Nigeria Debates the Fate of Returning Benin Bronzes

Questions as to where the artifacts should be kept and how they should be used are becoming more pressing

Nigeria Debates the Fate of Returning Benin Bronzes
Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes on display at The British Museum. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In October 2021, Jesus College, part of the University of Cambridge, became the first institution in the world to return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria. It was a cockerel, a fine example of the bronzes, which are some of the most famous artifacts to have been looted from the African continent. The carvings, tusks, statues, plaques, headpieces, silhouettes and weaponry, collectively known as the “bronzes,” have acted as historical and cultural ambassadors of the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now the southern part of Nigeria, for over a century — though this role is still fairly new when compared to the age of the bronzes themselves. But it is not the bronzes’ existence, craftsmanship and age alone that have propelled them into the spotlight but rather their reputation as “loot” and “stolen,” solidified by many Western institutions’ resistance to returning them.

Jesus College’s action was quickly followed by the Horniman Museum in the United Kingdom, the Smithsonian in the United States and several institutions in Germany. Pressure has grown on other institutions to do the same, fueled by anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter. But return is not the end of the story for these magnificent objects. What happens to the bronzes once they arrive in Nigeria? Where do they go? Who looks after them? How are they received by the people of Benin and Nigeria more widely? How do they benefit the local culture and Nigeria as a whole? Who owns them?

These are all legitimate questions, whose answers will be far from simple and are unlikely to please everyone involved. In March 2023, shortly before he left office, Muhammadu Buhari, then president of Nigeria, made a public declaration in an official government gazette that Oba Ewuare II — the king of Benin — was the rightful owner of the Benin Bronzes. This reignited the feud between the royal palace and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Nigeria’s federal body tasked with the country’s cultural and material heritage, over where the looted pieces should be housed. These are long-running tensions, to which it is difficult to see a solution.

Crucial to understanding the past and future of the Benin Bronzes is knowing the sheer violence and inherent illegality involved in their acquisition. By the end of the 19th century, European nations such as Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Portugal had conquered much of Africa and divided it among themselves. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 formalized what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa.” At the conference, the powerful nations arbitrarily split up the continent’s existing nations and ethnic groups, creating new and unnatural borders — most of which remain in place to this day. The Berlin Conference did not mark the start of European colonial involvement on the continent but rather the opportunity for each conquering nation to make clear which parts of Africa they considered to be their possessions.

Much of the Kingdom of Benin (not to be confused with the present-day country of Benin) was located in what is now the southern part of Nigeria and therefore fell under the lot of the British. As one of the last independent kingdoms in West Africa, it was seen as a thorn in Britain’s side, with the oba (king) of Benin refusing to allow Britain’s Royal Niger Company to form a trading monopoly in the region. A punitive expedition to the kingdom was ordered, and British forces arrived on Feb. 8, 1897. They remained until Feb. 21, and in that time they massacred thousands of men, women and children and destroyed the walls of Benin. The city of Benin was pillaged and left a smoldering ruin.

The looting of the city, famed for its bronze plaques, statues, wood carvings and ivory tusks, took place after the attack. “It’s a very shocking and egregious moment in British colonial history,” Barnaby Phillips, a British historian and conservationist, told New Lines.

Yet despite the destruction, many Nigerians who live in Benin City, the very place where the ancient kingdom once stood, grew up unaware of the violence surrounding the bronzes’ theft. Not all of them were stolen, and hundreds more have been made since the destruction and theft by the British. “I grew up seeing these objects around the house, they were decorative pieces,” says Enotie Ogbebor, an artist and curator who has lived in Benin City his whole life.

Many of the looted pieces, only later collectively called the Benin Bronzes — despite the fact that many were made of other materials — were royal, sacred and ceremonial objects imbued with a sense of spirituality and cultural importance. They were also used by the people of Benin as a way of archiving history. Many of the bronzes include depictions of the centuries-old Kingdom of Benin and its civilization. One of the best known is a bronze head of an oba. It is cylindrical in form, with the head wearing a lattice-patterned cap that has coral beads hanging from each side of the face. Binding the neck are numerous necklaces leading up to the mouth. Made by new rulers to honor their predecessors, the heads would be placed on shrines to commemorate their leadership and personal qualities. Some bronzes are plaques or small statues of lone Portuguese soldiers, holding a flintlock pistol surrounded by intricate floral indentations — depicting a complex relationship between Portugal and the Kingdom of Benin.

