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Legitimate concerns, or neocolonialism? Germany expresses worry about the fate of the Benin Bronzes, following their restitution to Nigeria

The Nigerian government has decided to transfer ownership of the thousand metal sculptures to the heir of a former royal family. The presidential decree – which effectively turned these cultural relics into private property – has sparked a debate about the conditions for the return of art that was looted from Africa during the colonial era

Benin Bronzes
The signing of the agreement between Germany and Nigeria for the return of the Benin Bronzes, in Berlin, on July 1, 2022Omer Messinger (Getty)
Elena G. Sevillano

Germany was lauded last year when the government decided to return the famous Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. These metal pieces had been looted by European colonizers at the end of the 19th century, eventually ending up in museums. Berlin thus became a model for the rest of the Western capitals that own and exhibit usurped colonial art, which subsequently found themselves pressured to follow the same path.

Today, however, Germany has expressed concern about the final fate of some of the greatest artistic treasures in Africa. The news broke that the pieces – sculptures made between the 13th and 18th centuries with various materials, mostly brass, but collectively known as bronzes – were going to pass into private hands. This has generated an enormous stir that transcends cultural circles, turning into a fierce political discussion.

Swiss ethnologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin has categorized the return of the Berlin Bronzes to Nigeria as a “fiasco,” for having been carried out without conditions. There was no means of ensuring that the pieces were going to be placed in the public domain and exhibited in a museum. The future of the pieces is now unknown, since outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has signed a decree that transfers ownership of objects from the historic kingdom of Benin (not to be confused with the country of Benin) to Oba Ewuare II: the principal heir of the former royal family.

This decree was published in Nigeria’s official gazette on March 23, but it had gone unnoticed by German public opinion, until the ethnologist raised the alarm in an explosive column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. “We can now clearly see how frivolously the agreement about the transfer of property between Germany and Nigeria was drawn up,” the expert laments.

The order grants the Oba (king) possession of all works of art that were looted from the royal palace in Benin by British troops during a punitive expedition in 1897, “to the exclusion of any other person or institution,” according to the text of the decree, as reported by the Nigerian newspaper This Day. For now, it is unknown what the Oba will do with the works of art – if he will exhibit them, and if so, where and how. Apparently, he has announced that he will build his own museum to house them.

The ethnologist regrets that the Nigerian president is transferring assets – including those that, until the summer of 2022, were owned by Germany – “to a private individual or to a private autocratic institution.”

“A public good thus becomes exclusive private property,” she warns. What was intended to be a return of cultural heritage to the Nigerian people to “heal the wounds of the past” has ended up becoming “a gift to a royal house.”

Last Friday, the heated debate moved to the Bundestag – the German Parliament – where the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the extreme right Alternative for Germany (AfD) criticized the restitution, calling it a “failure” due to the lack of conditions imposed on the return of the pieces. However, the coalition government – made up of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals – defended the process. The government assures the public that it has done “the right thing,” as well as pointing out another nagging question that is part of this debate: whether meddling in the decisions of a plundered country is not merely another form of colonialism.

“The [Benin Bronzes] were returned with the aim of repairing a historical error: the illegal acquisition and possession of these objects,” said a spokesperson for the administration. “No conditions were imposed… it is now the sovereign state of Nigeria that will decide who legally gets to keep them and how they are to be made available to the Nigerian people. Insinuating that these bronzes will disappear – never to be seen again – just because Germany no longer exercises control over them, but Nigeria does, is a way of thinking that we hoped to have left in the past,” the government spokesperson emphasized.

“Why are they so obsessed with what’s going on with the Benin Bronzes?” asks Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor. In his opinion, the current debate is “disrespectful” and “insulting.”

“Europe has no right to tell us how to deal with our own affairs,” he told Deutsche Welle. Meanwhile, experts such as Nigerian historian Oluwatoyin Sogbesan argue that, since the kingdom that owned the treasures no longer exists, the Oba – as a representative of the Edo ethnic group – is the true heir.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne – director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University – also believes that Nigeria should be able to decide on the future of the Benin Bronzes. “I agree with the report by Beatrice Savoy and Felwine Sarr (authors of The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage) that restitution is an international procedure, which means that the objects [must be] returned to African nation states,” he told EL PAÍS in an email. “They can decide to put them in regional museums… but it has to be their decision.”

In Berlin, many are saddened by the idea that the pieces are probably not going to be exhibited in the museum that was destined to house them: the German government has already contributed the equivalent of $4.3 million to the construction of this facility. Last December, Germany sent a high-level delegation – led by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock – to the Nigerian capital of Abuja to oversee the delivery of the artworks. Baerbock took it for granted that the Benin Bronzes would be displayed in the future Edo Museum of West African Art, which is set to be built in Benin City, the capital of the former Edo kingdom. The experts who led the negotiations with the African country also believed this to be the case, as they told EL PAÍS last year. Until recently, the website copy of the future museum noted that it was going to become “the home of the largest collection of Benin Bronzes in the world.” The phrase has now disappeared.

According to Nigerian media, there is a personal conflict at play behind the transfer of the art. This involves the Oba and the governor of the Benin region, Godwin Obaseki, one of the most ardent defenders of the museum project. Obaseki’s grandfather appears to have served under the British as interim regent after the destruction of Benin City in 1897… and during the removal of the current Oba’s ancestor. His supporters accuse the governor of continuing to collaborate with opponents of the royal family.

The controversial decree has not yet entered into force, according to the information available to the German government. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has tabled amendments to address this issue. Berlin trusts that the royal house of Benin shares the objective of involving the societies of origin – that is, ensuring that the public have access to the artifacts following their restitution. “Germany and Nigeria committed to this in the joint declaration of July 1, 2022. Naturally, we maintain this position,” the German government spokesperson stresses.

German museum collections housed more than 1,100 bronzes, dating back more than a century after they were purchased from British collectors. After a long process, institutions from all over the country, local and regional authorities and the federal government agreed to return all of them. Last year, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement, according to which around two-thirds of the works will be moved back to the Nigerian state. A third part will remain on permanent loan within German museums. In all cases, ownership has been transferred to Nigeria.

The ethnographic museum – recently inaugurated in the Humboldt Forum – reflects the new German conception of the ownership of looted heritage. Instead of the 200 pieces that the museum used to display in its previous location, the Humboldt now only shows 40 – the ones that Nigerian experts chose to leave on loan. The opening of the galleries that house these collections was delayed by several months, until the agreement with Nigeria for the return was finalized and it was possible to redesign the way in which the Benin Bronzes were to be presented. The pieces on display are now accompanied by abundant material that contextualizes where they came from and how they ended up in Berlin in the first place.

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