Except a compromise is reached, the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, and Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, are heading for a showdown over the impending return by Germany and the United Kingdom of artefacts stolen from the Benin Palace in 1897 during a raid by the colonial invaders.
While the monarch favours the return of the artefacts to a museum to be built by the palace within its premises, or in the alternative, a museum to be built and managed by the federal and state governments, the palace believes the governor prefers a private trust to take custody of, and manage the ancient precious artworks.
However, Obaseki told THISDAY that he was working on a tripartite arrangement, involving the federal and state governments, the Oba of Benin and a private trust that would manage the artefacts on behalf of the palace and the people.
“I intend to work with the Oba of Benin in an arrangement that would be led by the federal government,” he told THISDAY, accusing a palace chief, Elemai Oseni, of misinforming the revered monarch about his plans.
He said he would straighten out things with the monarch on his return from Germany, where he and the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, are currently negotiating and insisting on unconditional repatriation of the artefacts.
Notwithstanding, the brewing quarrel in Benin may become public knowledge today as Oba Ewuare II addresses a historic press conference, the first ever, signposting the importance he attaches to the issue.
THISDAY learnt that the brewing crisis may replay the bitter aspect of the history of ancient Benin Kingdom dating back to 1897 when Britain invaded the kingdom, subdued Oba Ovonramwen, plundered and looted his palace and sent him on exile.
A Benin chief named Obaseki, said to be the great-grandfather of the current governor, was apprehended by palace historians as one of those who betrayed Oba Ovonramwen and made the British expedition a success.
“The current standoff, therefore, has a touch of history,” a Benin chief told THISDAY last night, pointing out: “It is significant that another Obaseki is at play on this occasion.”
THISDAY gathered that following the imminence of the return of the looted artefacts by the UK, German and French governments, Obaseki came up with a grand plan to form a private trust, not owned by the state government, to take custody of the returning artefacts.
His plan, it is gathered, is to have the private trust build a museum of West African Arts in Benin, the state capital, where the artefacts would be kept and curated.
Legacy Restoration Trust, a private entity, THISDAY learnt, has since emerged, parading itself as the authorised custodian of the artefacts.
Oba Ewuare II is said to have opposed this move on the ground that it would amount to private appropriation of the cultural heritage of his kingdom.
While the monarch is said not to be opposed to the idea of the federal and state governments taking custody of the artefacts and keeping it in a museum to be built by them, he has expressed his objection to a private trust managing the ancient artworks.
“Oba Ewuare’s position,” said a source, “is that at the least the artefacts should return to the palace where they were stolen, contending that the palace could on its own build a museum where they would be kept and manage.”
This position was well articulated in a statement by Benin Traditional Council dated 10th May 2021 and signed by the Secretary, Mr. Frank Irabor; and the Executive Assistant, Corporate and Legal Affairs, Mr. Denis Osaretin.
Disowning Legacy Restoration Trust and Legacy and Legal Restoration Trust that it said had been parading themselves as presumptive custodians of the incoming artefacts, it said: “For categorical clarification, these individuals and groups of persons are not known nor authorised by the Oba of Benin, who is the original owner of the looted artefacts and the custodian of Benin customs and tradition.
“For the avoidance of doubt, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpololokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Oba of Benin remains the custodia Legis of all insignia, symbols and such other artefacts depicting the rich cultural heritage of the Benin people.”
It said, the Oba of Benin or his duly authorised representative or body corporate, is, therefore, the only person that can have any dealings with any foreign donours or missions or any international institution over the artefacts.
THISDAY learnt that following this statement, the Secretary to the State Government had conversations with the palace secretary but the meeting ended in a deadlock with both parties hugging their mutually exclusive positions.
At the centre of the conflict, THISDAY has learnt, is the potentially huge financial resources that might accrue from the warehousing of the artefacts.
Already, the German government is committed to an initial donation of 4.5 million Euros to the Edo Museum of West African Arts and Cultural District projected to be built in Benin City.
This was revealed in a statement on Wednesday by Foreign Minister Maas, which spoke eloquently about the desire of Germany to return the artefacts in its custody and pay adequate reparation.
Obaseki too had spoken glowingly about his trust project last month after a meeting with the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, during which he sought the federal government’s help to secure the return of the artworks.
Obaseki said museums had become catalysts in the evolution and development of cities.
He explained: “There is a city called Bilbao in Spain, and that was the head of the Basque separatist movements many years ago.
“The investment by the Guggenheim Foundation, by the Guggenheim family museum in Bilbao, has changed the economic fortunes of that city.
“Today, Bilbao earns more than a billion dollars from just the presence of that museum in that city. Because everybody wants to come in to see what’s in that museum.
“So, bringing back these works, this world cherished works, bringing the originals back to their home, I mean, you can imagine for years to come, people, children unborn, all over the world want to come and see these pieces.”
He said his administration was designing a whole cultural district for Benin, saying that the proposed museum would be situated within the cultural district.
Obaseki said: “As I speak, the planners from Latin America are in Benin City, looking at work and doing the surveys. That process should end in about August.
“We believe that the museum is going to be a series of, you know, buildings, you have the pavilion where these works will be brought in initially and will be kept.
“We also undertaking more archaeological excavations, and whatever we find will be kept in the pavilion.
“We have a national museum that currently exists. And that’s going to be refurbished, then we have the main Edo Museum of West African Arts. And the construction for that will take another one or two years to begin.”
Oba Ewuare is, however, resisting the private trust, being promoted and led by Phillip Ihenacho, said to be Obaseki’s business partner in Afrinvest, with Victor Ehikhamenor, Enotie Ogbebor, Eric Idiahi and Babatunde Adebiyi as trustees with renowned Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye as architectural consultant.
THISDAY learnt the monarch had reached out to the presidency and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, who appear to be sympathetic to the cause of having the looted artefacts returned to the palace from where they were stolen.
Olawale Ajimotokan in Abuja