125 years after they were looted at the palace of Benin, two artefacts, a Cockerel (Okpa) and Uhunwun Elao (Oba Head), were formally handed over to the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II in an elaborate ceremony last week.
The two artefacts, out of about 10,000 taken from the palace during the British expedition of 1897, were returned by Jesus College of Cambridge University and University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
The ceremony attracted prominent Benin sons and daughters, members of the royal family, societies and groups in the kingdom, the Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Professor Abba Tijani, the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Tunji Ishola, traditional rulers from Edo North and Edo Central, representative of the Ooni of Ife, the Hausa and Yoruba communities, the Muslim community, men of the various security agencies among others.
While officially handing over the items to Oba Ewuare II, Ishola said the two items had been preserved in their original forms when they were taken away 125 years ago and the value of the Cockerel today is £2 million while the Oba Head is valued at £500,000.
He said he was delighted that the works would now be domiciled in their homes of origin and researchers would write about them talking to their real owners.
Ishola said the works were returned with the history of who had housed them right from 1897 till date and how much it was sold or bought at each point.
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“My assignment here is to directly bring these objects to the Oba of Benin Kingdom. That is the presidential directive.
“Value has been added to these artefacts. I am not aware of the value as at when it was taken away but as at today, the Cockerel is valued at £2million while the Oba’s head is valued and insured for £500,000 pounds. We will still see many of them come back and it is a great treasure for Benin Kingdom and Nigeria.”
Also speaking, Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, represented by his Chief of Staff, Osaigbovo Iyoha, pledged to support the palace in the return of the artefacts.
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He said any institution willing to return the artefacts should liaise with the palace.
Oba Ewuare II, in his speech read by his younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, said it was a day of joy personally “and to all Benin people at home and in Diaspora”.
“We are witnessing today the beginning of the restitution of our artefacts which were looted in 1897,” he added.
“For us, our bronze does not transcend mere art. They are mostly of religious significance to us and these two bronze pieces will return to where they rightly belong.
“I will reiterate that the bronze and other works that were looted from the palace must be returned back here directly or through the agency of the federal government,” the monarch explained.
While expressing appreciation to President Muhammadu Buhari for expressly directing that the two bronzes be handed to him directly, the Benin monarch also commended both Jesus College of Cambridge University and the University of Aberdeen for their pace-setting initiative in returning these two bronzes.
AU Demands Return of Africa’s Artefacts from Europe
Meanwhile, AU has added its voice to the call on European countries to return Africa’s artefacts in their possession.
President of AU, Mr. Macky Sall, made this known during his speech at the ongoing EU-AU summit in Brussels.
He said the restitution of African works would remain a matter of high priority, insisting that they were part of Africa’s ‘civilisational identity’.
“If we want to build a new Europe-Africa relational ethic, based on respect and recognition of historical facts, we must pursue the work already started through the recommendations of the Savoy-Sarr report,” Sall explained.
His position was part of the eight proposals by African leaders as their contribution to the new partnership with Europe.
As colonial masters ‘conquered’ Africa, thousands of its cultural artefacts were stolen. The conquerors took Africans as slaves to work on plantations and to build their countries while the artefacts were displayed in museums.
For instance, in 1897, the British launched a punitive expedition against Benin, in response to an attack on a British diplomatic expedition.
Apart from bronze sculptures and plaques, innumerable royal objects were taken as a result of the mission and these are scattered all over the world.
While restitution has begun, Sall’s call has reinforced the stance of the African people on the ruins of colonialism and the clamour for the return of their stolen heritage.
Sall also called for a revision of the investment risk evaluation criteria in Africa, noting that, “the risk perception remains considerably higher than the real risk, which results in high insurance costs, penalises investment and reduces competitiveness of our economies.”