Once stolen by British forces, many items ended up in the private collections of soldiers and officers involved in the expedition, then in museums and private collections around the world. Researchers suggest that the total number of bronzes worldwide is approximately 10,000, though it is difficult to estimate, given the number currently housed in private collections or incorrectly labeled.

“I really did not realize the sheer number of items that were looted,” Ogbebor says. “Nor did I fully understand the sheer amount of violence and massacre inflicted upon the city and people of Benin. The significance of the bronzes was not really discussed,” the artist continues. “I grew up seeing them as symbols of our culture, but I really did not know the impact of the looting or the impact of the lack of access to a huge body of work our ancestors had created.”

Ogbebor’s feelings of loss are a perfect example of a culture that has been fragmented. This is very different from culture, tradition and innovation being shared on one’s own terms — a goal that many within Nigeria envisage for the Benin Bronzes. The disconnect from one’s culture and history is familiar among communities that were subject to colonial violence, an experience akin to Stonehenge being forcibly taken from contemporary Britain, or copies of the Magna Carta snatched.

“The arrival of loot into the hands of western curators, its continued display in our museums, and its hiding-away in private museums is an enduring brutality that is refreshed every day,” writes Dan Hicks, professor at the University of Oxford, in his book, “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution.” In other words, the continued display of such objects compounds the initial wounding of a people and civilization whose history was stolen, objectified and commercialized.

“As a Nigerian, the bronzes represent evidence of civilization,” Ogbebor says. “They are evidence of an organized society, and symbolize the ingenuity of our people.” For Ogbebor, the bronzes represent the Edo people’s shared culture and heritage. “They are the very pedestal which our ancestors built for us to expand on.” It is exactly this symbolism, and evidence of what once was, that has been robbed from the Edo people of Benin.

But perhaps the tide is turning. With the increase in internet access among young Nigerians, people are becoming aware of what exactly was stolen from them. “They speak to our DNA and speak to who we are. The objects guide us to look beyond, to recognize the past, come to terms with the present and fashion out a future which is determined by how we want it, not by what colonialism dictated for us,” Ogbebor says. For such people, the bronzes act as a rebuttal to colonial ideas of African inferiority.

Notwithstanding how the bronzes came to the West, many note how their presence in the world’s institutions promotes Nigerian culture and history, and have no intention of hiding them away once they are returned. “We do not want to withdraw these works and remove this positive aspect of it. We simply want all ownership and agency of the works given back to us. They can still be displayed, and we want them to be, but on loan. When you’re done you can give them back. We should be able to take your Michelangelos and your Picassos to display in our museums,” Ogbebor says. “We wish to operate exactly how European museums operate with their works of art.”

And so there seems to be a commitment to the Western model of a world museum in the country, building up collections drawn from around the globe, but is this a universal view in Nigeria? The debate does not end once the bronzes arrive in the country. Different parties have different ideas as to what they represent, where they should be and how they should be used.

The idea of staring at objectified pieces of work behind a pane of glass is something that has been described as “European” by many African scholars and academics. The Benin Bronzes were originally used as spiritual and religious objects that told stories and cemented lineages. If housed in government-controlled museums, would the European style of objectifying them and leaving them to be looked at, rather than interacted with, change the historical relationship the Edo people have with the bronzes? Were the bronzes to be housed solely within the confines of the royal palace, would the bronzes be used as originally intended or simply stored behind glass? These are all questions that few can answer with clarity and confidence.

