The vision for a modern state museum in Benin City that meets all the requirements as a new home for the 1,130 Benin bronzes that Germany transferred to Nigeria is for now a thing of the past. The incumbent Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, announced in a public statement on March 23rd that he had transferred ownership of all Benin artefacts looted from the Royal Palace in 1897 and collected elsewhere in the Benin Empire to the Oba of Benin. He recognises him as the owner and has therefore transferred all associated rights, including storage and administration, to him by means of a presidential decree: “To the exclusion of any other person or institution,” as the Nigerian newspaper This Day quotes the decree.
This applies to all the Benin objects that have already been returned and all the others expected to be returned worldwide; in future, they will have to be handed over directly to the Oba as the original owner. All the artefacts are to be housed at the king’s palace or another location in Benin City or elsewhere, according to the Oba’s discretion, as long as their safety is assured. The Federal Government of Nigeria and the Oba are jointly responsible for the security and protection of the objects. As far as the management of the collections is concerned, this is entirely in the hands of the Oba. He can, at his own discretion, cooperate with national or international institutions regarding the preservation of the objects. There is no longer any talk of travelling exhibitions, loans, public access, scientific international cooperation and exchange.
Denial of history
With this decree, Nigeria’s President, shortly before the end of his term of office – the swearing-in ceremony for the new President, Bola Tinubu, will take place this month – created what at first glance seemed surprising. The current President is transferring Nigeria’s national property – including what had been the national property of Germany until the summer of 2022 – to a private individual or a private, autocratic institution. A public good has thus become private property. The Oba has already officially informed the Dutch ambassador in Nigeria that the Netherlands must also comply with the this ‘law’ (“that is the law”).
What was intended by German politicians as a return of important cultural artefacts to the “Nigerian people” to “heal the wounds of the past” is now instead a gift to a single royal house – one among many royal houses and Sultanates in the Republic of Nigeria. A royal family that, from today’s perspective, also committed horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity until it was subjugated by the British: notorious wars of aggression over centuries with looting, destruction, massacres, the enslavement of prisoners of war, human sacrifices, and slave trading on a large scale.
The actual Benin bronzes are known to be the direct result of the slave trade because the Europeans paid for the slaves with brass rings that became the raw material for the bronzes. They are now returning to the place where they were created, transformed into valuable works of art and historically ‘cleansed’. As can be seen in publications from around the royal court, on the Internet and even in the Digital Benin database connected to the Rothenbaum Museum in Hamburg, the history of the Kingdom of Benin now consists of a paean to the embellished past in which the bloody excesses are concealed and denied. This is an affront to the descendants of slaves in the United States and the Caribbean.
The return of the bronzes to the “Nigerian people” has ended in a fiasco for German politicians and the museum employees who did their bidding. How careless the wording of the agreement on the transfer of ownership between Germany and Nigeria can now be seen very clearly.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at the state ceremony in Abuja last December, as she performed the symbolic handover of the Benin artefacts: “We are therefore pleased to fund the construction of an art pavilion at the Edo State Museum and to invite you to exhibit the bronzes there. In addition, we have agreed that some bronzes will go to global travelling exhibitions and some of them will remain on loan in German museums.”
By the “Edo State Museum” she obviously meant the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), a private initiative of the Legacy Restoration Trust that goes back to the governor of the state of Edo, Godwin Obaseki. The Benin Dialogue Group, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office have been supporting the construction of this architecturally impressive project for years – although a long-term financing plan for the museum’s operations was never presented – and funded it with four million euros.
The wrong museum
The museum is now under construction. However, some significant changes have been announced on the EMOWAA homepage since the beginning of March. It previously stated that the museum would be “home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Benin Bronzes”. That sentence is no longer there. The EMOWAA will no longer be what German politicians imagined.
There were other indications that things were not going to plan. In the minutes of the last meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in Hamburg in March of this year, the EMOWAA was no longer mentioned at all, but the Benin Royal Museum, i.e., the Oba’s private museum, was referred to explicitly. Just a few weeks earlier, the overall political situation looked different: the responsible ministers of both countries were at the official ceremony of the German handover. The royal court was not represented – it obviously hadn’t been invited. So what changed?
