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Benin Art Restitution.

An german article translated by from the German Prof.Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin.

In FAZ: Africa’s world heritage becomes private property: The outgoing Nigerian president has transferred all Benin bronzes to the royal family in Benin City.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth at the handover of Benin bronzes in Abuja on December 20, 2022 (Image DPA)

Now it becomes clear how misguided the hasty restitution by German museums was. A guest article.

The vision of a modern state museum in Benin City that meets all requirements as the new home for the 1130 Benin bronzes handed over to Nigeria by Germany is over for the time being. The still incumbent Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in a public statement on March 23, 2023, that he had transferred ownership of all Benin artifacts looted from the Royal Palace in 1897 and collected elsewhere in the Benin Empire to the Oba of Benin. He recognized him as the owner and therefore, by means of a presidential decree, transferred to him all the rights associated with them, including custody and management – and “to the exclusion of any other person or institution,” as the Nigerian newspaper “This Day” quotes the decree.

This would apply to all already returned and all further expected restitutions of Benin objects worldwide; in the future, they would have to be handed over directly to the Oba as the original owner. All artifacts are to be housed at the discretion of the Oba in the king’s palace or in another location in Benin City or elsewhere, as long as their security is guaranteed. The Federal Government of Nigeria and the Oba would be jointly responsible for the security and protection of the objects. As for the management of the collections, this was entirely in the hands of the Oba. He could, at his discretion, cooperate with national or international institutions regarding the preservation of the objects. There is no more talk of traveling exhibitions, loans, public access, scientific international cooperation and exchange.

Political complicity in the denial of history

With this act, Nigeria’s president, shortly before the end of his term – the swearing-in of the new president, Bola Tinubu, will take place later this month – has created a fact that is surprising at first glance: The president is transferring national property – including what was Germany’s national property until the summer of 2022 – to a private person or a private, autocratic institution. A public good thus becomes exclusive private property. The Oba has already officially informed the Dutch ambassador in Nigeria that the Netherlands would also have to abide by the “law” (“that is the law”).

What was intended by German politicians to be a return of cultural heritage to the “Nigerian people” and to “heal the wounds of the past” (Claudia Roth) has instead now become a gift to a single royal house – one among many royal houses and sultanates in the Republic of Nigeria. A royal house that, moreover, from today’s perspective, committed the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity until its subjugation by the British: Notorious wars of aggression over centuries of looting, destruction, massacres, enslavement of prisoners of war, human sacrifice in honor of the ancestors represented in the commemorative heads, and slave hunting and trading on a grand scale.

The actual Benin bronzes are known to be the direct result of the slave trade, as Europeans paid for slaves with brass rings – the raw material for the bronzes. Now, transformed into precious art objects and historically “cleaned”, they return to the place of their origin. As can be seen from publications from around the royal court, on the Internet, and even from the “Digital Benin” database connected to the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, the history of the Kingdom of Benin now consists of a paean to the embellished past, in which the bloody excesses are concealed and denied. This is an affront to the descendants of slaves in the United States and the Caribbean.

Back to Nigeria: Benin bronzes at 2022 handover ceremony.

Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria a Handover Ceremony 2022 (Image DPA)

For German politics and the museum people serving their goals, the return of the bronzes to “the Nigerian people” thus ends in a fiasco. How frivolously formulated the agreement on the transfer of ownership between Germany and Nigeria was, is now revealed in all clarity.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at the state ceremony in Abuja last December, when she performed the symbolic handover of the Benin artifacts, “We are therefore pleased to finance the construction of an art pavilion in the Edo State Museum and to invite you to exhibit the bronzes there. In addition, we have agreed that some bronzes will go on global traveling exhibitions and some of them will remain on loan in German museums (…)”.

By “Edo State Museum” she obviously meant the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), a private initiative of the Legacy Restoration Trust, dating back to Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki. The construction of this architecturally impressive project – although a long-term financing plan for the museum’s operation has never been presented – has been supported for years by the Benin Dialogue Group, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the German Foreign Office, which provided four million euros in funding.

German policy focuses on the wrong museum

It is true that the museum is now actually under construction. However, serious changes had already been indicated on the EMOWAA homepage since the beginning of March. There, it was previously stated that the museum would be the “home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Benin bronzes”. In the meantime, the sentence is no longer there. The EMOWAA will no longer be what German politicians had envisioned.

