…As Obaseki Loses Out In Tussle With Benin Palace Over Returned Items
The decision by the Federal Government to return looted artefacts to their original owners may have permanently resolved the rift between Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, and the palace of the Oba of Benin over who takes custody of looted artefacts being returned by foreign countries who stole them over a century ago. Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Sarafa Tunji Ishola, stated the position of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government on the issue on Monday when he led a delegation to the palace of the Benin monarch, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II to prepare the grounds for the formal hand-over to him of two works of art from British museum looted over 124 years ago. The items, a cockerel, (okpa) and Uhunwun Elao, are to be handed over by the federal government to Oba Ewuare 11 at a later date. The necessary documentations were done at a colourful ceremony which had in attendance the Emir of Kano, Aminu Ado Bayero, and other dignitaries from across the country, where Oba Ewuare II and government officials involved in the process signed the necessary documents in line with the British laws regarding return of artefacts.
Recall that Edo State government had insisted on taking custody of the artefacts to be kept in a proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) while the Benin palace contended that they should be returned to the palace from where they were stolen. Following the controversy, Oba Ewuare 11 had in July this year, pleaded with the federal government to take custody of the 1,130 stolen Benin artefacts expected from Germany pending when the Benin Royal Museum would be ready to take possession.
At Monday’s ceremony, as a first step in safeguarding the art works and others expected to be returned in future, the Oba named Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka as a member of the board of trustees of the Benin Royal Museum where the returned artefacts would be domiciled, and accessed by the public, including researchers and scientists. Other members of the board include Aghatise Erediauwa, Nduka Obaigbena, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, amongst others.
Governor Obaseki, his deputy, Philip Shaibu, and secrtary to the state government, Osarodion Ogie, were conspicuously absent at the ceremony though investigation revealed that they were in town. The government was however represented by the commissioner for local government and chieftaincy affairs, Monday Osaigbovo. From the latest development, the government has lost out in the contestation for the custody of the artefacts.
Commending the role played by the federal government in the return of the artefacts, Oba Ewuare 11 stated that Benin arts and culture reflected the past and present glory, as well as the splendour of the kingdom. “As our treasures are returned, our youths will be able to establish a new relationship with the heritage bequeathed by their forefathers. The return of all the treasures taken away will begin a new era of Benin history and civilisation. International best practice and the rule of law, dictate that restitution and compensation are the new discourse. “We ask that friendly countries seeking to return our artifacts should do so directly to the Oba of Benin or to the federal government of Nigeria who will hold them in trust, and return the same to the Palace of the Oba of Benin Kingdom as was recently done in Cambridge and Aberdeen,” he stated.
In his speech, Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Sarafa Tunji Ishola, said the ceremony was in line with President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration’s commitment that all stolen artefacts should be returned to Nigeria and sent to their original owners. He recalled that “In 1897, when the Benin aretefacts were taken away from Benin Kingdom, sovereignty was vested in Benin Kingdom under the leadership of the then Oba of Benin, Ovonranmwen Nogbaisi. The same sovereignty was then vested in respective kingdoms and its respective traditional rulers in the present day Nigeria. This explains why these artefacts are still being referred to as Benin bronzes up till the present day. Sovereignty is however currently vested in the federal government of Nigeria by the 1999 constitution as amended, hence, the legal and physical possession of the artefacts by the federal Republic of Nigeria under the leadership of Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria. My presence in Benin Kingdom today is in fulfillment of the desire and the express directive of President Muhammadu Buhari to return the repossessed artefacts to where they originally belong”. According to the High Commissioner, “the present administration places much emphasis on the return of Nigerian artefacts to their original home hence the painstaking efforts of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, along with the tireless commitment of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, to attain this presidential directive and mandate.” The event attracted personalities from all walks of life, including the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Aminu Bayero, representatives of the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja the 11, and the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, who is from Benin Kingdom.
Others were the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Sen. Godswill Akpabio, immediate past governor of Edo State, and former national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, Lucky Imasuen, former Edo State deputy governor; former secretary to the state government, SSG, Osagie Ize-Iyamu, Ken Imansuagbon, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, traditional rulers from other parts of the state, as well as palace chiefs.