Nigeria has demanded for the return of its stole bronze statues, but in a rather shocking move Britain says it can only loan them to Nigeria. This is not the only case where former colonises and looters dictate the terms of repatriation. As was the case for many countries in Africa, colonialism led to massive looting and plundering of many precious artefacts. Yet, countries trying to get their stolen artefacts back are told it’s not possible. The British Museum has become a repository of many stolen artefacts taken from the continent, in this case the bronze statues from Benin Kingdom.
In 1897, the British Empire stole Benin Bronze statues after razing the city to the ground. The Benin bronze artefacts were stolen after British troops sacked Benin City following a punitive expedition. The barbarity of the British was not limited to West Africa but also extended to Ethiopia. In 1868, after the capture of Maqdala, the British looted important manuscripts and artefacts from the Ethiopian empire.
Hannah Boulton, the British Museum Spokesperson in a statement quoted by Al Jazeera said “It’s absolutely not the case that everything in the museum’s African collections was plundered or looted or whatever the phrase you want to use but obviously there are certain circumstances or certain events that happened and certain examples like the Benin Bronzes where that material wouldn’t have come into the collection in the same way today.”
The issue of theft, is part of the bigger discourse surrounding expropriation, and in the case of South Africa, land expropriation without compensation. Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and a strong advocate of land expropriation without compensation in an interview said “we’re taking what is rightfully ours.”
Why then does a colonial institution decide what to do with artefacts they stole? During a visit to Burkina Faso in November last year while on a three day trip to the continent, France President Emmanuel Macron said, “I want the conditions to be created within five years for the temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage to Africa.” Are former colonialists in a moral position to make the conditions upon which items they stole must be returned?
In December last year, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments called for the unconditional return of cultural artefacts and works taken illegally from Nigeria. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie a professor of art history at the University of California told artnet News “[It is] completely and arrogantly wrong to imagine that France should have the last word on what constitutes safe conditions for managing these artifacts”. In December last year, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments called for the unconditional return of cultural artefacts and works taken illegally from Nigeria.
The French are also guilty of brazen theft of African sculptures and artefacts. The Kingdom of Dahomey was looted in 1892 by French troops. Most of these objects are found in the Musée du quai Branly, a museum set up by former French President Jacques Chirac. An estimate of 4,500 to 6000 artefacts was carted away by both missionaries and soldiers. The Republic of Benin, former Dahomey Kingdom, first requested for the items held in French museums to be returned back to Benin in July 2016.
Many of the museums holding these stolen artefacts however prefer the option of loaning out the pieces instead of repatriation. For many museums and governments in the West and Europe which hold artefacts from different African countries, repatriation is not an option they are willing to explore.