This week’s article is the first of a three-part series on our history and antecedents as a people. I took the time to put this piece together with the help of my colleague, Mr. Aligbe Onuorah, a highly respected environmentalist and engineer who has been a part of my numerous adventures and following recent developments, which I believe my experience and knowledge can help provide further context for.
Growing up into my early teens, I witnessed severally the conversion of our so-called heathens to Christianity. It involved, in part, the burning of any graven image or artwork found in the household of the convert. Often the missionaries would leave with some of these images in a rucksack, announcing that those would have to be disposed of specially, perhaps after serious prayers of intervention. Years later, as a student in England, I came to find similar artworks in the British museums and homes of my European colleagues who had at one time or the other lived in Nigeria.
Africa, especially West Africa, used to be home to many great kingdoms. These included the Nok, Ife, Benin, Ancient Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Bush Valley and Asante kingdoms. They all grew rich trading in precious metals and farm produce. In addition, the people of West Africa were skilled potters, sculptors, and metal workers, using wood, brass, bronze, and gold in their works. Their art, especially in Benin, Ife and Nok kingdoms, were used to glorify their kings, deities, culture, wars, and celebrations. Early on in our march through history, our people had no knowledge of putting events and stories down on paper. But they told their stories in carvings on wood, stones, bronze, brass, etc. With the arrival of the Europeans who came firstly as traders, the 19th Century was particularly bad for the surviving kingdoms of West Africa. The declarations of Benin as a British Colony in 1897 and Asante also as one in 1902 effectively ended the era of the West African kingdoms. These were quickly followed in 1914 with the amalgamation of the Southern Nigerian Colony and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
All over Africa, the colonial masters treated their colonies as conquered territories, yet there were no wars declared, except in pretense by the invading ‘explorers.’ The colonialists thus plundered and carted away numerous treasures, from art works to resources and human beings. Whereas they made a show of paying (meagerly and immorally) for the resources and the humans shipped off, they brazenly stole the art works through orchestrated smuggling and fake religious conversions.
Following the independence of these nations from the European colonising countries, African nations began to demand for the return of their stolen treasures. Fast-forward to the preparations of FESTAC ’77 hosted by us; Nigeria appointed a committee to locate and return to Nigeria any and all documented and historical works of art from anywhere in Europe and the Americas. The committee selected the ivory mask of Queen Idia of Ancient Benin Kingdom as the festival symbol, and offered £2 million to the British government for the loan of this mask that sits in the British Museum, following their refusal to return the mask. The British government rejected the offer, to the chagrin of all decent people. By the end of FESTAC ’77, that committee was disbanded. Since then, Nigeria has relied on the approach of quiet diplomacy to press for the recovery of its stolen history. Such quite diplomacy has more or less been a colossal failure until recently with the announcement that the British museum will be ‘leasing’ our work to us in the coming years. The reasons for the previous failures and recent pyrrhic victory are not farfetched. Firstly, during, and since the festival, and up until 1999, Nigeria was a ‘militarised’ country (except for a brief period between 1979 and 1983), with the military governments playing musical chairs with governance. The, country under such rule, had not shown any consistency in policy. The military government that came into power in 1975 almost cancelled the FESTAC festival. Secondly, there was no responsible body to take up the fight on the part of Nigeria, following the dissolution of the first committee. The people in power had different priorities with each new government of the day, and so adequate attention was not given to matters of our history. In fact, one could argue that the authorities were inadvertently engaged in re-writing our history. Thirdly, Nigeria had been proving beyond doubt that she cannot manage her affairs. Museums set up in virtually every region were dying from neglect, poor staffing, low wages, low morale, and poor funding. The problem of poor management can still be seen in the poor documentation of our art treasures and resources till date. The British burned down the city of Benin in 1897 and so erased most of the records held in the kingdom. What they didn’t burn down, they carted away or systematically destroyed. But those wanton acts have not stopped the British from reasoning that we are incapable of taking care of what is ours.
One good thing, among many others, about Nigerians is that we are an indefatigable people; a good number of us are. Citizens and groups have on their own kept on the fight for the return of our stolen his- tory. Individuals, art lovers, cities and states have been able to trace most of the missing arts to most European and American cities. A lot of these are in private homes. Others are held in public view. However, we do not have a list of these works anywhere, com- prehensive or otherwise. I believe that, if a standing committee tasked with recovery of our art existed, it could easily set up such a data bank for effective dialogue with the looters.
I run a private museum in Lagos, and have my works properly documented both digitally and in print. This is constantly updated as I acquire more works. The irony is that I did this with the help of curators from the National Museum. So, we do have the talents. In 2001, there was a move between my museum, Didi Museum, and the National Museum to digitalise their records and update them regularly. Due to lack of funding, that collaboration did not come to fruition. If we could not write in the 17th and 18th centuries, how can we defend our inability to manage our resources, our treasures, and document our history today, since we are making history every day of our lives? As I write, our present artists, sculptors, and metal workers are creating contemporary arts some of which are truly iconic. Are we documenting these? Some of these works are in private hands and the National Museum Commission may not have records of them. Elsewhere, it is not uncommon for museums to acquire iconic works for historical purposes. Or lease them for exhibition permanently or from time to time. Who is documenting the works of our activist artists over time? Works of people like Dele Jegede, Jossy Ajiboye, Kenny Adamson, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Gani Fawehimi have all contributed to our present political landscape. We need to preserve such records, no matter how unpalatable they might be to some.
The Oba of Benin, Eheneden Erediauwa Omo N’Oba Ewuare II, as the head of the traditional council of Benin, called on Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, and his wife, during their recent visit to Nigeria in October 2018, to implore the British government to return to us all Nigerian arts, especially the Benin arts held in Britain.
At the moment, a museum is being built in Benin for the repository of Benin arts, and the British government has agreed on a three-year plan to ‘loan’ some of these works to the museum for exhibitions. While this is an insult really, it is a positive shift from the British position in 1977.
In recently, there has been renewed clamour, albeit from unexpected quarters, for the restitution of the wrongs the colonialists had done to African nations. The President of France, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, called on European nations to return all stolen arts and treasures to their African countries, starting with France. This welcome development will not be easy to achieve, though. But we must seize this opportunity to vigorously pursue this path to restitution.
Most importantly, these two developments underline the need to have a powerful standing committee for the recovery of Nigerian works of art anywhere they may be found in the world.
Such a committee must be properly funded at all times, empowered with diplomatic passports and credentials from the highest seat of our nation’s government. The committee must not be politicised, must be made up of citizens with impeccable character, who are apolitical, beyond reproach, and morally conscientious. They will need to be respected by and comfortable around their hosts, for they must speak with candor and justice. It will be a long fight, but fight we must.
If we must learn how to properly govern ourselves once more, we may need to step back a little into our past development, past history and past laws. We must also do it fast.