FG, not Oba of Benin, Edo Govt, will keep looted Benin bronzes – Minister

by Araayo Akande

The Federal Government, not the Royal Benin Palace or the Edo State Government, would take possession of the looted Benin bronzes Germany wants to return to Nigeria.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said this on Saturday during a press conference on the Federal Government’s efforts to repatriate looted and smuggled artefacts worldwide that commenced in 2019.

Mohammed said the controversy over who would keep the 1,130 artefacts was needless as the Federal Government, which is negotiating their return from the German Government, would take possession. 

He said, “the Federal Government is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany. Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practices and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany.

 “Nigeria is the entity recognised by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria. The relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups. 

“For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its Article 1, defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation. This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property. Nevertheless, the Nigerian state – through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments – has in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate our looted artefacts carried along with our important traditional institutions and state governments.”

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Mohammed, who reiterated that the Federal Government would take ownership of the antiquities because it must do so in line with the extant laws, said it had always recognised the culture that produced the works.

He explained that this was why his Ministry and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) had always involved the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that resulted in the impending return of the antiquities. 

The Minister added that the Government was also working to repatriate more artefacts apart from the Benin bronzes. 

“We are also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun etc.,” he said. 

Giving a breakdown of the successes recorded since the move to repatriate looted artefacts began, Mohammed disclosed that in October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.

 He added that “in March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year. In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico.

 “The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece.

 “We have also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These antiquities consist of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite

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 Ife Bronze head.”

The Minister further disclosed that the Federal Government is pursuing a claim against a Belgian and that no matter how arduous the task, it would not relent. 

“We are currently before the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris, where we have instituted a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least. The London Metropolitan Police have seized this Ife Bronze antiquity, pending the decision on who the true owner is,” he said.

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