The dust is yet to settle over controversies trailing the custody of the 1,130 artefacts looted from Benin Kingdom during the British invasion of 1897 and being expected from Germany as both the Edo State government and the palace of the Oba of Benin, Ewuare 11, Ogidigan, continued with their separate arrangements to receive the antiquities. While the state government is pushing ahead with its earlier plan to build a private museum – Edo Museum of West African Arts, EMOWAA – to accommodate the prized artefacts, the Benin palace is also committed to the building of a world-class Royal Palace Museum on the palace grounds to house the art works. The building of the royal museum is being facilitated by the federal government through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NCMM.
On Thursday, in what seemed a renewed controversy over the matter, Oba Ewuare II, cautioned against attempts by anyone or a group of persons to divert Benin artefacts, warning that Edo people would resist the move before it reaches a tipping point.
Recall that amidst initial controversy between the palace and the state government over who takes custody of the looted artefacts being repatriated to the country from various countries where they were taken to, Oba Ewuare 11 had in July last year, requested the Nigerian government to temporarily take custody of the 1,130 expected artefacts from Germany pending the completion of the Benin Royal Museum, which the federal government obliged.
At a press conference in Lagos July 2021, the federal government had acknowledged “the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany”.
Information and culture minister, Lai Mohammed, had stated on the occasion that “the Federal government will take possession of these antiquities because it is its duty to do so in line with extant laws. But we have always exercised this right in cognizance of that culture that produced the artworks”. Earlier on December 13, 2021, the federal government had given an indication that the artefacts would be returned to the palace of the Benin monarch during the signing of documents preceding the return of the stolen artworks.
Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Sarafa Tunji Ishola, had stated that the ceremony was in line with the commitment of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to ensure that all stolen artefacts were returned to Nigeria, and sent to their original owners.
Flowing from this, on February 20, 2022, two artefacts worth 2.5 million British pounds were handed over to the Oba by the High Commissioner on behalf of President Buhari. They were a cockerel, (okpa) and an Oba head, (Uhunwun Elao) which were repatriated from Cambridge University, Jesus College, and University of Aberdeen, Scotland, respectively. Ishola had stated that he was specifically directed by the president to hand over the items to the Oba.
However, just when many thought the dust had settled, the state governor, Godwin Obaseki, was to reignite the controversy on Thursday July 21, 2022, during a stakeholders’ engagement and unveiling of phase one of Edo Museum of West African Arts, EMOWAA, which has as chairman Phillip Iheanacho. Obaseki, at the event, denied the existence of a dispute between the state government and the Palace of the Oba of Benin over where the returned artefacts would be domiciled.
The governor had stated: “What is our plan for culture? As a people, we have a lot of assets from our past and it’s our responsibility to recreate them. So, it is beyond just several pieces of artwork; no, it’s beyond that. It is about using that as the contact point to bring out the best of who we are.
“There is a whole lot of research that still needs to be done. We can’t have things about us being explained to us from Europe. Nobody is going to do it for us. That is why we must insist that when these works come, we host them here in Edo State, their home, so that it’s available for everybody to see. There is no quarrel with the palace. It is not just about us but the people of the state. So, let’s facilitate it so everybody can access and benefit from it”.
But stating his position on Thursday when members of the Benin Community in Abuja, the Principal officers of the College of Education, Technical, Ekiadolor, Edo State, as well as leaders of Edo United Union in Rome, Italy, led by its President, Edwin Omoregie, paid him a courtesy visit in his palace, Oba Ewuare 11 insisted that the expected artefacts should be returned to the palace of the Oba from where they were carted away during the 1897 invasion by the British.
The royal father, who spoke in Benin dialect, charged his subjects and concerned authorities, not to succumb to pressure by unnamed individuals who are “treading on a lonely path to either divert or sell the priceless treasures for personal gains”.
According to Oba Ewuare 11, “We won’t lose our heritage. You remember our Benin artefacts that were looted during the invasion of Benin by foreigners. Some of them have agreed to return them. But it should be returned to the Oba of Benin’s palace. Edo people all over the world should not allow anyone to bamboozle them to give up their heritage to strangers. Benin artefacts were made by the famous Igun Bronze Casters’ Guild in Benin on orders of our forebears. The palace gave them the enablement and approval to make them.
“Our artefacts will not go to another destination. It should come to the right destination, which is Oba of Benin palace. Edo people should not allow them to be either diverted or sold. Edo people will not allow that to happen. Our ancestors do not approve it”.
The monarch urged his visitors to advice their supporters and others “to counsel those who are making such moves to retrace their steps. You should insist that the right thing is done at the right time for the benefits of Edo people”. Oba Ewuare commended notable Nigerians who had taken up the agitation for the return of the art works.
Addressing the Oba, President of Benin Community in Abuja, Lucky Odigie, commended his peaceful reign and his proclamations that led to the abolition of Community Development Associations (CDAs) as it had brought visible respite to the people, and helped in curbing social vices in the society, particularly prostitution and human trafficking.
On his part, Provost, College of Education, Technical, Ekiadolor, Dr. Emmanuel Asagha, gave a brief history of the college, and the process for the smooth take-off of the institution. He therefore sued for Oba Ewuare ll’s support towards the attainment of set goals in the tertiary institution.