There are those who believe the Benin Bronzes belong to the royal family of Benin: After all, many (though not all) were looted from the royal palace. Others believe that they ought to be under the control of the NCMM, responsible for the preservation, promotion and development of Nigeria’s cultural heritage. The governor of Edo, Godwin Obaseki, who championed the creation of the Edo Museum of West African Art, believes any bronzes returned ought to be housed in federal museums. This puts him in direct conflict with Ewuare II, who has said the “right” and only “legitimate destination” for the bronzes would be a “Royal Museum” located within his palace grounds. Obaseki did not respond to requests for comment. A conflict of ownership within Nigeria has emerged: the original owners and creators seeking the return of their artifacts, historically imbued with spirituality and used for royal practices, versus those who see the bronzes as objects of the past, telling a story the Nigerian public deserves access to.

This difference complicates the handover process and leads to tensions between the parties involved, says Phillips. “Of the handful of Benin bronzes which have gone back — take the famous case of the bronze cockerel from Jesus College in Cambridge and the 18th-century bronze head from Aberdeen — both were handed over to the oba of Benin by President Buhari and are currently held in the palace. Essentially, the NCMM was not part of the process.”

In December 2022, when German representatives visited the Nigerian capital to hand over 22 bronzes from its collections, tensions rose again. “The objects were given by the Germans to the NCMM this time,” says Phillips. “They are in the custody of the NCMM and are in secure storage. There is no immediate sign that they are going to be put on display.” (While the German government transferred ownership of its 1,130 Benin Bronzes to the NCMM, only 22 have been officially handed over.)

Information on exactly how many Benin Bronzes are held at the NCMM is not publicly available. The NCMM was contacted several times for comment but did not respond.

The issue of ownership was further complicated by Buhari’s 2023 announcement that the oba of Benin was the rightful owner of all returned Benin Bronzes and responsible for their management and safekeeping. Buhari gave no other reason for demanding the return of stolen bronzes to the oba other than the fact that he is the rightful owner and custodian of the culture, heritage and tradition of the former Kingdom of Benin.

According to the director general of the NCMM, Abba Isa Tijani, the president’s declaration resulted in the University of Cambridge pausing its plan to return 116 artifacts. The former president’s statement was met with delight by the oba, many Edo people and Nigerians more widely. They would argue that the palace is the right place for the bronzes, and there is a strong historical continuity. Ewuare II is the great-great-grandson of Ovonramwen, oba of Benin at the time of the British punitive expedition, and his palace is in the same place. Nigeria and all its modern systems and federal institutions did not exist in 1897, but the palace and the royal family did. Those critical of Buhari’s decision fear that returning the bronzes directly to the royal family would mean members of the public would not have access to them. It could also mean that the revenue garnered from any tourist visits to see the bronzes go directly to the royal palace — though access to the palace is extremely rare, and there is little to suggest that the palace would open its doors to the public.

For Western countries like Germany, this internal debate does not affect their decision to return the looted items.

“Whoever will receive the returned bronzes, which Nigerian institutions and persons will be involved, and where the responsibility for preservation and accessibility lies, are questions that will be decided in Nigeria,” Germany’s Foreign Office stated. “There were no conditions attached to the return of the bronzes to Nigeria.”

But what of ordinary Nigerians? Who do they think the bronzes belong to? There is a general consensus that the Benin Bronzes ought to be returned. Less so on where they should be returned to.

Osaze Amadasun is a Lagos-based illustrator and graphic designer who has displayed and curated projects across Nigeria and Europe promoting Benin and Nigerian culture to wider audiences. “I am of the opinion that the king should have the final say on whether all the artworks should be returned to the palace, placed in museums across Nigeria, or some left in Europe,” Amadasun says. According to Amadasun, there is a strong feeling among Nigerians that the Benin Bronzes ought to be returned to Ewuare II. “If the king wants the objects to be housed in the palace, then that’s what ought to happen.”

Chidi Nwaubani is a British-Nigerian designer, artist and tech practitioner as well as the creator of Looty, a project that has created digital reproductions of looted objects, which have been symbolically restored to original locations or turned into NFTs and sold, with 20% of the proceeds going to grants for young African artists. Nonfungible tokens are normally associated with a piece of digital art and are laced with one-of-a-kind information and data. Like fingerprints, each individual NFT is different.

