Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, has asked the Federal Government to temporarily take custody of 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts after they are repatriated from Europe amid the controversy surrounding where the artefacts will be housed.
The Benin Palace and the Edo State Government have been at loggerheads over where the artefacts will be housed. While the palace wants the artefacts kept in the Benin Royal Museum, which will be built within the palace, the state government wants the items preserved in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts.
But Oba Ewuare II, at a world press conference on Friday at the palace, said that there was no controversy over the issue, as an agreement had been reached that the artefacts would be housed in the royal museum.
However, a press release from the Government House also on Friday quoted Governor Godwin Obaseki as saying in Germany that a “transformational” museum would be built in Benin to house the artefacts upon their return, as part of a new cultural district in the city.
The artefacts were allegedly looted during the invasion of the Benin Kingdom in 1897 by the British led by Captain Philip.
Speaking at his palace on Friday, Oba Ewuare II insisted that the right and only legitimate destination of the about-to-be-repatriated artefacts was the Benin Royal Museum.
He said, “I have called this meeting today (Friday) to intimate you of the matter of the Benin artefacts in Europe on the verge of being repatriated, which I am sure you have heard and read about in recent weeks. You may also have heard about the recent activities of a group of individuals who incorporated a company since January 2020 called Legacy Restoration Trust Limited.
“It has become germane to note that the advocacy and demands for the return of the artefacts looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897 have been going on for decades before the emergence of the incumbent Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Obaseki. I must sincerely thank the governor for joining the struggle and showing commitment to retrieve our stolen cultural heritage from Europe.
“While anticipating the return of the looted artefacts from Europe, I want to note that attempts to divert the destination or the right of custody of the artefacts is not in the interest of the people of Benin Kingdom, to whom the Palace of the Oba of Benin provides leadership. The looted artefacts awaiting repatriation from Europe are the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom created by our ancestors and forefathers within the traditional norms and rites of the kingdom.
“They are not property of the state government or any private corporate entity that is not a creation of the Benin Kingdom. The right and only legitimate destination for the artefacts to be repatriated as already pronounced by my father is under the aegis of the Benin Royal Museum that will be sited within the precincts of the Palace of the Oba of Benin, from where they were looted, and also, the proper traditional institution that is also the custodian of all the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom.
“The palace, therefore, strongly advises that anyone, group, organisation, or government – national and international – that is dealing with any organisation or artificial group in the process of returning the looted artefacts from the Benin Kingdom would be doing so at their own risk and against the will of the people of the Benin Kingdom.”
Oba Ewuare II said he did not believe that the move by a privately registered company, Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd, and the purported establishment of Edo Museum of West African Arts, were in consonance with the wishes of the people of Benin Kingdom, adding that after his ascension to the throne, he had several discussions with Obaseki on the plan for the Benin Royal Museum.
The monarch said the governor expressed his readiness to work with the palace to actualise the wish of his late father, adding that he had acquired additional plots of land from different families within the Adesogbe area near the palace for the purpose of building the Benin Royal Museum.
The monarch said he was, however, surprised to read Obaseki’s letter to the palace wherein a new museum was being proposed, and which would be funded and executed through the vehicle of Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd.
He said, “I informed him (Obaseki) that Oba Ewuare II Foundation had been registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission and had worked out a framework for not only receiving the artefacts but also building a modern structure – the Benin Royal Museum – within the precincts of the palace and that land has been secured for the building of the Benin Royal Museum under the supervision of the traditional institution.
“But for reasons best known to him, the governor has gone against the understanding, given recent events. As a matter of fact, the people of Benin Kingdom and other stakeholders, especially the Benin Dialogue Group, had at different meetings endorsed the Benin Royal Museum to be built within the palace, as well as endorsing the Oba Ewuare II Foundation for fundraising and other requisite administration processes.
“We wish to use this medium to call on the Federal Government to take custody of these artefacts on behalf of the palace until the Benin Royal Museum is ready for their collection. Under no circumstances should the custody of our age-old artefacts be handed to any privately contrived entity like Legacy Restoration Trust.”
Oba Ewuare II advised Obaseki to review his approach of using the private vehicle of Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd and the Edo Museum of West African Art and see how he could “genuinely collaborate with the Oba’s palace in accordance with our original understanding. We thank the German government for its interest and willingness to return the Benin artefacts,” the monarch said.
“Perhaps, there is a bridge or gap in communication, not on our side but on the side of the state governor, Obaseki, who I insisted we should pray for. We need prayers for a peaceful resolution of these misunderstandings,” Oba Ewuare II added.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the German Minister of State for Culture, Prof Monika Grutters, said the way the German government was dealing with the issue of Benin artefacts was important in addressing its colonial past.
She gave an assurance that 1,130 artefacts would be repatriated to Nigeria from the beginning of 2022, noting that Germany had twice sent delegations to Nigeria for talks over the planned repatriation.
She said such a move indicated that both sides had moved beyond mere talks, saying all the museums in Germany stockpiling Benin Bronzes had agreed to cooperate.
The meeting in Berlin was attended by Grutters, German Foreign Minister, Mr Heiko Maas, while the Nigerian delegation included the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, and Obaseki. The Benin Royal Palace was represented by the Crown Prince of Benin Kingdom, Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare.
Mohammed proposed a one-year time limit for the full return of its artefacts from Germany.
The minister, according to a statement by his Special Assistant on Media, Segun Adeyemi, said the agreement for the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes from Germany must be signed by December 2021.
“For us, the most important issue in the roadmap is the signing of the agreement and the date of return. We won’t move forward if we don’t have a clear date on signing and return,” Mohammed told participants at the meeting. “Full return should be completed in a year’s time, not beyond August 2022,” he added.
The Secretary of State in the German President’s Office, Stephen Steinlein, was quoted as saying the German President was happy with the progress made so far on the planned repatriation of the artefacts.
Obaseki told the participants that a museum was being built to make Benin City a cultural hub.
The architect handling the museum project, David Adjaye, reportedly made a presentation to the participants, during which he said the project would fuse the technology of ancient Benin Kingdom to that of the 21st century to get an organic pavilion that would boast an auditorium, storage as well as exhibition space, among other facilities.
Other members of the Nigerian delegation included the Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Tuggar; the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Prof Abba Tijani; and the Director of the Board of Legacy Restoration Trust, Phillip Ihenacho.