The Federal Government on Thursday warned foreign countries keeping stolen artefacts from Nigeria that it was coming for them, using all available legal and diplomatic means.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, revealed the government’s decision in Lagos at the launch of a campaign for the return of stolen Nigerian artefacts.
“We are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available,” he said.
The Minister, who acknowledged the formidable task ahead in retrieving the stolen artefacts, said people should not doubt the government’s determination to make a success of the long-overdue campaign.
Mohammed also touched on the illogicality of the actions of recalcitrant governments and individuals that have failed to return stolen objects in their possession.
“We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage, especially during the 19th-century wars, or smuggled them out of the country for financial reasons, have encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past.”
He noted that though some cynics might wonder why the government was moving to recover seemingly worthless Ife bronze head or Nok Terracotta, the timeless and priceless artworks, he explained “are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not.
“The tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play. How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, which describe as their properties?”
Mohammed explained that Nigeria was relying on UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which most nations subscribe, to ensure all stolen items are returned to the country.
He also commended the activities of the interventionist body, ‘Benin Dialogue Group’ that has been in the forefront of repatriating stolen artefacts from other countries, adding however that more still needs to be done.
Mohammed reiterated that Nigeria would “not be deterred by the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of antiquities in wartime in the 19th century when most of these antiquities were looted. We will not agree that our claims are statute-barred. We will also not be swayed by the insulting argument that Nigeria, and Africa in general, do not have places to keep the antiquities. After all, we kept them somewhere before they were looted. If those who make that argument so desire, they can join us to build more museums that will house such returned antiquities.”
The Minister disclosed that from 2020, his ministry would begin e organizing an annual National Conference on Restitution of Cultural Property.
Mohammed, who referenced Wednesday’s news of Cambridge University’s Jesus College decision to repatriate a stolen Benin bronze cockerel, known as ‘Okukor’ to Nigeria, urged other countries to do likewise.
“We appeal to all those holding our artefacts to follow the footsteps of the Cambridge University by willingly returning them to Nigeria, where they rightly belong,” he said.