Germany had hoped that by returning 20 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria last year it was “healing the wounds” of colonialism and righting a historic wrong. But when it emerged that ownership of the repatriated objects will pass to the king of Benin rather than the Nigerian state, Berlin found itself facing a public relations nightmare. “The government has recklessly consigned African world heritage to oblivion,” Dorothee Bär, an MP for the conservative CDU/CSU bloc, told the FT.
“The pieces will vanish into the private possession of a Nigerian king.” “This is a debacle,” said Marc Jongen, an MP with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). Nigerians, however, have dismissed the furore.
“The audacity of these people — thinking they should decide what we do with objects we’ve been waiting 126 years to get back,” said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and writer. “This is just neo-colonialism, and to be honest I find it really offensive.” Germany is widely seen as a pioneer in the restitution of looted art. The 20 pieces foreign minister Annalena Baerbock handed over in a ceremony in Abuja last year was just the start — in all, Berlin transferred ownership of 1,100 bronzes from five German museums to the Nigerian authorities.
The objects form part of the huge haul of treasures plundered by British troops when they sacked Benin City in 1897 and captured, deposed and exiled the king, or Oba. The Nigerian authorities — including the current Oba, Ewuare II — have long campaigned for their return.
Germany had assumed that ownership of the bronzes would rest with the Nigerian government and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the NCMM. But in a decree issued in late March, the outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari said they would be entrusted to the Oba of Benin Kingdom.
It identified him as the “original owner and custodian of the culture, heritage and tradition of the people of Benin kingdom” and granted him ownership of all repatriated artefacts “to the exclusion of any other person or persons and or institutions”. The German government said it was a matter for the Nigerians. Christofer Burger, spokesman for the German foreign ministry, said Germany had no say in the objects’ fate once they were returned, adding the restitution was “unconditional”.
“Where the returned bronzes will be legally held and how they’ll be made accessible to the people of Nigeria — those are things for the sovereign state of Nigeria to decide,” he said. Burger added that Buhari’s decree chimed with the principle that the community of origin should be involved in any process of restitution. “To insinuate that these bronzes will never be seen again just because Nigeria, not Germany, now controls them is a mindset that one would have hoped we had abandoned,” he added. But the Buhari decree unleashed an outcry on the German right, with conservative politicians arguing it made a mockery of the whole concept of restitution.
“This should be a wake-up call to end the hyper-moralism in the whole restitution debate,” said Marc Jongen, adding that Germany should immediately suspend all further repatriations of its Benin Bronzes.
The hope had been that the returned pieces would be displayed in a new museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), which is being built in Benin City. Berlin has contributed about €5m to the construction costs of the museum, which is the initiative of the governor of Edo, Godwin Obaseki, a rival of the Oba. Instead, the likelihood is that the objects will become part of a rival project backed by the Oba, the Benin Royal Museum. “Our exchequer is down €5m, the money spent on a museum in Nigeria which will never see the treasures we returned,” said Bär. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung earlier this month, the ethnologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin said the return of the Benin Bronzes had turned into a “fiasco”. “A public good is being turned into exclusive private property,” she wrote. But Barbara Plankensteiner, head of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, said Hauser-Schäublin had misunderstood the role of the Oba. “The king is not a private person as such — he’s the representative of the culture and tradition of his people, and an important spiritual leader and identification figure for a whole community,” said Plankensteiner, who is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group bringing together European museums with key representatives from Nigeria.