The family conflict
Everyone who was interested knew that things had been brewing behind the scenes in Nigeria for a long time and that the expected repatriation of thousands of Benin bronzes had become a bone of political contention. Nigerian newspapers have long been reporting on a “cold war” between the Governor, Godwin Obaseki, and the Oba, Ewuare II. The royal court and right-wing groups supporting it starting making threats and did not rule out physical violence if the Benin bronzes went to EMOWAA instead of the king. However, Obaseki had ambitious plans for the new museum. As governor of the federal state of Edo, he wanted to develop the capital, Benin City, into a cultural centre of West African art. The Benin bronzes would have played a central part in this.
Ironically, the conflict dates back to 1897, when the British conquered the royal city of Benin and deposed the king, as This Day and other newspapers reported in 2019. Agho Obaseki, the grandfather of the current Governor, was given the title of honorary chief by the Oba. The Oba gave Obaseki his daughter in marriage and gifted him 100 slaves. When the Oba was already in exile, according to Nigerian newspaper reports, Obaseki took over the office of Oba from 1897 to 1914 and after the death of the exiled king his eldest son was installed as Oba. The British interfered by appointing Obaseki the new Oba’s chief adviser. This resulted in a power struggle, because Obaseki was considered a collaborator with the British and a traitor to the king. Godwin Obaseki, the current governor, is now accused by royalists of perpetuating this treason. A newspaper headline related to the governor’s EMOWAA initiative read: “Does Obaseki want to be like his grandfather?”
According to the Nigerian media, President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to hand over all Benin properties to the Oba puts an end to the fight between the two opponents. The decision was also apparently made over the heads of the Nigerian Museums and Monuments Commission (NCMM) and its Director General, Abba Isa Tijani. Why Buhari did not stipulate that all Benin collections should be housed in purely state museums (such as the national museums in Lagos, Benin City and Abuja) is a mystery. Whether the transfer of ownership is legal and what domestic and foreign policy consequences it will have will only become clear once the new Nigerian President has been sworn in.
Museums as state gift repositories
Presidential access to national treasures is nothing new in Nigeria. Just one year after independence, the then Prime Minister A.T. Balewa went to the National Museum in Lagos to select a state gift for the American President John F. Kennedy. Despite protests from the Director in charge, Balewa chose a richly carved 18th-century elephant’s tusk. Such ivory carvings were placed on the bronze memorial heads on the royal altars of Benin. Balewa delivered the tooth on the occasion of his state visit to the United States in 1961. It is now in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
It didn’t stop there. A few years later, in 1973, General Yakubu Gowon, then President, contacted Ekpo Eyo, Director of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities (the forerunner of the NCMM), and announced his visit to the National Museum. He would choose a gift for Queen Elizabeth to bring to her on a state visit. As Barnaby Phillips, author of the book Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, writes, Eyo cleared the most valuable pieces from the exhibition before the General arrived. But he could not prevent the latter from selecting a 17th-century bronze memorial head and presenting it to the Queen in 1973 in gratitude for British support in the Biafra War.
In England, the head, long thought to be a copy, stood on a shelf in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Only in 2002, on the occasion of an exhibition of state gifts to the Queen in Buckingham Palace, did experts identify it as an original which came from the collection of the National Museum in Lagos. Today, it is in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle. The history of the memorial head is embarrassing: it came from an altar of the Oba and was captured by the British in 1897. Most likely an officer of the punitive expedition took it to England, where it eventually ended up on the art market. British colonial officials in Nigeria acquired the head between 1946 and 1957 for the National Museum in Lagos, where it remained until 1973. The British royal family received notification in December 2022 that Nigeria would not reclaim the state gift.
The odyssey of the Benin bronzes from Germany and other countries continues.
Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin was a professor of ethnology at the Georg-August University in Göttingen from 1992 to 2016. This article was first published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on May 6th. Translation by Mike Wells.
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