Friday 1 March 2013

Benin Plan of Action… plotting repatriation of looted artefacts

By Tajudeen Sowole

Dialoguing with keepers of Nigeria’s looted cultural objects as a fresh strategy in the efforts to reclaim these treasures appears to be yielding result with the emergence of ‘Benin Plan of Action’ as the outcome of the meeting held last week in Benin, the capital city of Edo State. 

Hosted by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in Benin City last week, and specifically focused on the Benin bronzes, it was coincidentally held on February 19, the same date the British colonial army invaded Benin in 1897. The organisers described the gathering as a follow-up to two earlier meetings on the subject, held in Vienna, Austria in December 2010; as well as Berlin, Germany, October 2011.

Earlier, before the Vienna meeting, some agitator countries, including Nigeria had met at a two-day conference tagged International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage, held in Cairo, Egypt. Organized by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the participants called for a collective approach to restitution, and promised to meet again.
  But the Benin meeting brought a dialogue tone into restitution issue: for the first time, a claimant country hosted representatives of possessor museums.  
The D-G, NCMM Yusuf Abdallah Usman, flanked by Dr Barbara Plankensteiner from Austria and Dr. Peter Junge of Germany during a press conference after the meeting.
Participants included Dr. Michael Barrett and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius representatives of the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden Dipl. Ethn; Silvia Dolz of Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Dr. Peter Junge represented Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria; and Dr. Annette Schmidt of the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.
  Other participants from Nigeria included Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh, Babatunde Adebiyi (NCMM delegation); consultant of legal-related cultural object matter, Prof. Folarin Shyllon; and representatives of the Benin monarch, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa) and Chief Stanley Obamwonyi (Esere of Benin).

British Museum, according to NCMM, was also invited, but the representative could not come due to unresolved traveling logistics. Other participants from Nigeria included Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh, Babatunde Adebiyi (NCMM delegation); consultant of legal-related cultural object matter, Prof. Folarin Shyllon; and representatives of the Benin monarchy, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa) and Chief Stanley Obamwonyi (Esere of Benin).

In his speech at the opening of the meeting, the Director-General of NCMM, Yusuf Abdallah Usman revisited several arguments of the holders, which appeared to have been summed up by the museums’ declaration of a global sharing of the looted artefacts. Such collective sharing, the west had argued, is best achieved in European and U.S. museums space where ‘adequate protection’ of the cultural objects is assured. Usman noted that “as lofty as the European views are, they have not found much understanding with the dispossessed, whose moving tales have become strident finding listeners all over the world in support of the call for the repatriation of these artefacts.”

At the end of the deliberation, the Benin Plan of Action document highlights  “developing a data bank by the collaborating institutions on Benin art collections in their holdings in form of a digital archive of electronic and hard copies; all collaborating institutions upon request shall have right of producing free of charge photographs of Benin art objects in the collection of collaborating institutions particularly for scholarly purposes; staff of the collaborating institutions shall have access to Benin Collections in their holdings in accordance with the existing procedures of the institutions; the NCMM shall improve the university education of its staff working on the collections and on this basis collaborating institutions will assist in securing support for internship and scholarship for postgraduate studies on the Benin collections.”

Also included in the seven-points Benin Plan of Action are measures to encourage collaborating institutions in assisting “with expertise in the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria; collaborating institutions shall assist the NCMM in developing its library and archive facilities; NCMM and collaborating museums shall create an enabling environment for an increased exchange of touring/travelling exhibitions for the Benin art objects and other art traditions where the European and Nigerian museum experts will work together in the planning and execution of such exhibitions.”

A cross section of European delegates to the meeting during the opening ceremonies.
It added: “that these individual steps are part of the dialogue which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria.” And more importantly, the Benin Plan of Action will revisit the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its next agenda.

To a keen observer of the restitution warfare, some of the items in the Benin Plan of Action are familiar: it’s an extension of the usual collaborative projects, which the NCMM has been engaging with the possessors in the past seven years.
However, what offered hope of possible return of the Benin objects, and perhaps by extension other artefacts of Nigerian origin under incarceration in museums abroad, is the expectation that the 1970 UNESCO Convention will be discussed in the next meeting, may be with a push to draw the attention of the rest of the world to the need for a review.

Aside the argument of a universal space being promoted by the museums holding the controversial objects, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, tactically, gives cover to the possessors.

At the press conference where the plan of action was unveiled, Usman, in response to a time frame and specificity for the return of the bronzes, noted that the meeting with the holders “is the beginning”.

