Germany hands over looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

Germany hands over looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

By Rotimi Ijikanmi, Abuja.

The German Government on Tuesday commenced the official repatriation of 1,130 looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.


At a historic repatriation ceremony held in Abuja, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, symbolically handed over 22 of the 1,130 looted artefacts to his Nigeria counterpart, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama and the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.


The event was witnessed by German Minister of State for Culture, Claudia Roth, the German Ambassador to Nigeria Anneth Gunter and over 50 top officials from Germany.


Mohammed said the event would remain indelible in the history of mankind when Germany blazed the trail by doing the right thing to return the looted artefacts,


“Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, nobody could have anticipated these bronzes returning to Nigeria because the obstacles to achieving repatriation were seemingly insurmountable.


“But today, with the pioneering gesture of a friendly nation, Germany, the story has changed.


“The negotiations were not as easy as things look today. They were stormy at times but the sincerity of the Germans played a big role in resolving knotty issues.


“Because of what Germany has done, negotiations with other nations, institutions and museums for repatriation of the Benin Bronzes in their possession became swifter.’’ he said


Mohammed said that contrary to views in certain quarters, Nigeria had the appropriate infrastructure to keep the bronzes as they were being returned.


He said that the Federal Government was embarking on the infrastructural development of the National Museum in Benin City.


“This will be in addition to the infrastructural development that is being initiated by other stakeholders in Nigeria and the immense support of foreign partners, particularly Germany.


“Easily, Benin City will become a cultural hub for Africa,’’ he said.


The minister called on other nations, institutions, museums and private collectors, still holding on to Nigerian antiquities, to release them.


He particularly called on the British Museum to release the more than 900 Benin Bronzes in its custody.


“A year has rolled by since Nigeria submitted an official letter to the British Museum, demanding the return of Nigerian antiquities in this museum. Yet, there has been no reply of any kind.


“I visited in July this year, hoping that the success recorded with the Germans will nudge the British Museum to do what is right. But I met a brick wall.


“The British Museum and all those holding on to our artefacts must understand that repatriation is a cause whose time has come,’’ he said.


Speaking in the same vein, Onyema said that Germany and Nigeria had set a standard for the rest of the world to follow.


To underscore the importance of the ceremony, the minister recalled when Nigeria hosted the Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977 and Britain denied the country the mask it intended to use as the face of the event.


“When we wanted to host the global historical event, we could not use its original mask that we intended for the festival.


“This is because it is in a museum in the United Kingdom and we asked that at least, they should lend it to us even though it belongs to us.


“Guess what, the answer from Britain was No! So, we had to have a replica made of the mask that we used,’’ he said


On her part, the German foreign affairs minister said that they found it imperative to return the bronzes to where they belonged, after over 120 years they were looted by the British.


“What we are returning today are not mere objects to you and to the Nigerian people; what we are returning is a part of your history and a part of who you are.


“I think, as Germans and Europeans, we should really pause for a moment and reflect on what this actually means. What it means not to have crucial part of your history with you, but you have it taken from you.


“Today, we are here to return the Benin Bronzes to where they belong, to the people of Nigeria.


“We are here to right a wrong because officials from my country once bought the Bronzes, knowing that they had been robbed and stolen,’’ she said.


The minister continued: “We ignored the Nigeria’s plea to return looted bronzes for very long time. It was wrong to take them but it was also wrong to keep them.

“This is the story of European colonialism. It is a story in which our country played a part but we are correcting the wrong doings today.’’


Baerbock underscored the need to make the artefacts accessible to every person in society.


To that effect, she said that Germany would be funding the construction of an art pavilion in Edo State, which would be used to display the bronzes.


She said that it had also been agreed that some of the bronzes would go on travel expositions around the world.


The minister added that some of the bronzes would remain as loan in German museums, so that they could tell the stories and history of their origin.


“What is crucial is that we know where they are from; we know they belong to Nigeria and you can always come and they can also always come back to their home,’’ she said.


Similarly, Roth, the German Minister of State for Culture, said that the Germans had closed their eyes for too long, refusing to recognise the injustice surrounding the bronzes on display in their museums and keeping them in storage for so many years.


She said that by returning them, they had made a statement that everyone had the right to experience the cultural heritage where it originated in its homeland.


Present at the event were Nigeria’s Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Sunday Dare, Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany Yusuf Tuggar and the Director-General of the National Commission for Museum, Prof. Abba Tijani, among others.

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