Germany divided after the transfer of 22 objects to a traditional leader

By Le Figaro with AFP

Published , Update

The Oba of Benin Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II, in February 2022. This traditional chief is the heir to the kingdom plundered by the British colonial expedition of 1897. Kola Sulaimon, AFP

Ownership of treasures returned by European museums was transferred in March, by decree, to the Oba of Benin. Despite the apprehensions of Saxony, the Nigerian authorities ensure that all the goods will be well exhibited in the future Edo museum.

Fate bronzes from Benin never ceases to torment and divide the German authorities. five months later having returned to Nigeria 22 objects from the former Kingdom of Benin looted during the colonial era, a certain vagueness reigns in Germany on the fate of the pieces supposed to be exhibited at the Edo Museum for the Arts of West Africa (EMOWAA), under construction in Benin City. And for good reason: a decree promulgated on March 28 by the President Muhammadu Buhari, succeeded in May by Bola Ahmed Tinubuconfers ownership of the works returned in December to the Nigerian state to Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II, the king (“oba”) of Benin.

In response to this transfer, the authorities of the Saxony region – responsible for the Leipzig ethnology museum where the objects were kept – demanded clarifications from Nigeria and put their restitution efforts on hold. According the agreement signed by Berlin on the return of approximately 1100 bronzes from 20 German collections and museums, the returned works had to remain accessible to the public. Eventually, it is planned that the bronzes will be exhibited in the future Benin City museum. A destiny that could be called into question by the privatization of the goods in question, suggests the region.

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One of Nigeria’s most important traditional leaders, Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II is the heir to the sovereign who reigned over the Kingdom of Benin at the time the bronzes were looted during the sacking of the royal palace in 1897. ‘Edo by a British colonial expedition. “As the original owner, the Oba should be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated objects are domiciled”, says the Nigerian presidential decree. In February 2022, the Oba of Benin had already recovered two bronzes returned the previous year to Nigeria by a London museum.

A few years ago, the Leipzig museum kept 262 Beninese bronzes, the second largest collection in Germany after that of Berlin. Cautious, the Saxony region is now waiting to see “what is the effect of this decree (…) and how the new government will proceed”. Before that, “we will not take any new steps“, told AFP a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture of this state.

Decentralized conflict

The approach of the Saxon authorities – whose majority in the regional parliament belongs to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) – was, however, greeted with annoyance by the Federal Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth. “What happens to the bronzes now is up to the current owner, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria”she told the ZDF channel. “The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria was not subject to conditions”added Christopher Burger, spokesman for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specifying nevertheless that it is “important that the public continue to have access to the bronzes of Benin after the restitution”.

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The debate goes beyond the question of where the objects will be exhibited, writes the German newspaper FAZ. “When works of art are privatized, their interpretation also becomes private”estimates the liberal daily, pointing to historical research according to which the former royal family of Benin “was not the least involved in the slave trade, which benefited not only European powers, but also local elites”.

We want to reure our partners, (…) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (…) and cannot be sold.

Abba Isa Tijani, president of the Nigerian government agency in charge of the return of looted works

The newspaper thus warns against the temptation to erase this aspect in order to present a glorious historical account of the context in which the bronzes were created. These fears irritate the president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger, in charge of the Berlin Ethnological Museum : “Do we really want to go back to the attitude of the 1970s, when we Europeans equated the return of cultural property to Africa with loss, destruction and sale?” he wrote in early May. Its museum has 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom of Benin, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection after that of the British Museum in London.

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In Nigeria, the president of the government agency in charge of the return of looted works, Abba Isa Tijani, wants to calm the debate. “We want to reure our partners, museums in Europe (…) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (…) and cannot be soldhe told AFP, confirming that the construction of the Benin City museum is continuing as planned. The Oba royal family of Benin relies on this museum, nothing has changed, since it does not have the expertise and the staff to manage the museum..

Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria, very involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, criticizes a “propaganda which consists in saying that the objects will be lost”. She recalls that the Oba has always “clearly” indicated that a museum would be created. It’s all just one “Excuse not to return the objects, she says, because they do not want to return them”.

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