Also, Dr. Junge of Ethnologisches Museum, Germany assured that the meeting had given a window that may lead to a new dawn in agitation for the return of the Benin objects. He noted that in over one and a half centuries of the Benin bronzes issue, parties in the dispute have not really come so close in dialogue as the just held meeting. “Between 160 years ago and now, nothing has been done, but the dialogue has started now,” Junge said. “The idea of Benin objects will change in our minds”, he assured. “I am sure, you will see the objects in Nigeria.” He however cautioned that “I am not saying in three days, next month or next year, but it will happen.” Junge’s concept of getting the works to Nigeria, it was learnt, would be with an understanding of loaning for showcasing and return them to the possessors’ museums. 

And as the issue of restitution becomes more complex, offering perpetual cover to the holders under the 1970 UNESCO Convention and International Institute for the Unification of Private Law otherwise known as UNIDROIT 1995, Prof. Shyllon, an expert in antiquity laws picked holes in the document. Conventions, he noted, “don’t have retroactive effect.” He argued that “no country would enter into a convention about what happened yesterday. You cannot force a country to comply.” It should be recalled that the 1970 UNESCO document on cultural object is silent on the pre-convention disputed artefacts from repatriation cover. 

Article 7 (b) (ii) of the Convention recommends “appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property.” Clearly the pre-convention looted artefacts were not in the radar of the drafters of the document.

And more complex is the UNIDROIT. It states in Article 3, paragraph 3: “Any claim for restitution shall be brought within a period of three years from the time when the claimant knew the location of the cultural object and the identity of its possessor, and in any case within a period of fifty years from the time of the theft.”

Although no formal claims from either the Nigerian museum authority or the Benin monarch met the UNIDROIT convention, there are grounds to press for restitution. For example, part of the introductory section cautions that “this Convention will not by itself provide a solution to the problems raised by illicit trade, but that it initiates a process that will enhance international cultural co-operation and maintain a proper role for legal trading and inter-State agreements for cultural exchanges”.

Perhaps, a window such as this informed the argument of Usman who noted in his opening speech on Day-one of the conference that those who drafted the documents “understand that the Conventions are mere aggregates of different views of varying and divergent interests.” He noted that “the drafters suggest that parties may seek other complementary means, other arrangements that will be agreeable to all parties.”  

Also, the Hon Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke acknowledged the complexity in restitution, but pleaded with the visitors.  He noted what he described as “the hurdles placed on our way by the various Conventions and applicable international laws that govern repatriation of heritage objects.”

He however urged the “visitors to earnestly reconsider the injustice that led to the uprooting of these cultural icons.”
 In his response to the Benin Plan of Action, Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa), noted that “there is nothing in the Plan of Action that really address restitution.” He argued that the European delegation at the Benin conference were not policy makers, but professionals. “They are just like the museums professionals we have here, so they can’t make policy on restitution.”
Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria during the Benin Meeting.
 If the Benin Plan of Action, in his opinion fell short of expectation, what would the Benin monarch recommend to get the works returned? “Currently, I don’t have the position of the Oba of Benin on the Plan of Action. But my personal suggestion to government is to take the case to the international court,” Akenzua said. “If we lose in court, there is nothing more to lose.” He recalled that “we requested for the Idia mask for FESTAC ‘77, the British government asked Nigeria to pay two million pounds.” 

Coincidentally, there came a warning of a long and difficult battle ahead when the British Prime Minister, David Cameron – about the same time of the Benin meeting – described restitution as impossible. He reacted to the request for the return of Koh-i-noor diamond, an Indian origin gem, currently a central component of the British Crown Jewel mounted at the Tower of London. Cameron was on a visit to India, specifically, the site of British colonial massacre of protesters at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. He used his response on the return of Koh-i-noor diamond to address the issue of restitution generally. "The right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions to do exactly what they do, which is to link up with other institutions around the world to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world.” Cameron was emphatic when he added “I certainly don't believe in returnism, as it were. I don't think that's sensible."

What the Benin Monarch said at the Meeting.
Text from the address by HRH Prince Edun Akenzua MFR, Enogie of Obazuwa, the representative of Oba of Benin during the meeting.

I thank the National Commission for Museums and Monuments for organizing this conference and inviting me to it.
The letter by which I was invited states that the Commission also invited representatives of some major European Museums to come and discuss the prospects of repatriating Benin objects located in their museums.

