After years of pressure by some Nigerians and other concerned groups, the Jesus College of the University of Cambridge has set the pace in returning a bronze statue of a cockerel or Okukor looted in the 19th Century to Nigeria. The gesture is the first move by any British institution to return Nigerian stolen art works. The cockerel was recently handed over to the Nigerian delegation in the United Kingdom. Okukor was looted along with hundreds of sacred sculptures and carvings known as the Benin Bronzes by a punitive British military expedition against the ancient Benin Kingdom in 1897.
About 40 per cent of the art works was warehoused in the British Museum, while others were given to individual members of the armed forces as spoils of war and the remainder sold at auction. The return of Okukor is a significant move in ending that sad chapter in relations between Europe and Africa that was underlined by exploitation and intimidation. We commend the Jesus College and the University of Cambridge for the good gesture.
The development comes on the heels of the demand by the Federal Government for a full and unconditional return of the 1,130 Benin Bronzes looted from the African nation in the 19th Century and domiciled in German museums. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who recently made the demand in Berlin, Germany, insisted that the return should be whole and not substantial.
He argued that the issue of provenance, which has to do with the place of origin of the artefacts, should not be allowed to unduly delay the repatriation of the art works, adding: “That they are known as Benin Bronzes is already a confirmation of their source of origin.”
It is good that Nigeria is taking the bold step in recovering the looted artefacts. The Benin Bronzes, as they are collectively called, are held in collections of numerous British, European and US museums and institutions. The British Museum, which has the largest collection, has not agreed to return its bronzes.
We call on all countries and institutions, especially Britain, still keeping these art works to toe the exemplary path of the Jesus College and return them to the rightful owners. There is no honour in holding what is not theirs. They should also be made to take cue from France, which has handed back 26 treasures that were looted from Republic of Benin during the colonial period, in fulfillment of the promise made by President Emmanuel Macron to restore that lost part of Africa’s heritage. Therefore, it is encouraging that the Federal Government and Germany have agreed on a one-year time limit for the full return of the artefacts from the country. This should be followed through and extended to other countries still holding some of these art works. Some of the bronzes date back to the 13th Century. They were made by Edo craftsmen that worked for Benin Monarchy. The artefacts consist of plaques that used to adorn the Benin Royal Palace, animal and human figures and other ornaments.
Despite being generally referred as “bronzes,” the artefacts include wood or brass works and ivory carvings. They touch on the people’s past existence. Keeping the art works abroad will mortgage part of their history and civilisation. The artifacts tell the history of the people and go a long way in debunking the noxious impression that Africa had no history. They tell a story that the continent had come of age even before the coming of the colonialists.
The campaign for the repatriation of all the artefacts and archival materials stolen from the country by the foreign powers should continue until the looted items are returned.
We commend the countries and institutions that have thought it wise to return the artefacts to the original owners. Let other European powers, which may have taken part in the plundering, relinquish the stolen items. The return of the art works should not only mark an end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations between Africa and Europe anchored on cultural diplomacy.
There is need to have a modern museum where the art works will be housed when they are repatriated. Now that some of the artefacts are gradually being returned, there is need for them to be preserved properly. It is one thing to have the art works back but another thing to keep them in good shape.