There were other hints: In the minutes of the last meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in March of this year in Hamburg, the EMOWAA was no longer mentioned at all, but the Benin Royal Museum, i.e. the Oba’s private museum, was mentioned all the more explicitly. Only a few weeks earlier, the overall political situation looked different: At the official act of state of the German handover, the responsible ministers of both countries were among themselves. The royal court was not represented – it was obviously not even invited.

A family conflict behind the scenes

That things had been bubbling behind the scenes in Nigeria for some time and that the expected repatriation of thousands of Benin bronzes had become a political bone of contention was known to all who were interested. Nigerian newspapers have long reported a “cold war” between Governor Obaseki and the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II. The royal court and right-wing groups supporting it built up threatening backdrops and did not even rule out physical violence if the Benin bronzes went to EMOWAA instead of the king. Obaseki, however, undoubtedly had more at stake than to steal the king’s thunder with the new museum. As governor of Edo State, he wanted to develop the capital Benin City into a cultural center of West African art for the world public as well. The Benin bronzes would have played a central role in this.

The conflict, piquantly, dates back to 1897, when the British conquered the royal city of Benin and deposed the king, as “This Day” and other newspapers reported in 2019. At that time, Agho Ogbeide, the grandfather of the current governor, had been given the honorary chieftaincy title (“chieftaincy title”) of an Obaseki by the Oba. The Oba gave Obaseki his daughter as a wife and gave him 100 slaves. When the Oba was already in exile, according to Nigerian newspaper reports, Obaseki assumed the office of Oba ad interim from 1897 to 1914. After the death of the exiled king, his eldest son was installed as Oba. The British interfered in the re-forming ruling structures by appointing Obaseki as iyase, the Oba’s chief advisor. This developed into a power struggle, as Obaseki was considered a collaborator with the British and a traitor to the king. Godwin Obaseki, the current governor, is now accused by royalists of continuing the treason. Accordingly, a newspaper headline in connection with the governor’s EMOWAA initiative read, “Does Obaseki want to be like his grandfather?”

World heritage from German museums: Benin bronzes from Berlin before return shipment

World heritage from German museums: Benin bronzes from Berlin before being transported back Bild: dpa

With the decision of President Muhammadu Buhari to transfer all Benin objects to the Oba, he has, according to Nigeria’s media, put an end to the struggle between the two opponents. The decision was also apparently made over the heads of the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and its director general, Abba Isa Tijani. Why Buhari did not stipulate that all Benin collections be housed in purely state-owned museums (such as the national museums in Lagos, Benin City, and Abuja) raises further questions, such as loyalties and networks. Whether the transfer is legal at all and what domestic and foreign policy consequences it will have will probably only become clear once the new president is in office.

Museums as treasuries for state gifts

After all, presidential access to national cultural assets is nothing new in Nigeria. As early as one year after independence, then Prime Minister A. T. Balewa went to the National Museum in Lagos to select a state gift for American President John F. Kennedy. Despite all persuasions and protests from the director in charge, Balewa chose a richly carved 18th century elephant tooth. Such ivory carvings had been placed on the bronze memorial heads on Benin’s royal altars. Balewa delivered the tooth on the occasion of his state visit to the United States in 1961, and it now stands in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

It did not stop there. A few years later, in 1973, General Yakubu Gowon, then President of the Republic, contacted Ekpo Eyo, Director of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities (the forerunner institution of the NCMM), and announced his visit to the National Museum. He would select a gift for Queen Elizabeth to present to her on the occasion of a state visit. As Barnaby Phillips, author of the book “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes” writes, Eyo cleared the most valuable pieces from the exhibition before the general arrived. But he couldn’t prevent the latter from selecting a commemorative 17th-century bronze head and giving it to the queen in 1973 as a thank-you for British support in the Biafran War.



In England, the head, long thought to be a copy, stood on a shelf in the royal library at Windsor Castle. It was not until 2002, on the occasion of an exhibition of state gifts to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, that experts identified it as an original, which also came from the collection of the National Museum in Lagos. Today it is placed in the Grand Vestibule, the great porch, of Windsor Castle. The history of the memorial head is embarrassing: it comes from an altar of the Oba and was captured by the British in 1897. Most likely, an officer of the punitive expedition took it to England, where it eventually ended up on the art market. British colonial officials in Nigeria acquired the head between 1946 and 1957 for the National Museum in Lagos, where it remained until 1973. The British Royal Family received notification in December 2022 that Nigeria would not reclaim the state gift.

So now another state gift – this time to the Oba. The odyssey of Benin bronzes from Germany and other countries continues.

Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin was Professor of Ethnology at the Georg August University in Göttingen from 1992 to 2016.

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