This process also flags a new 21st-century approach to repatriation, though not a replacement. Where looted objects are not physically returned, Nwaubani’s Looty opens the door for the possibility of digital returns, where ownership is taken by means of developing technologies and access to the internet. Databases and online archives, such as Digital Benin, which gathers data on the thousands of objects looted by the British in Benin, are also gaining popularity, signaling the possibility of a technology-based approach to the reclaiming of looted works.

Nwaubani also represents a generation of Nigerians perhaps more open to the role museums play in preserving and displaying culture, though he is not entirely uncritical. “We want to reach a point where museums are used more for our community and not for the objectification of other people’s cultural heritage,” he says. His approach to the role of Nigerian museums may help in tackling the issues of ownership fueling the feud between the NCMM and the royal palace, by providing a more neutral, shared space for the objects, able to be visited and celebrated by all those with a stake in the history and culture.

The long-awaited opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art, based in Benin City, will be a major move forward. Designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, with London-based artist and writer Aindrea Emelife appointed as curator of modern and contemporary art, the museum will become home to artifacts originating in the Kingdom of Benin. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Emelife emphasized that cooperation with Western museums is crucial, especially when it comes to restitution. “In the pursuit of a truly global art ecosystem, one could envision a true and equitable circulation of cultures,” she said. “If artworks, whether Italian or Nigerian, are great cultural ambassadors, these works, and the dialogue and histories embedded within them should circulate globally, including African institutions.”

For Nwaubani, the housing of returned Benin Bronzes in museums across Nigeria would help the country economically as well as socially. “Saying that you’ve seen the Benin Bronzes should equate to the fact that you’ve been to Nigeria — there’s a whole economy there waiting for tourists to partake. If I told you I’ve seen the pyramids, people’s first thoughts aren’t, ‘Oh, so how was London like?’” He believes that the return of the bronzes, whether under the oba’s watchful eye or the jurisdiction of the NCMM or any other Nigerian museums, will mark the next step in addressing cultural and global imbalances.

“Once you don’t own the artwork, you don’t own the narrative,” he says. “Over time, the Benin Bronzes have no longer come to represent the same things that they did back home. They were used for celebration and commemoration, they were pieces of history. When they are returned, we don’t want them to merely become objects of display like they are in the West.”

Buhari’s 2023 announcement, whether intentionally or not, complicated the relationships between Nigerians, the Benin royal family, the NCMM and the Western countries looking to return their looted items. In a BBC article published at the time of Buhari’s statement, the NCMM claimed they were “blindsided,” arguing that the statement was neither “practical nor compatible with existing Nigerian law” and undermined efforts for a national collection. They were not the only ones surprised by the action. “The gazette caught European museums off guard as well,” Phillips explains. “They are comfortable with operating in a system in which governments deal with governments and museums deal with museums. They don’t necessarily deal with traditional rulers directly, especially when something is as politically sensitive as the Benin Bronzes.”

The effect triggered yet more hesitation among European museums that were considering the return of bronzes in their collections. Since Buhari’s statement, no bronzes have been returned to Nigeria, raising questions as to what Buhari was hoping to gain from issuing it. Could he have waited for bronzes to be returned to Nigeria first and then proceeded with negotiations between the NCMM and Edo royal palace? Or was he simply influenced by the royal claims?

Then there is the issue of infrastructure and domestic interest in the bronzes. If they are returned to Nigeria, they need to be put somewhere. A common counterargument against the return of the artifacts raises uncertainty about whether Nigeria has the facilities or capability to keep and safeguard them, and suggests that their return is not high on the list of priorities for the average Nigerian.

“What needs to be understood is that you cannot care about what you do not know about,” Ogbebor says. “A lot of Nigerians, especially the younger generations, have grown up not knowing about the bronzes.” Despite this, Ogbebor recognizes the crucial role the internet has played in addressing this. “It has brought knowledge to a ubiquitous level, where it can be disseminated easily,” he says, speaking about how technology has changed Nigerians’ interactions with their histories and become a powerful platform for education. “You don’t have to sit in front of the television or buy a newspaper to get information anymore.”

