A dispute between Nigerian leaders could jeopardize plans to return some of Africa’s most famous artifacts, the Benin bronzes, which were looted in colonial times and are now mostly found in Western museums, as reported writer Barnaby Phillips.
The bronzes, thousands of metal and ivory sculptures, were seized from the West African kingdom of Benin – in what is now Edo state in southern Nigeria – by a British military force in 1897 .
In Europe, their beauty and sophistication caused an instant sensation, and they are widely regarded as one of Africa’s greatest works of art.
In recent years, as European governments have come under pressure to atone for colonial-era crimes, some have expressed a desire to return looted items.
In April, the German government said it wanted to return hundreds of Benin bronzes, and several UK museums made similar announcements.
The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria would mark an extraordinary moment in Africa’s post-colonial history, and this is a prospect that seems more likely today than at any time since 1897.
But when the King, or Oba, of Benin, Ewuare II, called “all well-meaning people” to an emergency meeting in Edo, the capital of Benin, earlier this month, it was not celebrating.
Hundreds answered the Oba’s call and gathered in his palace, dressed in beautiful robes, singing his praises. Ewuare II, the great-great-grandson of the Oba overthrown by the British in 1897, warned of an attempt by what he called an “artificial group” to “hijack” the return of the Bronzes .
This group, the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT) had the backing of Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki and planned to place the bronzes in an Edo West African Art Museum (EMOWAA).
The Oba has clearly expressed its opposition.
“The right and the only legitimate destination” for the bronzes would be a “Royal Museum of Benin”, he declared, located within the walls of his palace. He insisted that the Bronzes had to come back from where they had been taken, and that he was “the guardian of all the cultural heritage of the Kingdom of Benin”.
Oba’s argument is compelling, but awkwardly, his son and designated heir, Crown Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare, attends LRT board meetings he claims he knows nothing about. The same goes for the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, representing the federal government.
Governor Obaseki convinced a famous architect, Sir David Adjaye, to design the new museum, bringing prestige and a wave of positive international publicity to the project. Although the Oba now warns anyone dealing with the LRT to do so “at their own risk and against the will of the people of the Kingdom of Benin”, they must worry that it is already too late.
The British Museum has signed an agreement with the LRT for an archeology project in Benin City. The German government plans to do the same and fund a light rail building to initially house the returned bronzes. These contracts are worth millions of dollars. British and German officials, as well as other Europeans, embraced the Trust in part because they believed it and the Oba worked together.
So how did he come to this? Mainly because of the mistrust and rivalry between Oba Ewaure II and Governor Obaseki. “It’s an ego struggle between them,” says a person familiar with the process.
The accusations exchanged are not pretty – of individuals allegedly more interested in financial gain, be it the bronzes themselves or contracts around a new museum, than righting a historical injustice.
However, a German government official told me: “Those who think there is money to be made with this new museum are wrong.
None of this is good news for those who dream of the Bronzes returning to Benin City. An Edo historian involved in discussions with European museums told me that the dispute between the Oba and the governor “gave us all shivers.”
A director of a European museum which has a large collection of bronzes, and has already spoken out in favor of their return, told me: “Our policy is that if the claimants are in dispute with each other, we expect that. they solve it.
The University of Aberdeen in Scotland said earlier this year that its museum would return a bronze head from Benin “unconditionally”. But following recent events, museum director Neil Curtis told me he would be “very uncomfortable” if this comeback happened without an agreement between all parties in Nigeria.
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The Nigerian federal government has legal responsibility for the return of all Beninese bronzes and, he says, will eventually “take possession” of them, although Oba supporters stress that he will never give in on the. question of ownership.
The director general of the government’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, told me that the dispute between the Oba and the governor was “a private matter between them – a local policy which cannot slow down the restitution. “. He suggests a compromise, whereby the Benin bronzes return to various museums in the city of Benin, including one within the palace grounds as well as the more ambitious EMOWAA outside its walls.
Some European museum curators criticize the German government for making bold announcements about the return of bronzes from Benin before confirming that everyone in Nigeria is aligned on this sensitive issue. A German official admitted that they acted quickly in part because of domestic political concerns, but more importantly, he insisted, out of a sense of what was morally right.
An ally of Governor Obaseki said: “Nothing happens in Nigeria without drama. I am still 95% certain that we can fix this problem.”
Victor Ehikhamenor is an acclaimed artist from Edo State and a strong advocate for the return of Benin bronzes. He also sits on the board of directors of the Legacy Restoration Trust. When I spoke to him recently, he remained optimistic.
“We didn’t expect this process to be fun,” he said. “Colonialism has tied us together. We just need to speak with one voice.”
Barnaby Phillips is a former BBC Nigeria correspondent. His book Loot; Great Britain and Benin’s Bronzes was released in April