The federal government is determined to ensure the return of Nigeria’s cultural artifacts taken abroad illegally. In a chat with arts and culture journalists in Lagos, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said, “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.”
Mohammed said that the federal government was under no illusion that this would be an easy task, but no one should also doubt government’s determination to make a success of this campaign. He said, “We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze 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.
“We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. 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,” he disclosed.
He noted that those who proudly display what they did not produce were daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not.
“Of course, as you all 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,” he maintained.
He wondered how Nigeria could benefit from what was hers when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who described them as their properties.
He disclosed that, in launching the 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.”
Mohammed said that “by the provisions of the 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.”
Relating the provisions to an Ife bronze head or a Benin Bronze head, both made several centuries ago, he wondered. “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.”
He revealed that 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,” he added. The minister commended the work of the discussion group that was now known as the “Benin Dialogue Group”, which was working to resolve the issue, adding, “We are not averse to agreements such as the one being fashioned out by the group. But whatever decision the group takes must be based on the inviolable, logical and natural conclusion that the looted/smuggled artifacts belong to Nigeria.”
He reiterated that they could 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.”
He said that Nigeria desire her 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.”
According to him, “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. And under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the
ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours.”