It was a joyful and fulfilling moment on Saturday, for the Oba of Benin, Ewuare 11, as he received two cherished artefacts amongst those looted from the palace of the ancient Benin Kingdom during the 1897 British invasion. The two prized artefacts – the Oba Head, and the Cockerel – were among the over 10,000 works of art stolen during the infamous British Expedition. They were returned by Jesus College of Cambridge University, and the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
The cockerel, which was valued at 2, 000,000 Great Britain Pounds, (GBP) and the Oba Head, valued at 500,000 GBP, were handed over to a visibly elated Oba Ewuare 11 by the Nigerian Ambassador to Great Britain, Tunji Isola, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari.
Speaking at the epochal event which took place at the Oba Palace, Benin, and witnessed by dignitaries from across the country, including representatives of the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja 11, members of Edo State traditional Council, Yoruba and Hausa communities, as well as prominent Edo sons and daughters, Ambassador Ishola said history was being made as the artefacts, which were taken away from the kingdom over 125 years ago, were being brought back to where they belong.
He said “I am here for one assignment as directed by President Muhammadu Buhari, and it is to personally bring these objects to the Oba of Benin Kingdom, and that is the presidential directive. Your Royal Majesty will recall that when I came here in December last year to transfer these artefacts legally, I did promise that we will physically hand over these objects to you and today, they are here.
“The significance of these artefacts being here requires that an export license be issued as British law states that any artefact that has spent up to 50 years, needs an export license to be taken to any country outside Britain. But we thank the British Government because the license was issued at no cost to the Nigerian Government. And these started a seamless arrangement for the return. We want to thank the British Government for protecting the artefacts. Not only that, value has been added to it. Unlike when they were taken away, now the Cockerel is worth two million Pounds, and the Oba Head is worth 500,000 Pounds; and we will still see many returned”.
He expressed delight that the works would now be domiciled in their homes of origin, and researchers would write about them, talking to their real owners. Ambassador Ishola said the works were returned with the history of who had housed them right from 1897 till date, and how much it was sold or bought at each point.
Also speaking, the Director, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NCMM, Prof. Abba Tijani, said the occasion was a great and historic event for the commission, as it marked the first time the Commission witnessed such return. Tijani said it was historical that the artefacts were returned in his tenure when several attempts in the past were frustrated by the holding countries.
According to him, “I have on many occasions met the holders, and told them that these Benin artefacts are not art works, they are life arts; they are part of the history of these people. They are not works for commercial values or aesthetics; you can imagine that part of your life is taken from you.
“We are making history because none of us was here when they were taken away in 1897, but we are here to receive them. The Commission had made several efforts in the past to see to their return but we encountered many blockades. I have already scheduled to visit other countries in Europe to convince these holders to return them”.
Formally taking possession of the artefacts, Oba Ewuare 11, whose speech was read by his younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, said the bronzes transcended mere art, but “mostly of religious significance to us, and these two bronzes will return to where they rightly belong”.
Oba Ewuare II, in his speech which was read by his younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, said it was a day of joy to him personally, “and to all Benin people at home and in the Diaspora”, stressing that “We are witnessing today the beginning of the restitution of our artefacts which were looted in 1897”.
The Oba said contrary to reports that the military expedition of 1897 was in retaliation for the killing of some British soldiers, “The truth is that there was a calculated and a deliberately conceived plan to attack Benin for its territorial dominance, and also for her treasures. The result was a destruction of a civilization which equaled, or even surpassed that of the aggressors. It was thought that the kingdom, totally decimated and in ruins in the aftermath of the war, would not rise again. By the grace of God and our ancestors, we are still standing”.
According to Oba Ewuare 11, “The current conversation is about restitution. International scholars and most museums now agree that keeping stolen items is immoral and illegal. There is consensus now that heritage items must be returned to their place of origin. For this, we commend both Jesus College of Cambridge University, and the University of Aberdeen, for their pace-setting initiative in returning these two bronzes.
“Of course, there remain a very large number of our artefacts out there. We are aware of the ongoing discussions which the Federal Government, through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is holding with various governments on our behalf. We are also aware that the major museums will miss having Benin Bronzes in their collections. I believe that a working arrangement can be agreed whereby our ownership of the artefacts, having been established, those museums will continue to enjoy the presence of our artefacts”.
The Oba noted that the bronzes transcended mere art, but “mostly of religious significance to us, and these two bronzes will return to where they rightly belong”. Thanking President Buhari for his keen interest in the repatriation of the bronzes, he appealed that those who are “genuinely interested in the cause should join us in the interest of peace, tranquility, and the sustenance of our cultural heritage.”