Heart of Arts

Questions of Ownership of Benin Treasures

Peju Layiwola


Many persons thought the period of colonialism was long over! Western reportage about handling the return of Benin treasures by the Federal Government of Nigeria shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding of the cultures looted of their valuable cultural materials. These careless remarks do not show respect for our democratic structures. Western institutions and governments that have held these stolen materials for over a century do not have the moral right to insist on their models of keeping and displaying these treasures. They should not cast aspersion on how Nigeria intends to handle, display, and preserve its cultural property. What should be done is simply to return looted works and cause no further disruptions within the communities where these works were stolen. I made this remark when I was privileged to address the German Culture Minister in Bayreuth last year. I mentioned the importance of giving voice to host communities from where these works had been taken. The genocide of Herero and Nama people, whom the Germans killed, is another matter regarding the return of skulls and human remains to Namibia.


The Federal Government recognizes the value of these works and the role of the Benin royalty in their sustenance and production before they were looted in the first instance. It was from the palace of this ‘single royal family’ that these treasures were looted. Despite this, the Oba of Benin has said that the works will be accessible to the public and shown in the Benin Royal Museum.

All this bad press has come since the recent Gazette issued by the Federal Government of Nigeria. We will recall that the Presidency issued an earlier directive in line with this Gazette last year. The Federal Government has followed its initial stand and affirmation. Also, the High Commissioner to Britain, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, on the return of two looted Benin treasures to Nigeria secured by the Federal Government from Institutions in the United Kingdom, brought them physically to the palace of the King. In his address on December 13, 2021, he explicitly mentioned that he was acting on the instructions of the President of Nigeria.


The Gazette is a normal and necessary response to distractions playing out over the display and management of the restituted objects. We have read repeatedly that the returned artifacts will be housed in EMOWAA, which has received international funding. It is commendable that Germany has gone ahead of other countries to physically return Benin looted objects.  Providing funding to hold these returned Benin works is also remarkable. However, the Legacy Restoration Trust, or LRT, which has metamorphosed into Emowaa, is not a government organ. It was conceived as a separate entity set up to collect objects for which they have no jurisdiction.


Why should a state governor and his cohorts wield so much power as to want to appropriate these artifacts, and why should the NCMM be so intertwined with LRT? What are the agreements signed between these parties, and why does such a group have so much access to Benin looted artifacts in Western museums? Under whose authority does the British Museum fund archeological excavations in Benin City? The BM has categorically said it will not relinquish ownership of Benin bronzes to Nigeria, yet they are digging up new and fresh treasures. Do we realize they might be digging the same palace that British Naval officers burnt down Benin City and looted the artifacts in 1897? The current palace, as it is today, occupies a small portion of what it was pre-1897.


One-third of Benin’s looted objects will not leave Germany and will be on permanent loan for ten years! Who decides what number of treasures remain in Germany? Who also decides which items remain in Europe? There are so many questions to be answered.

I was in Benin City a few days ago and was led to the site of the proposed Museum of West African Art. I was so sad to see that one wing of the Specialist Hospital had been demolished to build a museum. For several decades this State hospital catered to the underserved in Benin City. Can you imagine taking down the King’s College Hospital, London or the Charité in Germany to build a museum pavilion?


Sidelining the Oba of Benin, whose forebears suffered the attack of 1897, seems a better choice for foreign partners and funders. The memories and trauma associated with the looted artifacts are still etched in the memory of the Benin royal family. Is the LRT an internal agent of neo- colonialism?


I was also in Berlin on July 1, 2022, for the ceremony passing on ownership of the Benin material to Nigeria. There was no mention of the Oba during the entire ceremony. The Western curators who had worked tirelessly on the international scene to bring restitution to fruition were recognized. I single out Nanette Snoep, with whom I have been on this journey for the return of Benin artifacts since 2003, when we began the Broken Memory project in Benin, Paris, and Zurich. This was a time when no one believed the objects would ever return. Suddenly, we have newcomers who think they understand better how we should handle these treasures.


The restitution victory we see today did not happen overnight. In another post, I will highlight the incredible work and sacrifices Prince Edun Akenzua, of blessed memory, made for several decades. Many advocacies, civil society groups, pressure groups, and artist projects- musical, film, installations, performances, and lectures have centered discussions on Benin art and brought awareness in local and international spaces. Kwame Opoku had begun writing on the Benin case in 2007 when we first met in Vienna. Today, European scholars hardly cite his work even though they read his well over 300 articles on Modernghana. These are the true heroes of the restitution debate! My dear friend and brother, Monday Midnite of the ‘1897’ musical fame, wrote me when he saw the handover ceremony in Abuja.


Why are these ceremonial showboating advocates acting like they lifted any meaningful fighting finger in the struggle to return the artifacts? Where were they when Dr. Kwame Opoku, your indefatigable self, a handful of others, and myself, in my little musical way, went headfirst into the eyes of the storm in the West over a decade ago to ignite the war for the return of the artifacts when others thought the struggle was hopeless?


It is important that the Federal government has firmly defined the role of the Oba of Benin as the head of a system that encouraged the production and sustenance of these artifacts. Is there any problem with this? What I see as a problem is that Western institutions may have plans for the future of the Benin artifacts and cry out when there is a deviation from that plan. We must ask them why the artifacts should not be returned to the original owners. Propagandists claim that the treasures will be kept away from the public. The King has said that a few objects will remain in the West as ambassadors of the culture. But more importantly, the other treasures will be kept in the Benin Royal Museum to tell a different narrative from what we have heard over the decades. Kwame Opoku has written about this in Modernghana. https://www.modernghana.com/news/1227999/does-affirmation-of-the-rights-of-the-oba-in-benin.html You may also want to read my blog post published in 2021. https://www.pejulayiwola.com/let-us-be-reminded-that-benin-art-is-court-art/


The looting and rape of Benin is one of the most documented histories of pillage in Africa. If we miss this opportunity to handle this situation properly, it will mess up the case for other parts of the continent. I am sure Ghanaians know where the looted gold treasures should go. The Asantehene’s gold should be kept in some museum that he recognizes as a safe and secure place for displaying his treasures. All hands must be on deck to build the Benin Royal Museum.


The ball of restitution is rolling. It could be delayed, but it will eventually happen. More importantly, it should happen the right way so that history and posterity can vindicate our motives and roles.


Peju Layiwola is an artist who teaches studio art and art history at the University of Lagos.

www.pejulayiwola.com : pejulayiwola1967@gmail.com; @pejulayiwola

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