|'Ife Head' (Brass, circa 1300 C.E. 35cm high), on display at The British Museum, London.
One year after ECOWAS' declaration on recovery of looted artifacts, Nigeria has announced its intention to launch a formal campaign for return and restitution of the country's cultural objects in possession of foreign museums and private hands across the world. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed made the announcement, in Lagos on Thursday.
"We have called this press conference to announce the launch of the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria's
Looted/Smuggled Artifacts from around the world," Mohamed told journalists in Ikeja, Lagos. "With this announcement, we are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria's cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available."
He however stated that the Nigerian government was well aware of the task ahead and have fully prepared to face the challenges. "We are under no illusion that this will be an easy task, but no one should also doubt our determination to make a success of this campaign." He argued that it is unimagineable by any logic for example, that "an Ife or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them." The minister said as Nigeria never laid claim to art of other cultures such as the famous paintings like "Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt," holders of the country's artefacts have no reason to keep what does not belong to them.
Specifically, one of the immediate steps to take, according to the minister is to retrieve an artifact said to have been stolen from one of Nigeria's museums in 1987. "Meanwhile, we are kick-starting the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria's Looted/Smuggled Artifacts with a quest to retrieve the Ife Broze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into," he assured. He 'recalled that after the bronze was brought to an auction in London, two years ago, the auctioneer observed that it belonged to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List. "Now, the London Metropolitan police has seized the object, and it has invited Nigeria to make a claim, otherwise they will have to return it to the fellow claiming ownership." Mohammed assured that "we have now started work on the return of the Ife Bronze head to Nigeria."
And as the Cambridge University's Jesus College has decided to repatriate a Benin Bronze Cockerel, known as ''okukor'', to Nigeria, the minister highlighted the provenance of the object. He explained how the Cockerel is one of the hundreds of Benin Bronzes that were taken after Benin City was occupied by the imperial troops in 1897.
He said the Nigerian government is very delighted at the intention of the colleg to return the cockerel especially the role of the Nigerian students in that University in pushing for the repatriation of the object.
"Considering the hundreds of Benin Bronzes looted during that occupation, the decision to return the cockerel is like a drop in the ocean, but it is an important drop and we welcome it. Again, we appeal to all those holding our artifacts to follow the footsteps of the Cambridge University by willingly returning them to Nigeria, where they rightly belong. I thank you once again."
Excerpts from Mohammed's speech: "Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past.
"Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them? Our answer is simple: These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not. Of course, as you al know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation's economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play. How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe as their properties?
"In launching this campaign, our hands are strengthened by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which most nations subscribe, identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each member state, thereby belonging to that State. By the provisions of this Article, they include cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property. Let's relate these provisions to an Ife bronze head or a Benin Bronze head, both made several centuries ago. One cannot fathom how an individual or collective genius of people who had not visited that part of the world created such object, or how they are “subject of a freely agreed exchange, or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities.
"Also, the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region met in December 2018 in Abuja and adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. We are bound by this Declaration, which has further brought discussions towards a Plan of Action.
"We want to commend the work of the discussion group that is now known as the 'Benin Dialogue Group', which is working to resolve this issue. We are not averse to agreements such as the one being fashioned out by the group. But whatever decision is taken by the group must be based on the inviolable, logical and natural conclusion that the looted/smuggled artifacts belong to Nigeria. Again, they can be enjoyed by art lovers all over the world, but on our terms, which must also benefit us. We also note some positive steps that have been taken by some countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, on this issue, but those are yet small steps.
"Let me say that we desire that our heritage resources circulate around the world, especially because we are aware that art lovers all over the world truly love them. We also know that all the major museums around the world desire to have them on loan.
For these reasons, we do not mind to conduct joint exhibitions and have the objects loaned out too. But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever. Under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours. They represent important pages in our history. In other words, whether these heritage resources are presently domiciled in Nigeria or are in any other part of the world, whether they are in public or private museums, in collections or in private households, they were wrought by the genius of our forebears. They shall never belong to any other person or nation but to us.
"We call on every museum and person holding on to our heritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue with us on the basis of the conditions we have enumerated today. We urge them to identify what is in their collections, transparently make them public, approach us for discussion on terms of return and restitution, as well as circulation and loans. They must acknowledge that ownership resides in us. They must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda of Understanding in this regard, and they must be ready to release some of these antiquities for immediate return to Nigeria.
"We will not be deterred by the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of
antiquities in war time in the 19th century, when most of these antiquities were looted. We will not agree that our claims are statute barred. We will also not be swayed by the insulting argument that Nigeria, and Africa in general, does not have places to keep the antiquities. After all we kept them somewhere before they were looted. If those who make that argument so desire, they can join us to build more museums that will house such returned antiquities.
"While we are keeping our strategy for the return and restitution of our artifacts close to our chest, let me announce here that, beginning from next year, we will be organizing an annual National Conference on Restitution of Cultural Property. This is in line with the recommendation in the Declaration by ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments last year in Abuja.
The essence of the conference is to keep the issue of return and restitution on the front burner of national discourse.
"Finally, gentlemen, we appeal to you to be part of this campaign, using your various platforms to publicize the campaign and to keep it in the front burner of national discourse. We also appeal to Nigerians at home and in the diaspora to lend their support to the campaign. From time to time, we will be briefing Nigerians, through you, of the progress being made in bringing our looted and smuggled artifacts back here in Nigeria, where they belong."