From Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
The Federal Government and the Government of the United States has signed the Cultural Property Implementation Act Agreement to prevent the illicit importation of Nigerian artifacts into the United States.
Present at the signing ceremony were the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama; United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, the Director-General, National Council for Arts and Culture, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, the Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, among others.
In his remarks, Mohammed said it was no longer news that Nigerian ancient arts are greatly appreciated around the world.
Mohammed also said ordinarily, the development should be exhilarating news to Nigerians, but it is also giving the country a cause for concern because the fact that the ancient arts are highly coveted encouraged sponsored looting and illicit trafficking of the works by unscrupulous foreigners and Nigerians.
The minister further said despite all efforts by the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, with the assistance of law enforcement agencies to prevent illicit export of the nation’s archaeological and ethnological materials, widespread looting and illicit excavation of the materials still continued.
“The stolen artifacts are mostly smuggled to Europe, the United States of America and other places for the benefit of art collectors.
“To curb these nefarious activities, Nigeria resorted to the UNESCO 1970 Convention, which enjoins member states to the convention, whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage, to call upon other member states to participate in concerted international measures, including the control of exports and imports and international commerce in the specific materials concerned.
“It is on the basis of this convention that Nigeria and the United States of America have agreed to leverage an American legislation, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), to prevent the illicit import of Nigerian artifacts into the United States,” Mohammed said.
Mohammed further said on the basis of the agreement, Nigerian antiquities being imported into the United States without the requisite export permit will be seized at the border of the United States and returned to Nigeria without the arduous and costly task of going through the labyrinth of judicial and diplomatic processes.
“We are optimistic that this agreement will reduce the pillage of our irreplaceable archaeological and ethnological materials, as the market for these materials is being shut in the United States against
“The agreement will last for an initial period of five years. If it works well, as we anticipate it will, it shall be renewed for a longer-term. We implore other friendly nations to take a cue from the United States of America and join us in finding means to prevent the illegal importation of our antiquities into their countries,” Mohammed also said.
Also speaking, Onyeama said the ceremony showed the goodwill between the two sides that both countries have agreed to come together to sign the Memorandum of Understanding.
Onyeama congratulated the Ministry of Information and Culture for the passion and very robust efforts that have been made to recover a lot of Nigerian cultural assets.
He added that the challenge was that clearly, there are a lot of Nigerians who are involved in the illegal trade of stealing the cultural assets and trying to sell them on the black markets outside the country.
“So, it is not just all about foreign countries that are looting our cultural heritage. But we also are guilty of facilitating these.
“So, we have to take certain measures and one of the most important are the border measures. We have to certify our Police, our Customs, our Immigration so that we are seen to be doing what we can, safeguard those assets of ours from being pillaged and illegally taken out of our country,” Onyeama said.
While saying that the cultural assets were priceless assets, Onyeama stated that “they define who we are and where we come from.”
“So, we have an absolute right to have them restituted and we should not need to in any way, justify our rights to having these assets here,” Onyeama added.
On her part, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, quoted Marcus Garvey who said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Leonard added that the tapestry of the Nigerian cultural heritage ranged from the unique Nok terracotta dating back to the fifth century B.C to Yoruba traditions with the sacred Iroko tree to the incomparable bronzes that once decorated the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin.
“Just in my time as Ambassador to Nigeria, I’ve watched advance, a vigorous international discussion on the provenance of art, including discussion of museum collections in the United States. Among other things, today’s agreement is about learning from the past and about recording by this agreement, our partnership to preserve, restore, and protect Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage,” Leonard said.
Leonard further said in Nigeria, over the past decade, the United States Mission has partnered with the Nigerian Government and state institutions to preserve cultural landmarks and sites through projects worth over one million dollars and funded by the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.
“Just last November, I signed a grant award to digitally survey the Busanyin Shrine located within the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove. That $125,000 grant will help document a series of shrines within the Grove and provide training to local professionals in digital tools and cultural heritage management.
“Challenges persist. Nigeria’s cultural property continues to be subject to the threat of pillage, destruction, and loss due to excavation, criminal activity, natural disasters, and subsistence digging. Between 1969 and 1999, museums in Nigeria lost over four hundred heritage items, including Ife and Benin bronzes, and Nok and Owo terra cotta, wood and ivory sculptural pieces.
“We recognize that supporting the preservation of cultural and heritage property through funding alone will not offer full protection for Nigeria’s unique cultural property. Today’s agreement will facilitate more robust collaboration of U.S. and Nigerian federal law enforcement and border control agencies whose mission is to identify, intercept, repatriate, and protect cultural property and related heritage works. Their efforts advance our shared interests in combatting transnational criminal networks and terrorist organizations that profit from the illicit trade of these sacred objects.
“This agreement will promote further the exchange of archaeological materials for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes, including long-term loans of such materials with the aim of increasing public awareness of Nigeria’s cultural traditions. Returning to the example of the Iroko tree, the Yoruba have a tradition that prohibits the cutting of the Iroko tree which today we better understand for its ability to conserve valuable topsoil and store carbon in the ground,” Leonard also said.