Nigeria vows to ‘go after’ stolen artefacts worldwide

Photo of Benin-edo artifacts [Quartsz Africa]
Photo of Benin-edo artifacts [Quartsz Africa]

The federal government on Thursday pledged to use all “legal and diplomatic instruments” to demand the return of Nigeria’s stolen artefacts and cultural materials worldwide.

The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, announced this in Lagos on Thursday.

“We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th-century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past,” the minister said.

The development comes on the heels of Wednesday’s announcement by a Cambridge University college that it would return a bronze cockerel statue looted from the former kingdom of Benin by the British in the 19th century.

During his speech, Mr Mohammed said the federal government is putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world. He said the federal government would go for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.

”We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We are on a quest to retrieve the Ife Bronze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into,” he said.

The minister said after it was brought to an auction in London in 2017, the auction house observed that it was an Ife Bronze Head which belongs to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List of cultural goods that are deemed to be the most vulnerable to illicit traffic.

According to him, the lists are made available to national police and customs authorities by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization as well as to museums, auction houses, and galleries.

The minister also revealed that the London Metropolitan police has seized the object, and it has invited Nigeria to make a claim, otherwise they will have to
return it to the fellow claiming ownership.

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“We have now started work on the return of the Ife Bronze head to Nigeria,” The minister revealed.

“Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them? Our answer is simple:

“These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not,” he noted.

The minister also said the federal government is deterred by the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of antiquities in wartime in the 19th century when most of these antiquities were looted.

Mr Mohammed also noted that although the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s
economy, Nigeria’s priceless heritage resources still have a role to play.

In launching this campaign, the minister said the country is strengthened by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which most nations subscribe, identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each member state, thereby belonging to that State.

The provisions of this article include cultural property created by the individual
or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.

In conclusion, the minister read a riot act to the artefact looters.
”We call on every museum and person holding on to our heritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue with us on the basis of the conditions we have enumerated today,” he said.

“We urge them to identify what is in their collections, transparently make them
public, approach us for discussion on terms of return and restitution, as well as circulation and loans. They must acknowledge that ownership resides in us.”

Mr Mohammed said the erring countries must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda of Understanding in this regard, and they must be ready to release some of these antiquities for an immediate return to Nigeria.

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