Why Germany is returning 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts back to Nigeria

Germany has setup modalities to return 1,130 Benin artifacts stolen from the ancient kingdom to Nigeria from the beginning of 2022.

German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Moniker Grutters stated this during a high-level meeting with Nigerian government officials including the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, Edo state governor, Godwin Obaseki and the other top government officials, who were in Germany to facilitate the return of the stolen artefacts.

Germany is dealing with the issue of Benin Bronzes as an important step to addressing its “colonial past” according to the country’s culture Minister.

How did the Benin artifacts ended up in Germany?

Beginning in the 1500s, European powers including Britain were engaged in what was known as the scramble for Africa, they carved up the continent and shared it among themselves for economic exploitation.

The British got the ancient kingdom of Benin and when the kingdom refused to comply with Britain’s trade demands it led to what was referred to as the Benin Disaster where Benin guards killed 7 emissaries. In response, 1200 British troops embarked on a mission they called the Benin punitive expedition.

On 12 January 1897, Armed with machine guns, the soldiers invaded the kingdom killing every man, woman and child on sight. After the kingdom fell, they ransacked the palace and took away artifacts which they labelled as ‘loot’.

British soldiers with their Benin loot

About 40% of the art was accessioned to the British Museum, while other works were given to individual members of the armed forces as spoils of war, and the remainder was sold at auction.

Most of the Benin Bronzes sold at auction were purchased by museums, mainly in Germany.

What exactly were the Benin artifacts?

Ancient Benin was a wealthy and industrial kingdom which produced lots of art pieces starting in the 1500s.

They art pieces they produced include a huge range of items from ivory tusks to brass sculptures to plaques.

These items are visual archives of a kingdom that did not develop written texts as we have it today. These items told histories and hold records of kingship of the kingdom.

Benin artifacts at the British museum in London

Where would the Benin artifacts be kept when they are finally returned to Nigeria?

The issue of where the artifacts will be kept and who will be responsible for their maintenance is already generating controversy.

The Benin monarchy wants the artefacts kept in the Benin Royal Museum which will be built within the palace, but the Edo state government wants the items preserved in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts which would be funded and executed by a private company named Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd.


When will the Benin artifacts start returning to Nigeria?

During a meeting with the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, Nigeria’s culture minister Lai Mohammed said there should be ”absolutely no conditions attached” to the return of the artefacts, which he described as an idea whose time has come.

The ongoing discussion between Nigeria and Germany on the return of the art works is not just the end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between both countries.

The Nigerian Government is proposing a one-year time limit for the full return of its artefacts from Germany.

The government wants the agreement to be signed by December 2021 and the full return completed latest August 2022.


A writer! Columnist and an academic researcher
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