African countries

African countries want our history back – Britain should return the Benin Bronzes

(Lai Mohammed)

Last month I traveled to Germany to sign an agreement for the restitution of 1,130 Benin Bronzes – the hand-cast sculptures that once lined the historic palaces of the Kingdom of Benin in my country, Nigeria. Looted during a punitive colonial expedition in 1897, this act of repatriation returns our bronzes to their rightful place.

However, Germany was not Nigeria’s former colonial power. Nor have they stolen the intricate narrative plaques that once decorated palace pillars, the brass memorial heads of rulers that stood on altars, or other religious and cultural ceremonial objects.

It was the British who sold our treasures to them, partly to pay for the destruction of the Kingdom of Benin. Yet despite their legitimate acquisition, Germany knew returning the bronzes was the right thing to do.

It is perhaps thanks to Germany that certain British institutions are following suit. This week, the leadership councils of the two Oxford and Cambridge universities have agreed to return a handset 213 Bronzes from Benin held by the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museums, Oxford and the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. The decision must be signed by the Charity Commission, but if sanctioned, it would be the largest such repatriation since Britain.

However, despite the laudable actions of these small non-national institutions, the British establishment as a whole refuses to keep up with the times. The British Museum, which holds the largest collection of bronzes, refuses to return the objects that connect our country to a time before colonial rule. At best they have offered to lend our own cultural heritage back to us. I had to remind them, when visiting the museum this monthwe are still awaiting a response to a letter from October 2021 requesting the repatriation of the antiquities.

The British Museum alone holds 69,000 African artifacts from across the continent. How can we be equal partners when he denies so many their heritage?

The theft is not denied. The curators explained that the circumstances of the acquisition – the destruction and looting of one of West Africa’s great powers – are now displayed more transparently alongside the objects. This is welcome but also leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Why display the illegal means by which these precious objects were obtained if there is no intention of returning them? Admission alone does not bring absolution.

One answer is that they have global cultural significance and should be preserved for posterity. The subtext is that Africans cannot be trusted as guardians of our cultural heritage. Yet this omits that the bronzes survived for hundreds of years before being stolen; and that no harm was done to those who were dismissed – either because others did the right thing or, perversely, by buying back what is ours.

Another states that encyclopedic museums “serve not just the citizens of one nation, but the people of all nations” – promoting cross-cultural learning and placing them in a global context. Once rightful ownership has been restored, however, there is no reason why parts of the collection cannot be loaned to the British Museum. Even if this were not the case, the universal culture should not be enriched by erasing specific cultures. African heritage can no longer remain hostage to European museums to preserve such ideas.

For Nigerians, these are not just beautiful objects to see in foreign museums, but a connection to our ancestors. Through them we trace our history, with many recordings of events, while others served spiritual or cultural functions. And it is by knowing our past, anchored in the rich heritage, that new futures could be revealed. The refusal to return our historical artifacts deprives us of both.

This is why governments and museums around the world are moving towards restitution. Besides Germany, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States, and Jesus College Cambridge and the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, have either returned or entered into agreements to return the Benin bronzes in their possession.

Among the broader streams of repatriation of African artefacts – 90% of which reside in Europe rather than Africa – Belgium, France and the Netherlands have made various pledges. For Nigerians, and many others around the world, the debate is settled, the moral calculus thrown out. It’s a question of when.

Britain and its museums risk being left behind. Citizens of Nigeria and other African countries want their history back. Furthermore, it threatens to tarnish our wider relationship with the UK. Cultural issues are becoming increasingly important in diplomacy. Through this simple act of return, the friendship between the UK and Nigeria – Africa’s largest population and economy – would be strengthened.

If the UK government is serious about strengthening Commonwealth bonds now that it is out of the EU – as it recently said in Rwanda – this is a simple way to anchor trust. Germany has now set an example for the world to follow. A new museum is currently under construction in Benin city. It would be an indictment of the UK if it opened empty, just for UK institutions to avoid gaps in their own collections.

Lai Mohammed is the Minister of Information and Culture in the Federal Government of Nigeria