Nigeria launches campaign on return of looted cultural artefacts

Solomon Chung, Lagos

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The Nigerian Government has officially launched an international campaign aimed the repatriation of the smuggled and looted artefacts belonging to the country but deposited in different museums across the world.

The Press Conference for the campaign launch took place on Thursday in Lagos South West Nigeria by the country’s Information and Culture Minister Mr. Lai Mohammed.

With this announcement, the Minister said Nigeria was  putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.

“These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not.

“Of course, as you all know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play. How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe as their properties?”

According to the Minister the campaign is strengthened by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, to which most nations subscribe, which also clearly identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each member state, thereby belonging to that State.

“Also, the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region met in December 2018 in Abuja and adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. We are bound by this Declaration, which has further brought discussions towards a Plan of Action.

“We want to commend the work of the discussion group that is now known as the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’, which is working to resolve this issue. We are not averse to agreements such as the one being fashioned out by the group.

“But whatever decision is taken by the group must be based on the inviolable, logical and natural conclusion that the looted/smuggled artifacts belong to Nigeria. Again, they can be enjoyed by art lovers all over the world, but on our terms, which must also benefit us.”

The Minister said that Nigeria desire that her heritage resources circulate around the world, especially because the country was aware that art lovers all over the world truly love them and some also desire to have them on loan.

“But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever.

“Under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the ownership…we do not mind to conduct joint exhibitions and have the objects loaned out too. But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever.”

On that note the Minister said the Nigerian Government is using this opportunity to call on every museum and person holding on to Nigeria’s heritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue on the basis of the conditions the country has enumerated.

“We urge them to identify what is in their collections, transparently make them public, approach us for discussion on terms of return and restitution, as well as circulation and loans.”

The Minister said beginning from next year; the country will be organizing an annual National Conference on Restitution of Cultural Property.

This is in line with the recommendation in the Declaration by ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments last year in Abuja. The essence of the conference is to keep the issue of return and restitution on the front burner of national discourse.

Mr. Mohammed then appealed to the media to be part of the campaign, using their various platforms to publicize the campaign and to keep it in the front burner of national discourse.

“We also appeal to Nigerians at home and in the diaspora to lend their support to the campaign.”

Nigeria is  kick-starting the Campaign for the return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts with a quest to retrieve the Ife Bronze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of the national museums was broken into. The London Metropolitan police has seized the object, and it has invited Nigeria to make a claim.