuel Macron, said while there were historical explanations for the theft of African artifacts, there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. “African heritage,” he said, “can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

But that’s precisely where they have been for centuries. Three years after Macron’s lip service, the plundered artifacts are still languishing in private collections and museums.

Macron is not the only problem. From ongoing discussions in Nigeria, the misery of pirated artifacts would be compounded not only by empty promises, but also by needless squabbles about provenance – their original home.

Nigeria is expecting Benin bronzes looted since 1897. Two senior German ministers told a Nigerian delegation on a recent visit to that country led by Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, that the German government planned “a substantial” repatriation of the plundered artifacts. The Nigerian government is demanding, and rightly so, that the return should be “whole” and “unconditional”.

According to reports, the trove of looted items includes carved elephant tusks, ivory leopard statues, wooden heads and at least 900 brass plaques dating from the 16th and 17th century.

Reports also say that over 3,000 Benin bronzes stolen in the 19th century are marooned in Europe and the US. German museums are hosting nearly half of this figure.

The debate in Nigeria, especially among Benin folks, from whose homeland the artifacts were stolen, is not whether the loot should be returned, but to whose custody it should be returned. The house is divided against itself.

Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki wants the artifacts back in the custody of the state government and has, in a subversive masterstroke, recruited the Oba’s son to press his case.

Obaseki, the private sector’s gift to public service, is brimming with ideas of how to make the artifacts speak in foreign currency, by bringing in hundreds of tourists. The suspicion is that his motive is to hijack the collection and privatise it as retirement benefit.

Ewuare II, the Oba of Benin, on the other hand, wants the artifacts returned to the palace, from where they were stolen; while Mohammed has said the priority of the Nigerian government is to have the artifacts on Nigerian soil.

Since the artifacts don’t speak or understand German, I’ve tried to establish in whose course history might deploy itself. The closest historical antecedent in support of the palace is the case of the Faberge Eggs, looted from the palace of Russia’s imperial family by Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution.

Around 2004 when Roman Abramovich was lusting after Chelsea Football Club in the UK, his counterpart, Victor Vekselberg, made a stake of $90million on the Faberge Eggs. The storied egg is an intricately woven treasure chest made of precious metals and gems including the Coronation Egg, containing the prototype of the coach which Empress Alexandra rode into Moscow in 1897.

Though Vekselberg did not say what he wanted to do with the collection, which is the second largest after those in the Kremlin, he said it was a redemption which captured the religious and spiritual essence of the Russian people. Since the revolution swept away the Russian imperial family, we cannot say what might have been the family’s disposition towards the retrieval of the Faberge Eggs.

The point is: its recovery was an investment by a Russian oil sheikh. What he has done with it is nobody’s business.

When countries have been involved in negotiations for the return of plundered artifacts, however, the records suggest that they’re returned directly to the country of origin, first of all.

Eight years ago, when The Boston Globe reported that eight artifacts, including a wooden ancestral figure stolen from Oron, Southern Nigeria, were being returned from the Boston Museum, the objects – including the wooden figure – were apparently returned to the Nigerian museums. I’m not sure the “Ahta Oro”, the paramount traditional ruler of Oron, made a case for provenance.

Similar repatriations by the US, Australia and the UK to India were received by the country, not by private individuals or the domains from where they were plundered. The Netherlands did the same with the stolen antiquities of Indonesia, returning artifacts dating back to 5000 B.C.

It would appear though that once pirated collections have been returned in certain jurisdictions, a valid case can be made for repatriation to the crime scene.

In the US, for example, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a federal law passed in 1990 that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items, such as human remains, funeral objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants.

Australia has no laws directly governing repatriation, but a government programme exists that returns Aborigine artifacts. Sweden returned the totem pole stolen by a Swede from Canada to the community of origin; while Italy returned the magnificent sixth-century krater to its place of origin in Rome after a period of loan to the national museum.

From the time of Erediauwa, the father of the current Oba, the Benin palace has invested in and campaigned vigorously for the return of pirated artifacts. The governor should not give the impression that he wants to reap where he has not sown or that he is desperate to have the collection as another set of trophies on his front desk.

It would appear that the disagreement between the palace and Obaseki’s Osadebey House over the artifacts is a continuation of war by other means. In last year’s governorship election between incumbent Obaseki and his challenger, Ize Iyamu, the palace barely disguised its preference for the latter.

For Obaseki to win the election and on top of that also strive to become the curator of priceless objects stolen from the palace, possibly with the assistance of his forebears, is understandably too much for the Oba to bear. Unfortunately, the governor’s winner-takes-all politics is re-echoing concerns that he could still be possessed of the subversive spirit that aided and abetted the plundering campaign of the Benin kingdom.

The parties must close ranks. They need to work with Abuja first, to develop a cultural preservation programme, and then to recover the artifacts as quickly as possible to their ancestral home. There’s nothing more a reluctant Robin Hood would love than a house divided against itself.

Strife and irreconcilable differences among members of the elite would suggest that the stolen artifacts might indeed be safer in exile.

Let’s bring the artifacts home, where they belong.

Azu Ishiekwene editor-in-chief of LEADERSHIP.

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