The German government has announced that it will return looted Benin artifacts in its museums to Nigeria. In a joint declaration, the State Minister for Culture and Media Monika Grütters, the management of the German member museums of the Benin Dialogue Group, and the culture ministers of the federal states and representatives of the Federal Foreign Office expressed their willingness to make “substantial returns of Benin Bronzes.”
In 1987, the British army invaded the Kingdom of Benin, deposed and exiled the Oba, burned down buildings and looted sacred sites and palaces. Among the looted artifacts were sculptures made of brass, bronze, wood, clay, and ivory. These sculptures are collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. They were auctioned to museums around the world, many of them in Germany.
The German government will work with Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting “cultural heritage art and archaeological projects by providing research, attracting funding and securing execution capability for high-value arts and cultural projects.” The Nigerian government, the Governor of Edo State Godwin Obaseki, and the Royal Family of Benin supports LRT.
The German government also promised to create extensive transparency concerning the Benin Bronzes in their collections and exhibitions, to hold further coordinated talks on returns and future cooperation with the Nigerian side at an early date, and to determine concrete actions and a timetable for the upcoming talks.
“We would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era,” Grütters said. “We are planning the first returns in the course of 2022.”
There are also plans for a website, which on 15 June 2021 will contain a list of all Benin Bronzes owned by museums. The museums will comprehensively document the origins of artifacts by the end of the year and make them publicly accessible on the website.
Decades after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the country has been clamouring for the return of the stolen artifacts. In 1977, the British Museum refused to return an ivory mask after asking for an indemnity of N2 million. In 2018, however, the French government, in a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, advised that thousands of African artifacts looted during the colonial era be returned to the continent.
In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen announced that it would return a Benin Bronze sculpture to Nigeria due to the “extremely immoral” methods through which the artifact was gotten.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.