However, Ogbebor is also a realist. “I realize that the heritage infrastructure in Nigeria is somewhat inadequate and outdated. However, in the pecking order, museums will be the very least of worries for Nigerians. We’ve got health, security, unemployment and all kinds of other things to grapple with.”

Amadasun believes that Nigeria needs to look inward to fully realize the potential of the Benin Bronzes. “New infrastructure needs to be put in place and existing institutions, museums and facilities need a face-lift — that would make a big difference.” Amadasun is also a big believer in the benefits of the tourism that would follow the bronzes’ return. “Revenue from tourism would help facilitate the maintenance of those institutions, and signing up to exchange programs with other countries would also boost publicity. But in order for that to happen,” he points out, “the Nigerian government needs to step up and show that it is capable of housing the objects.”

Ogbebor shares a similar view, but assigns more responsibility to the bronzes’ current holders. “The onus is on the institutions, the governments and the bodies who were responsible for looting of these items or who have had these objects in their collection.” In Ogbebor’s view, museums cannot use the return of looted objects on its own as an opportunity to clear their consciences and wash their hands clean of guilt. “It has to be a restitution of dignity, restitution of historical knowledge, restitution of proper ownership. In returning it there ought to be a shared sense of responsibility to also help to fund the development of infrastructure and the training of manpower.”

In August 2023, Hannatu Musawa, a barrister and human rights activist, was appointed minister of art, culture and the creative economy in President Bola Tinubu’s new 45-member cabinet. That same month, Musawa published an eight-point plan geared toward the growth of the country’s creative economy. In the plan, dubbed “Destination 2030,” Musawa laid out details of the agenda she hoped would raise the Nigerian “art, culture and creative industries to rank among the top 20 globally in terms of GDP contribution, wealth creation, employment and poverty reduction.” She stressed that part of the plan would be to ensure the preservation and sustainability of Nigeria’s cultural heritage. Tinubu also appointed Yusuf Tuggar — who as ambassador to Germany had helped negotiate the transfer of ownership of more than 1,000 of the Benin Bronzes in 2022 — as minister of foreign affairs. This indicates that this new administration is preparing to go further on restitution than its predecessors.

“If you told me in 2017 that Benin Bronzes would be returned to Nigeria from museums in Britain or America or Germany before the Parthenon marbles went back to Greece, I’d have said you were mad,” confesses Phillips. “This is an extraordinary time of opportunity for Nigeria.” Despite matters of local politics and the development of infrastructure, Phillips is optimistic. “I remain hopeful that there will be a solution that works out for everyone, that does justice to the bad things that have happened in the past, that helps the Edo people reconnect with their culture, but also that the wider world carries on learning and enjoying from that extraordinary history as well.”

There is clearly a demand, both internationally and within Nigeria, for the return of the bronzes. The spotlight, however, is slowly turning to Nigeria. Nigeria is being asked to solve problems, divisions and disputes that perhaps never would have existed had the bronzes not left the continent in the way that they did. The country is also being asked to prove its capability, an issue that many other countries fighting for the return of historical artifacts have been faced with. The fact remains that no bronzes have been returned since the former president’s statement in 2023. There is little to no information available on Benin Bronzes currently based in Nigeria. The NCCM did not respond to multiple requests on the exact number of bronzes held in its care. According to a source on the ground, two Benin Bronzes are said to be in the custody of the oba, with one on display for the palace’s restricted and limited visitors’ list.

It appears unfair that Nigeria should have to justify why it is ready to be the home for objects that rightfully, and legally, belong within its borders. But the chances of any more bronzes being returned appear to be slim as long as there are strong political disagreements between the Benin royal family, the NCMM and Nigeria’s federal institutions. Nigeria is closer than ever to maximizing the opportunities presented by the Benin Bronzes and becoming a pioneer for other formerly colonized states engaged in the battle for repatriation. The question now is whether it will dedicate time to addressing political and cultural differences that appear to be hindering the Benin Bronzes from coming home.

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