For years, Nigerians, Africans and Africanists have campaigned for the return of the Benin Bronzes, stolen by British troops in 1897 after they sacked Benin in a punitive expedition for the ambush and killing of British troops and their African porters in the kingdom. These bronzes, estimated to be as much as 10, 000 and worth about $30 billion, are scattered in museums and universities across the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.
In 2021, the Nigerian National Commissions for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) began issuing formal requests for the return of the bronzes to museums, universities, and treasure houses across the world. After stalling for many years and exhausting arguments against returning the items, holders of the stolen artefacts buckled and started negotiating to return the bronzes.
Last year alone, the Smithsonian Institution returned 29 bronzes; Horniman Museum returned six; Jesus college, Cambri
dge University returned the “Okukor,” and the German government returned 22, but only as a first step in an agreement to return all 1,130 Benin Bronzes from German museums. In 2021, the University of Aberdeen handed back a bronze, depicting the head of a Benin Oba. Thousands of artefacts were scheduled to be returned this year.
While many of these institutions were extremely reluctant to part with their precious bronzes, the moral argument that they were essentially ‘stolen’ artefacts with the moral obligation to return them without questions or conditions won over. On its part, the NMCC has plans to house the returned artefacts in a new “Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, being designed by the British-Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye.
It is bad enough to return the bronzes to Nigeria; but to give it back to the Oba of Benin would be adding insult to injury
Then boom, at the 11th hour (March 2023), Buhari signed an executive order transferring ownership of all the returned bronzes to the Oba of Benin. The executive order was explicit that returned bronzes must be “handed over to the Oba”, who is “the rightful owner and custodian of the culture, heritage, and tradition of the people of Benin Kingdom and will be “responsible for the management of all places” that the returned artefacts will be kept.
Besides blindsiding the NCMM and museums in Germany, UK and the US, the order, which seeks to settle local political scores between the Oba of Benin and the Edo state government, has thrown the scheduled returns into doubt. Cambridge University, the German government and many other museums that had scheduled arrangements with the NCMM to return artefacts this year have all postponed the return indefinitely. “We negotiated with the Nigerian government to return Bronzes to the NCMM, and signed contracts with the NCMM,” a senior German official volunteered. “So, who are we giving them to?” when asked about the postponement of the returns.
Much more interesting however, is the fact that Buhari’s action has strengthened the case of the Restitution Study Group (RSG), representing some 32 million “DNA descendants” of West African slaves transported to the US, who have long asserted their moral rights over the bronzes albeit unsuccessfully. They had vigorously opposed the return of the artefacts to successors of slave owners and traders in Nigeria, and would rather those bronzes remain in “Western museums where they will be accessible to all, including the descendants of slaves whose bodies purchased them…”
The RSG last year sued the Smithsonian Institution to block the return of the 29 bronzes but lost. Now, they feel their case is strengthened by the Buhari executive order and are planning to return to court. To be sure, Benin was a slave-raiding, slaveholding, and slave-trading society.
When the punitive expedition force got there, they “found hundreds of dead and dying slaves, some beheaded, crucified or disembowelled.” Many of the bronzes taken away, some of royal ancestors, were mostly covered in the blood of sacrificed slaves.
According to Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, director of the RSG, the Oba of Benin exchanged slaves for brass or copper ‘manillas’ or ingots. Many of these manillas were melted to create these sculptures which decorated the Benin royal palace. “These are slave-trading relics being returned to the heirs of the slave trade, Farmer-Paellmann told the New York Post recently. Returning them would amount to “rewarding slavery twice.” It is bad enough to return the bronzes to Nigeria; but to give it back to the Oba of Benin would be adding insult to injury.
Of course, Nigeria has continued to treat the group as if they do not exist. In the slavery discourse, we largely still see ourselves as victims rather than collaborators/beneficiaries, and we ignore the genuine concerns of descendants of slaves, which is now turning into animosity.
Well, Western museums are holding on to the bronzes for now, and, even if for entirely self-serving reasons, are also now seeing the equally morally persuasive reasons why the bronzes should remain where they currently are.
Political orphans must always know their places
When Goodluck Jonathan fell out with Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, he decided to go for a dull, colourless, and malleable fellow as central bank governor. Godwin “Meffy” Emiefele fit the bill and was hired. True to form, under Buhari, he transformed himself into a “most obedient servant” of Buhari, his household and associates.
For his services, he was not only rewarded with a second term (the first since 1999) but was also allowed to do whatever he wanted at the central bank. That got into his head, and he forgot his place and overreached himself – even going to the extent of coveting the Presidency and trying to torpedo the ruling party’s electoral chances. It was only time before he got his recompense, especially being a nobody and political orphan.
I expected him to run as fast as his legs could carry him – and there were rumours he was leaving the country – before Buhari leaves office but allowed himself to be talked into staying. Daftness can enable your rise, but it will also precipitate your downfall faster.
Meanwhile, we can see how Hadi Sirika of the Nigeria Hot Air fame is enjoying his loot and talking down on us. He knows he is untouchable!
‘Go to court’ and meet Bulkachuwa
It is an open secret that we no longer have a judiciary. They’ve been emasculated, corrupted by the ruling party and the entire institution hollowed out. In 2019, at the Presidential Elections Petition Tribunal, the president of the court of appeal, Zainab Bulkachuwu, despite her obvious conflict of interest, wanted to remain chair of the panel and practically had to be dragged to recuse herself.
It wasn’t as if it mattered. The courts just refused to look at the matter substantively and dismissed the petition against Buhari’s election. At the Supreme Court, Buhari was so arrogant that his defence team even refused to enter a defence for him. The Supreme Court justices were now forced to abandon their role as arbiters to become defendants of the president on the question of perjury.
But Nigerians didn’t take notice and continued to think we have a judiciary. Well, Justice Bulkachuwa’s husband, the APC Senator representing Bauchi North until June 12, has finally dispelled all doubts:
“Particularly my wife, whose freedom and independence I encroached upon while she was in office. She has been very tolerant and accepted my encroachment and extended help to my colleagues ….”
The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan had to quickly cut him short to contain the damage, exclaiming: “Ah! Distinguished, please. I don’t think it’s a good idea going this direction. It’s not a good idea. It’s not a good idea please.”