The Federal Government, in Abuja, recorded a historical moment with the return of a record number of Benin bronzes by the Federal Republic of Germany. The handing over of the repatriated 1,130 Benin bronzes by Germany was witnessed by the Foreign Minister of Germany, Annalena Baerbock; Nigeria’s Minister of Culture, Lai Mohammed; Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media of Germany, Claudia Roth and other officials from both countries.
Mr. President who received the Germans, said the Government was embarking on infrastructural development around the National Museum in Benin City to accommodate the returned artefacts. He said this would be in addition to the infrastructural developments initiated by other stakeholders in the country and the immense support of foreign partners, particularly Germany. “Easily, Benin City will become a cultural hub for Africa,” he added. The minister expressed appreciation to Germany for not stopping at mere announcement of the return of the artefacts, but following up till the repatriation process was completed. He recalled that when Germany announced returning the Benin bronzes, the world took the news with a pinch of salt. However, Germany followed up with a visit to Nigeria by high-ranking officials in March 2021 to further assure Nigeria. Because of what Germany has done, said Mohammed, negotiations with other nations, institutions and museums for repatriation of the Benin bronzes in their possession became swifter.
He called on other nations, institutions, museums and private collectors still in possession of Nigerian antiquities to release them. The minister specifically called on the British Museum to release more than
900 Benin bronzes in its possession. Apparently, a year has rolled by since Nigeria submitted an official letter to the British Museum demanding the return of Nigerian antiquities in its museum. According to the minister, there has yet been no reply of any kind, even after he visited in July this year, hoping that the British Museum would follow the German example.
“But I met a brickwall. The British Museum and all those holding on to our artefacts must understand that repatriation is a cause, which time has come. They must also understand that many of these cultural objects are not mere art to us, but the true essence of our being. They are not mere decorative works, but our culture and heritage. They belong here, not anywhere else,” Mohammed said.
This development followed the efforts of Netherlands, which, in October 2020, returned a 600-year-old Ife Terracotta; the University of Aberdeen and Jesus College of the University of Cambridge for returning the Benin bronzes in their possession; the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which returned Ife and Benin bronzes, and the Horniman Museums and Gardens in London, which, in October, 2022, signed the legal transfer of 72 Benin bronzes. The Smithsonian in Washington, the National Gallery of Art of the United States and the Rhodes Island School of Design also released the Benin bronzes in their holding. The minister commended the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford; the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Cambridge; Glasgow City Council in Scotland, National Museums of Scotland and other institutions like them working towards repatriating Benin bronzes in their possession.
He noted that Nigeria is not only seeking the return of Benin bronzes, but all Nigerian antiquities that were illegally or illicitly exported. He said it is upon returning these artefacts that true justice would be seen to have been done.