Germany to return bronze artifacts to Nigeria


Precious artifacts to be returned to Nigeria.

Precious artifacts looted from the ancient Kingdom of Benin in West Africa (now in present day Nigeria) during the colonial era will be returned.

This was according to a joint declaration adopted by the Benin Dialogue Group, the State Minister for Culture and Media, culture ministers of the federal states, and representatives at the Federal Foreign Office. 

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Benin Bronzes were acquired by British sailors and soldiers during punitive raids to the city of Benin in 1897, where they were distributed worldwide with hundreds currently held across German museums in Leipzig, Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, and Stuttgart. 

Nigeria has been trying to have them repatriated for several decades. Some museums are evening considering keeping replicas and having the originals returned back to Nigeria. 

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According to a CNN report,  a leading historian and researcher at the Nigerian Institute of Benin Studies, Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, welcomed this declaration by pointing out how Germany is leading the “global restitution movement.” He went further to urge other EU countries to acknowledge that all objects looted in 1897 belong to the people of Benin.

On her part, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters described this declaration as a “historic milestone.” She detailed how “we aim for substantial returns” and fostering “understanding and reconciliation” with the descendants of people robbed of their cultural treasures  during the colonial era. Among other resolutions agreed upon is to establish a “Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts in Germany” which lists all the Benin bronzes owned by the museum onto its website by June 15. 

All parties involved in the restitution will work for hand in hand with Nigerian partners such as the Legacy Restoration Trust, tasked with the development of a new Edo Museum for West African Art in Benin City, located in Edo State. This announcement followed a German delegation to Nigeria in March where the foreign Minister Heiko Maas signaled support for this restitution - he unfortunately resigned shortly afterward.

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The German government has offered to provide funding and expertise for this new museum, inspired by David Adjaye, an award-winning architect. A knowledge-sharing platform has also been launched to enhance cooperation between African and German museums.

Nigeria’s treasures

Bronze artwork is regarded as some of the finest workmanship produced by Africa. Individual pieces often sell for millions of dollars in public auctions.

As reported by CNN, the campaign to have the artifacts returned goes to Nigeria began in the 1960s right after attaining Independence. The endless back and forth has been a source of strain in foreign diplomatic relations. For instance, a point of contention was when a British Museum refused to return an ivory mask on loan.

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The recent events were achieved after a culmination of significant small successes. In 2019, the French government commissioned a report that recommended museum artifacts originating from sub-Saharan Africa to be made available for restitution claims. The directors at major Netherland institutions have also supported the calls for restitution. A report by The Times mentions that the University of Aberdeen has forged a plan on the return of 21 historical artifacts looted from Nigeria.

The UK law forbids the return of any artifacts in museums which has posed a significant barrier. At present, the Museum of London is the largest holder of bronzes from Benin and remains a frequent target of leading campaigners.