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Returned artefacts: When Oba of Benin re-echoed forefather’s song

Returned artefacts: When Oba of Benin re-echoed forefather’s song

Every human being, boy or girl, would be delighted to see his or her treasures returned after it was forcefully collected in the past.

This was the highlight last Monday, December 13 in Benin City, the Edo State capital, as the much-talked-about priceless works of art were gradually being returned home. It was an epoch-making event in Benin history, relished by many, and its memories will remain alive and told to future generations.

Just like his grandfather and father, Oba Akenzua II and Oba Erediauwa, respectively, Oba Ewuare II, the Oba of Benin formally repossessed some Benin bronzes looted by the British government from the palace in 1897 by signing the deed for the subsequent transfer of the artworks from the Federal Government to the monarch at a later date.

Dressed in a sparkling purple regalia with dark eyeglasses, the Oba of Benin, after appending his signature to the legal documents, rose from the ancient stool of his forebears, displayed the papers to the cheering crowd and swayed to the same melodious chorus that his grandfather rendered in joy while rising from the throne to receive a coral bead coronation regalia returned by the British government in 1938.

The musical sound, “Sagele-mayo, Emayo Sagele-mayo,” translated as a victorious song, caught the attention of Benin people, traditional rulers, government functionaries, visitors and admirers of the great Benin Kingdom as they stood up from their seats to recite the music with the monarch and were also marveled by the cultural display of many theatre troupes in a colorful tent that seemingly exuded resplendent joy.

After over a century of being in the custody of the white man, the Oba of Benin looked gleefully to the legal documents with the hope that more of the valued artworks would be returned to their original place of abode in the not too distant future.

The ceremony, which coincided with his 5th coronation anniversary celebration, that was earlier postponed in honour of late Wells Okunbo, was attended by dignitaries from all walks of life namely, the Emir of Kano, Aminu Bayero; representative of the Ooni of Ife, representative of the minister of health, Osagie Ehanire, who is a native of Edo State.

Among other personalities include traditional rulers within the state and across Nigeria, minister of Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, former governor of Edo State and immediate past national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Adams Oshiomhole.

Speaking after signing the necessary documents presented to him by the Federal Government led by Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Britain, Sarafa Isola, in Benin City, Oba Ewuare II assured that the palace is making comprehensive plans for the custody of the artworks.

Read also: Benin Monarch to receive repatriated artefacts Monday

Contrary to speculations that the artefacts would be confined and kept away from public view, he said “there will be no restriction” as the palace is already collaborating with FG through its agency, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), to build the Benin Royal Museum to house returned artworks that will be opened to tourists, researchers among others.

Oba Ewuare II said he has redeemed his pledge made during his coronation to expedite the return of the artefacts to their original abode by signing the deed of transfer of the repossessed bronzes namely Cockerel, “Okpa” and an ancestral head, “Uhunwun Elao” from Jesus College, Cambridge, England and University of Aberdeen, Scotland, respectively.

The traditional ruler said Benin art and culture reflect the past and present glory as well as splendor of Benin kingdom, noting that many of these artefacts transcend mere art and are in very many cases objects of religious significance to the revered kingdom.

The return of the Benin treasures, according to him, would begin a new era of Benin history and civilisation as well as establish a relationship between youths in the state and the heritage bequeathed by their forefathers.

“Today is an auspicious and historic moment in the history of Benin kingdom. Today marks a watershed in our efforts to retrieve the bronzes, ivories, and other works of art which were removed from this palace in 1897. Today is not a day to open wounds rather we wish to be forward-looking and discuss the subject of restitution and compensation for the act that happened in the past.

“It is indeed a great thing to witness this desirable turn of history. Ambassador Isola led the FG delegation and my delegation to receive the bronzes from these great institutions. This is in line with the understanding we have with FG to help retrieve our artefacts from various places overseas and they will in turn transfer retrieved artefacts to the palace of the Oba of Benin.

He recalled earlier efforts made by the palace for the return of the Benin artworks, saying that “The Benin Royal family, through FG has been asking relentlessly for the return of the artefacts removed from Benin. In 1935, my revered grandfather, Oba Akenzua II made the earliest request by asking for the return of two brass stools held in the Berlin museum. The originals have still not been returned.

“However, in 1938, my grandfather successfully had a coral bead coronation regalia returned by the British government.

“In 2014, right here in the palace, two bronze works, one of a bird and the other of a traditional bell were voluntarily returned to my revered father, Oba Erediauwa, by Adrian Walker, the grandson of a member of the 1897 expedition. This was 79 years after the calls for restitution began. There is now, in my own reign, by the grace of God and our ancestors, an increased positive response to our call for the return of our artefacts,” he said.

He said the palace is ready to partner with appropriate authorities in Europe and other parts of the world in creating development programs for the teeming youths in the state and Nigeria at large.

“We have a vibrant youth population whom we know can compete globally if given the proper enabling environment. We would welcome assistance in museum studies, including professional and technical support. We welcome financial assistance for our youths through specialised grants and scholarships,” the Oba said.

For better preservation of the artefacts and other Benin works expected to be returned in future, the traditional ruler said the proposed Benin Royal Museum to house the artworks would be governed by a Board of Trustees namely Wole Soyinka, Aghatise Erediauwa, Nduka Obaigbena, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, among others.

The Oba, while thanking President Muhammadu Buhari, Civil Society Organisations, other persons involved in the process of retrieving the artworks, urged countries seeking to return other artifacts to deal directly with Oba of Benin or FG, who will hold them in trust and return same to the palace.

Sarafa Isola, after presenting the documents to the monarch, tasked the Oba on preservation of the artefacts in accordance with global best practice in order to sustain campaign for the return and repossession of the remaining artworks domiciled across the globe.

The high commissioner, who represented President Buhari, acknowledged the synergy between the Edo state government, Oba of Benin and others for the campaign in the return of the looted artworks.

He said: “In 1897, when the Benin artefacts were taken away from Benin Kingdom, sovereignty was vested in Benin Kingdom under the leadership of the then-Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the same sovereignty was then vested in respective kingdoms and its respective traditional rulers in the present day Nigeria.

“This explains why these artefacts are still being referred to as Benin bronzes up till the present day. Sovereignty is, however, currently vested in the Federal Government by the 1999 constitution (as amended), hence the legal and physical possession of the artefacts by the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the leadership of Buhari.

“My presence in Benin Kingdom today is in fulfillment of the desire and the express directive of the president to return the repossessed artefacts to where they originally belong. I have the honor and privilege to legally transfer the repossessed artefacts namely Cockerel bronze and ancestral bronze head to the Oba of Benin. After documentation, they will be brought here directly.

“The present administration places much emphasis on the return of Nigerian artefacts to their original home, hence the painstaking efforts of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, with the tireless commitment of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to attain this presidential directive and mandate.”

On what the return of the artefacts and the proposed Benin Royal Museum portends for the state, Theophilus Umogbai, curator, national museum Benin City, said there will be significant turnaround for the hospitality industry.

According to him, when these priceless looted artefacts are returned and placed in a museum, there will be influx of art lovers and tourists which will in turn massively boost sales and profits of hotels, food vendors, transporters, including online taxi services.

“The people who took the objects away from its original place over a century ago, and kept them in their museums for people to view it for a fee made humongous benefits. So, these artworks are attractions to tourists for example, when foreign tourists visit a country, they empower the people in one way or the other,” he said.