Saturday 28 June 2014

Returned-artefacts: How a Briton exposed weak int’l relation, set govt against Benin royal house

By Tajudeen Sowole
A Briton, Mark Walker’s return of two cultural objects of Benin, Edo State origin to the Royal family in Nigeria a week ago, has questioned the absence of international relation required to carry out such mission in contemporary period.

Mark Walker in Benin, returning two bronzes to the Royal family…recently. Pic: By Prof Peju Layiwola
The good intention of Walker in returning the objects looted by his great-grand father, Captain Philip Walker, during the British army’s invasion of Benin palace in 1897 has created a row between the Benin monarch and the Nigerian government.

Ahead of Walker’s visit with the two objects, the Benin Palace and the Federal Government of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) had disagreement over where the artefacts should be received or who to hand it over to.

There was an indication that the NCMM wanted the objects received either in Lagos or in Abuja and by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, High Chief Edem Duke. But the Benin Palace, according to the Enogie of Obazuwa Prince Edun Akenzua thought differently, seeing Mark’s return of the objects as “a private visit.” Akenzua was quoted saying that If the government of Nigeria succeeds to get the British Prime Minister, for example, to return the more contentious pieces such as the Idia mask and other objects currently in the British museum retuned, perhaps NCMM can have say over where it should be received. “But this is a private visit and of course for now there is no museum in the palace.”

The Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman in a letter to the palace stated that government did not intend to “undermine” the revered place of the palace as custodian of the Benin ancestral culture, but respect the status of the Nigerian state under the President of the country. “We believe that Benin objects have assumed the status of national heirlooms and thus ought to be welcomed to the country enroute their root, in part, by the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 
We do not believe that this will in anyway undermine your efforts; it will only further enhance fuller national and international interest in the epochal contributions of Benin to the world and accentuate your personal struggle to bring back the works of your forebears.”

And despite Akenzua’s assurance that “the Oba will hand over those things, like in the past, to the government,” the NCMM seemed unimpressed. During the visit of Mark and handing over of the objects to the palace, the government was, according to reports, not represented. Abdallah disagreed that the NCMM was not represented when Walker handed over the artefacts to the Benin royal family a week ago. He claimed that he was “out of the country on official assignment so I could not attend personally but the Curator and management staffs of the National Museum Benin were there.”

 While Walker appeared to have mishandled the process of returning the objects, the NCMM seemed to have also fallen into the obvious web of poor international relation expected to come in place in such visit and restitution of cultural objects. Clearly, the error of Walker was not properly managed.

Prof Folarin Shyllon, Vice Chairman, UNESCO sub-Committee on Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property argued that the NCMM should have handled it with better caution. He noted that Walker did not put into consideration the fact that Benin as at the time of 1897 is different now, and under a nation state of Nigeria. 

Shyllon cited an example of foreign countries where similar return of arterfacts happened from private hands, and recalled that the artefacts being returned were handed over to the government. “For example, when some artefacts were returned to Ethiopia from a Scottish, the government received the works in Addis Ababa.”
  Folarin however stated that given the situation created by Walker’s lack of understanding of the complexity involved and disrespect for ethics of international relation, “the NCMM should have been more careful in managing the situation.”   

However, there seemed to be lack of cohesion and harmony in the requests for Nigeria’s cultural objects. The Benin monarch and NCMM appear not to have a unified or central channel. Prof Peju Layiwola, Associate Professor of Art History University of Lagos, (UNILAG), stated that the significance of returning the artefacts to Benin where they were looted outweighs any other consideration. She traced the Oba’s request for the artefacts to pre-establishment of the NCMM.  Layiwola, who has also made scholarly efforts to get looted Benin cultural objects returned insisted that receiving the artefacts outside Benin would be an imbalance of justice. She therefore faulted “NCMM in its pursuit of "best practises,” and argued that the government agency “have downplayed the importance of having the restitution done in Benin (not Abuja) in the Oba’s palace-the very location where this injustice was carried out." She added: "It is only then that the pains of the past inflicted by the British in 1897 can be truly assuaged.”

The row over return of the artefacts – described by observers as “avoidable” - perhaps should afford the NCMM an opportunity to strengthen its relationship with Benin Royal Family and work more closely on the return of the remaining artefacts. In fairness to the NCMM, the royal houses such as Ife and Benin have been collaborating with government in several activities such as promotion through exhibitions of Nigeria’s cultural objects in the country and abroad. For example, the touring exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient NigeriaAlso, held in the U.K, Spain and U.S; Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, which toured Europe and U.S were done by NCMM and the royal families. However, the lack of harmonisation of the separate requests – from the Benin monarch and NCMM - seemed to have created a clash of interests between government and the royal house as seen in the Walker’s return of the artefacts. 

Ahead of the challenge in getting more prominent and popular work like the Idia Mask, Ife Head in the British Museum, seated Nok Terracotta sculpture in the Louvre, Paris, France and others in Austrian, German and U.S museums returned, the NCMM and the royal families involved in the agitation would need a central channel through which the possessors can relate without duplication of functions.   

And irrespective of who received the Walker-returned artefacts or where they were collected, the people of Benin's joy was echoed by Layiwola. “It was indeed a glorious and historic day for Benin and for all advocates for the return of Benin cultural artifacts.  Personally, it gives me so much joy that my ongoing project on, which began in 2004, is now bearing fruits.”
  Layiwola recalled that the last time similar return occurred was 78 years ago, specifically in 1936. It was “the regalia of Oba Ovoranmwen, and was returned to Oba Akenzua II.”

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