By Tajudeen Sowole
The return of smuggled terracotta pieces to Nigeria, by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) of the U.S. last week brings to fore the continuous plundering of the country’s priceless cultural objects.
Persistent alarms being raised over illegal excavations going on in certain part of the country as well as allegations of museum officials’ connivance with unauthorised exporters has kept Nigeria’s cultural and artistic objects in the news constantly. It was therefore not a surprise when the news was all over the Internet, last week that the Consular-General of Nigeria in the U.S. took repossession of stolen terracotta objects rescued by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
According to the reports, the U.S. authority had been on the trail of the objects since last year after “French customs officers spotted the statues during a routine inspection at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, more than a year ago.” The French authority, it was reported, could not seize the objects, but notified HSI and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in New York about the destination of the artefacts.
At John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, the 2000-year-old terracotta pieces were stopped from being smuggled into the U.S, by the HSI. And during a repatriation ceremony at the office of the U.S. investigators, in Manhattan, New York, Nigeria's Consul-General, Habib Baba Habu was reported to have “taken legal possession of the terracotta sculptures, which he said had been stolen from the country's national museums.”
However, Habu did not give details such as the specific museum in Nigeria from where the works were “stolen” as well as the period of theft.
Nigerian terracotta is on the Red List of International Council of Museums (ICOM).
As investigations were said to be ongoing on the identity of the dealers and smugglers, there are several possible sources of the artefacts. In addition to the national museum source alleged by Habu, the objects could have been victims of one of the illegal excavations said to be going on at terracotta sites in northern part of Nigeria.
It should be recalled that early this year, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and President of Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN), Dr. Zacharys Anger Gundu alleged that there were large-scale illegal excavations of Nok terracotta being carried out by German experts. Gundu also alleged that officials of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) connived with the foreigners in the “looting.”
In his response to Gundu’s allegation, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman denied the commission’s involvement in any “unauthorised excavation,” while clarifying that the NCMM, since 2005, has been in partnership with Institute for African Archaeology and Archaeo-botany of the Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
The German researchers, Usman explained, were in Nigeria with the aims of enriching findings on Nok Culture.
However, whatever issues led to suspicion of illegal excavations seemed to have been resolved at a stakeholders’ meeting held about a month later.
On the complexity of protecting Nigeria’s cultural objects, Usman noted that “illegal diggings have been recurring across Nigeria, even in such areas as mining of solid minerals, oil and others.” The NCMM, he stressed, would only act when such alleged looting sites are brought to its notice or found out by the commission.
Although the HSI said investigations were ongoing on the identity of the smugglers, Habu disclosed, “there is no report of the items being stolen. So, the director-general of the Nigerian museum and antiquities is now being subjected to an investigation." Habu said the terracotta and other artefacts seized in Chicago would be returned to Nigeria in this month (August).
Speaking on the New York situation, Usman said the museum authority would have to check the inventory of the terracotta objects in its possession to determine if truly the allegedly stolen objects were from a national museum in Nigeria. He also denied being investigated as the Consular-General in the U.S. alleged.
While investigation is ongoing on the U.S.-rescued artefacts, it may be too hasty to be specific on the source of the objects, Habu’s allegation not withstanding.
However, there are recurring indications that government is not doing enough to protect Nigeria’s cultural objects from illegal excavation and exportation. For example, one of the measures put in place to check unathorised export is through buying identified objects from artefact dealers. The measure, currently, is under threat as a group known as Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria recently petitioned the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Chief Edem Duke “over a N190 million debt owed it by the NCMM.”
Though Usman did not deny that the NCMM owed some individual rescuers and members of the association, he however blamed the reduction in the commission’s budgetary allocation for the debt. The debt, he argued was “about N60 million naira and not N190m.” He explained that “N5 million naira was shared among some rescuers last year,” but disclosed “no provision in the 2012 budget for the payment of artefacts vendours.”
One of the rescuers, Pastor… accused the NCMM of “a perpetual habit of owing.” He said, for example, “the museum owes somebody N500, 000 and you pay him N10, 000 naira and you don’t pay until one or two years after. By this, you have destroyed that person’s capital.”
With such friction between the rescuers – some of whom could be illegal artefacts dealer – and the NCMM, it is therefore not impossible for some desperate rescuers, who might have been in possession of priceless works such as terracotta to connive with illegal exporters.
Also, what seems like lack of transparency in the collaborative exhibitions of Nigeria’s artefacts abroad could expose the museum authority to complicity in the case of allegation of missing objects from any of the national museums. For example the inventory of objects taken out for a Europe/U.S. tour exhibition titled Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria were not subjected to independent verification; the public was only informed, through the media when the works were returned. Some works could have been lost to thieves or damaged during the tour. The D-G, who explained that he was not the head of the NCMM then, however assured that in the future, all works would be properly documented before taking them out for such international expendition.
Still on transparency, a commentator on cultural objects, Kwame Opoku also noted the persistent allegations against museum officials over illegal export of Nok terracotta and urged the authority to have “a full independent investigation of this matter and a public presentation of a report thereon. Also necessary would be the publication of a complete list of import authorisations given by the NCMM.” He recalled that there might be cases of legal exportation, with the permission of the authority before the ban via a 1953 Antiquities Ordinance.