The Benin Bronzes’ Bungled Return

BERLIN – Until recently, the protracted saga of the Benin Bronzes’ repatriation appeared to be heading toward a satisfying conclusion. These sculptures and artifacts, looted by British soldiers in 1897 during a raid on the historic Kingdom of Benin (in what is now Nigeria’s southern state of Edo) and scattered across Europe and North America, were set to return to Nigeria. But their status is once again uncertain.

The campaign for the return of the Benin Bronzes took an unexpected turn on March 23, when outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared Ewuare II, the Oba (King) of Benin and traditional ruler of Edo, their rightful owner. Buhari’s announcement “blindsided” museums in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, delaying the restitution of the bronzes. Worse, the declaration threatens to privatize the process, as well as the statues and plaques that have already been returned, thereby jeopardizing several ongoing negotiations to return stolen cultural property from former colonial powers.

At first glance, these developments may seem perplexing. But a closer examination reveals a complicated story that offers important lessons for the global movement to return stolen national treasures.

In the aftermath of the British colonial forces’ sacking of the Oba’s palace in Benin City, the looted artifacts were shipped to England, where they soon found their way into European and American museums and private collections. For decades, Nigeria has campaigned for their return. Over the past few months, however, the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes has evolved into an international test case for cultural relations.

While there are lingering doubts about Europe’s and America’s willingness to return treasures that were looted or illicitly obtained during the colonial era, there are also questions about some countries’ readiness to honor the commitments governing such transfers. Buhari’s announcement violated the terms of the agreement to return the artifacts, alarming politicians, museum officials, and art historians in countries currently negotiating future transfers.

In December 2022, Germany returned some of the bronzes to Nigeria to much fanfare. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Claudia Roth, Germany’s commissioner for culture and media, traveled to Abuja to present 20 sculptures to high-ranking Nigerian officials, stating that this act of restitution was intended to heal the wounds of the past and foster trust between the two countries. For Nigeria, the event marked the culmination of the decades-long effort to recover some of its national treasures.

According to the signed agreement, Edo – as the recognized owner of the bronzes – was tasked with building a dedicated museum where the objects could be professionally curated and publicly displayed, and Germany pledged several million euros to support the museum’s construction. But Buhari’s announcement has thrown these plans into disarray. The unexpected twist has stoked fears that many of the bronzes will end up on the black market.

There are also growing concerns over the Oba’s moral claim to ownership of the bronzes. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ewuare II’s ancestors actively participated in the transatlantic slave trade, hunting down members of neighboring tribes and selling them to European merchants in exchange for copper and bronze manillas. These materials were subsequently used to forge statutes and plaques. It could be argued, therefore, that if any group had a moral claim to the bronzes, it would be the descendants of those enslaved and sold by the Oba and his forces. One solution, advocated by the New York-based Restitution Study Group, is to keep the bronzes where they currently are. Doing so would ensure that the greatest number of rightful “owners” – the descendants of slaves, now largely residing in the Americas – would have the opportunity to view “their” property.

But both Germany and Nigeria essentially decided to overlook these historical circumstances. The key stakeholders, including the German and Nigerian governments, the curators, and the restitution groups, lacked a shared narrative regarding the legal and moral rights to the stolen artifacts, and their interpretations of the relevant history differed significantly.

Worse, Germany and Nigeria intentionally allowed the handover of the bronzes to be politicized. Initially, the return seemed to be an easy win for Baerbock and Roth, both members of the Green Party. The artifacts’ repatriation would appeal to their upper-middle-class constituents’ post-colonial guilt and help Germany gain favor with Africa’s most populous country and largest market. Instead, it has become a liability, triggering a heated debate in the Bundestag and widely regarded as a display of political dilettantism.

In Nigeria, the run-up to the presidential election in March was marked by escalating tensions. As local politicians vied for the international recognition that the return of the bronzes would bring, conflicts arose between Edo’s governor and the Oba. The Oba has closer ties to Buhari, who sought to settle old scores before leaving office.

This fiasco could have been avoided had both parties not ignored the warning signs. While Germany did not account for the inherent risks of Nigeria’s political instability and neglected to ensure the agreement’s robustness, Nigeria failed to reckon with its own historical involvement in the slave trade.

Given that several transfers are currently being negotiated or already underway, we must heed the lessons of the Benin Bronzes debacle. First, negotiating parties must rely on the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which provides a shared framework for the import, export, and transfer of cultural property. Since its establishment in 1945, UNESCO has acquired extensive experience in managing complex and sensitive cultural exchanges, making it well-equipped to balance the interests of all stakeholders.

Second, impartial intermediaries are crucial to preventing political opportunism. One solution would be to designate UNESCO as the body overseeing negotiations to return cultural artifacts and the implementation of restitution agreements. This would align with UNESCO’s current role as the custodian of world heritage sites and prevent narrow national interests from undermining the process. By entrusting complex cultural exchanges to a trusted, neutral intermediary, we could avoid future blunders like the Benin Bronzes’ botched return.

Helmut K. Anheier, Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School in Berlin, is Adjunct Professor of Public Policy and Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.


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