Nigeria’s federal government has in clear terms ruled out turning over the 1,130 Benin bronzes presently in possession of the German government to any individuals or subnational groups when the artefacts are finally repatriated to the country by August 2022.
The Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed made this clarification on Saturday while addressing the press in Lagos on the efforts by the federal government to repatriate looted and smuggled artefacts from around the world.
The remarks on the heels of the controversy between the Oba of Benin Ewuare II and the Governor of Edo State Mr Godwin Obaseki over who should take possession of the artefacts.
While the monarchy is backing the return of the artefacts to a museum to be built by the palace within its premises, or alternatively, a museum to be built and managed by the federal and state governments, the governor has vouched for a private trust to take custody of, and manage the ancient precious artworks.
While shedding light on the controversy, Mohammed said that the return of the artefacts was being negotiated bilaterally between the federal government Nigeria and Germany in line with international best practice and the operative conventions and laws.
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The minister, who last week led a federal delegation to Berlin to negotiate with the German authorities on the modalities for the unconditional repatriation of the artefacts that were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897, during a raid by the colonial government, insisted that Nigeria, rather than any sub group was the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from the country.
He added that international conventions recognized cultural heritage as properties that belong to a nation but not individuals and sub-national groups.
“Gentlemen, the Federal Government is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany. Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany.
“Nigeria is the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria.
“The relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups,” the minister said.
He added that Article 1 of the UNESCO Convention in 1970, defined cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation;
He stressed that the article allowed an individual nation to determine what it regards as its cultural property, adding the federal government through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments – has in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate the looted artefacts in collaboration with important traditional institutions and state governments.
“What we are saying in essence is that the Federal government will take possession of these antiquities, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws. But we have always exercised this right in cognizance of that culture that produced the art works. That is why the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have always involved both the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities,” Mohammed said.
The minister also revealed that the federal government has instituted a claim in Paris before the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP), against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least.
According to the minister, the Ife Bronze antiquity had been seized by the London Metropolitan Police, pending the decision on who the true owner is.
In addition, he said the federal government had also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
He said the antiquities consisted of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite Ife Bronze head.
“Gentlemen, even though not everyone in possession of these artefacts is willing to return them, we remain undeterred as we have deployed all legal and diplomatic means and we have been recording successes in our quest for repatriation. Here are some of the successes we have recorded since that press conference in 2019:
– In October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.
– In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year.
– In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico.
– The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece”.
The minister assured that the federal government will ensure the repatriation of not just the Benin artefacts, as it is equally working towards repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun among others.
Olawale Ajimotokan in Abuja