It says this meeting is a follow-up to an "on-going discussion on the ownership status of Benin Art works in foreign collections and the first and second rounds of the dialogue were held Vienna and Berlin in December 2010 and December 2011 respectively.

May I ask, respectfully, if the museum representatives present here today can take a decision on a matter that involves national policy on to return or not to return the artifacts?
I wonder! 

As for the ownership status of the works, who does not know that Benin is the true owner despite the semantics and legalese by the international community?

I attended an exhibition of Benin works in Vienna in 2007. It was the first of a joint event by four nations: Austria, United States, Germany and France. the exhibition was attended by the Nigerian Minister of Culture and Tourism and the Director-General of the NCMM. the Oba of Benin sent a 4-man delegation, including this speaker. I addressed the meeting. The situation of things at that time has not changed. Permit me therefore to quote from my address in Vienna. (Excepts)

    '...I commend the organizers of this exhibition. I thank for the invitation to His Majesty the King of Benin to send representatives and Prof Wifried Seipel for giving me this opportunity to say one or two things.

it was said that this is the first time these Benin works have been re-united in this fashion since they were forcibly removed from Benin more than 100 years ago.

From left, High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon, Chief Stanley Obamwonyi and representative of Oba of Benin, Prince Edun Akenzua.     
As a member of the Benin Royal Family, from whose palace the works were removed in 1897, we are seeing some of these works for the first time, We are overwhelmed by nostalgia. We wish the re-unification of these works taking place in Benin, the natural habitat of the works.

In the second preface to the catalogue of the exhibition, the Museum Director, Dr Christian Feest and his colleagues wrote that it was the most comprehensive exhibition on the subject ever to have been mounted.
permit me to quote them:
 '.....The military act (by the British against Benin) seems unjustifiable, however, we must recognize the role it (the military act ) played in bringing these works of art to far broader attention. They are now forever on the map of the world art.......

The transformation of what has been treated as architectural ornaments into veritable archival documents, which had occurred up to their alienation from the Benin Royal Court, illustrates the steady changes in the attribution of meaning and value even within their local context.

The present consideration of these works within multi-layered discourses on the past and on identity in the competing contents and claims of local tradition, the nation state and globalization-

Is part and parcel of the continuation of shifts in meaning and the persistent viability of the material documents of the past..."

"There may be a shift in the allocation of meaning to the viability of the material documents of the past. But that shift seems to occur only in the minds of non-Benins, especially scholars, who see the works only from the narrow prism of scholarly interpretation or from a mere aesthetic consideration.

"The Director-General of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, at that time, Dr. O.J. Eboreime, expressed his pleasure that the exhibition was mounted. He said through it the creative and technology genius of the African artist would be better appreciated.

"I am afraid, the Director-General, himself a scholar, fell into the same trap into which other scholars had fallen.

If I may ask, why won't interested scholars go to Benin City and study the works?... And said the act only seems unjustifiable.

I attended an exhibition of Benin works in Sweden, Stockholm in 2009. Only last September, I was special guest at the British Museum in London.

I can perceive two reasons, veiled as they are, for these museums to be mounting these exhibitions.

One: they want to advertise the museums and maximize their economic potentials and, two: they seek legitimacy for the act of looting which the British committed by inviting the Federal Government and the Oba of Benin to participate.

The British slapped us on the face in 1977 when it refused to lend us the plaque of Queen Idia's face to use as a symbol for FESTAC. In the face of the insult, all we did was to make a beggars, plaintive plea to the countries holding the objects in captivity to return them to us. Then, we buy-back some of our own stolen properties from those who stole them or from our descendants.

The Commission should now advise the Government, to treat the issue as an emergency.

The government should resuscitate the African Reparation Movement (ARM)which was established by President Babangida with late Chief M.K.O Abiola as Chairman. The ARM would recommend a line of action for government.

Our Legislative Houses should show more interest in the recovery of these cultural properties. Our law pundits should examine various aspects of the matter.

We have had enough of these meetings which only end as academic exercise.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your attention. 
February 2013
HRH Prince Edun Akenzua MFR
Enogie of Obazuwa

1 comment:

  1. The repräsentative of the Oba has said all that needs to be said. It is now the turn of the Museums to offer their own views on the issues raised. Or are they going to keep quiet, as they have tended to do in the past, hoping that we will all soon forget about the issue of restitution of the Benin bronzes and other African artefacts now lying in Western Museums?