Germany signed an agreement on Thursday to transfer ownership to Nigeria of the Benin Bronzes, among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts which were looted in the 19th century.
British soldiers took pile loads of bronzes, sacred ancestral artifacts, intricate sculptures and plaques dating back to the 13th century onwards, when they invaded the Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now southwestern Nigeria, in 1897.
The artefacts ended up in museums around Europe and the United States. African countries have for years fought to recover them with little to no success. After having pledged to return the artistic valuables early this year, Germany returned the first of the sculptures to Nigeria in July.
On Thursday, the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage (SPK) and Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) signed a deal transferring their ownership from the Ethnological Museum collection in Berlin to Nigeria.
The agreement, which the SPK described as the most extensive transfer of museum artefacts from a colonial context to date, covers 512 objects which ended up in Berlin in the aftermath of the 1897 looting.
The first objects will be physically returned to Nigeria this year. About a third of the treasures will remain on loan in Berlin for at least 10 years and exhibited at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. There remains room that the loan might be extended beyond a decade.
“This represents the future concerning the artefacts issue; a future of collaboration among museums, a future of according respect and dignity to the legitimate requests of other nations and traditional institutions,” said NCMM’s Abba Isa Tijani.
He urged museums outside Germany to emulate the agreement and commit to returning what is originally from West Africa. French art historians have estimated that some 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe.
African countries have long sought to get back works pillaged by explorers and colonisers as Western institutions grapple with the cultural legacies of colonialism. Even Nigerians back at home have rejoiced that they will soon be welcoming ancestral treasures looted during the colonial period, an indication that artefacts of a historical nature need to be preserved.
"The ancestors are returning, so with baited breath, everybody is waiting and hoping to behold these objects," says Theophilus Umogbai, Director and curator of Benin City National Museum, expressing jubilance at the prospect of the return.
"People have been talking about these objects since 1897 and yet we are unable to access these objects to behold them, to view them," he adds. The artefacts are more than just decorative objects.
"Each of the objects taken away represented an ancestor in captivity, not just an artwork but an ancestor in captivity. That will tell you how important the objects are,” Umogbai clarified.
For Africans, the stolen artefacts are nothing short of a stolen sense of identity and a well-morphed plan by imperialists to subdue Africans of their heritage. In the process, erasing the pride of an African child while inculcating hordes of inferiority complexes.
Earlier this month, London’s Horniman Museum said it would return 72 artefacts, including 12 brass plaques, to the Nigerian government. This follows a similar move by a Cambridge University college and a Paris museum last year in which the institution agreed repatriate the famous stolen ‘okukor’ to its home country.
German Culture Commissioner Claudia Roth said it was an example for museums in Germany with colonial-era collections and that further agreements would follow in coming months. The restoration of African cultural pride and heritage – inextricable from the inherent identity and belief systems of Africans – demands solidarity at a global scale, with “all hands on deck”. And it starts with the materialization of reparations/restitution – starting with stolen cultural artifacts.