Following the recent annunciation by the Nigerian government on the ownership of the Benin artifacts by the Oba tribe, Western countries agreed to reinstitute the owners. However, lawmakers from Germany’s ruling parties defended their decision to unconditionally restitute 22 Benin bronzes to Nigeria, despite opposition accusations of naivety. The outgoing president of Nigeria’s declaration that the oba of Benin would be the owner of the returning artifacts raised concerns in Germany that the world heritage would end up in a private royal collection, away from public view. A parliamentary debate ensued following press reports labeling the return of the bronzes a “fiasco” and a “scandal later this week. Let’s explore the case of restitution again in this article.
Germany has taken significant steps toward the full restitution of the Benin bronzes. Last year, the German government, states, and museums transferred ownership of over 1,100 bronzes from five museum collections to Nigeria, making Germany the first country to return hundreds of items looted during the British raid on the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Other countries and museums involved in negotiations with Nigerian authorities will closely monitor the fate of the 22 repatriated artifacts.
During the debate, Helge Lindh, a member of the Social Democratic Party, challenged the notion of scandal, stating that it was, in fact, a healthy lesson in humility. Lindh emphasized that restitution with conditions amounted to neo-colonialism and questioned the seriousness of those who failed to adhere to full restitution. He argued that restitution must be unconditional to maintain its integrity.
Due to the confusion surrounding the ownership declaration, Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has decided to postpone the handover of 116 Benin bronzes to a Nigerian delegation. The handover, scheduled for 16th May did not happen. This delay highlights the impact of the ongoing debate on international cooperation in returning cultural heritage.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party called for a parliamentary debate, criticizing the government for being “hyper-moral.” Representative Marc Jongen leveled accusations against the government, alleging that they misused public funds by backing the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) construction, which initially aimed to exhibit the Benin bronzes. However, Oba Ewuare II opposes displaying the bronzes at the EMOWAA and instead advocates for a royal museum connected to the palace. Jongen demanded that the government halt further deliveries of bronzes following the broken trust. He pointed out that other European countries are reconsidering their restitution efforts in light of the ongoing debate.
The recent declaration by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, designating the oba as the owner of repatriated artifacts, has not yet taken effect in Nigeria. Discussions are underway to determine the next steps regarding the management and secure location of the returning bronzes. Western museums holding Benin artifacts are engaged in negotiations with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). The director of the NCMM, Abba Tijani, revealed that discussions are ongoing with the Nigerian justice ministry to revise the presidential declaration.
As the debate continues, it remains to be seen how the restitution of Benin bronzes will progress both within Germany and on the international stage. The outcomes will have far-reaching implications for future restitution efforts and the preservation of cultural heritage
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