The fate of the Benin bronzes continues to torment and divide the German authorities. Five months after returning to Nigeria 22 objects from the former kingdom of Benin looted during the colonial era, a certain vagueness reigns in Germany on the fate of the pieces supposed to be exhibited at the Edo Museum for West African Arts (EMOWAA), under construction in Benin City. And for good reason: a decree promulgated on March 28 by President Muhammadu Buhari, succeeded in May by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, confers ownership of the works relocated in December to the Nigerian State to Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II, the king ("oba") of Benin.
In response to this transfer, the authorities of the Saxony region - responsible for the Leipzig Museum of Ethnology where the objects were kept - demanded clarifications from Nigeria and paused their restitution procedures. According to the agreement signed by Berlin on the return of about 1100 bronzes from 20 German collections and museums, the returned works were to remain accessible to the public. Eventually, it is planned that the bronzes will be exhibited in the future museum of Benin City. A fate that could be challenged by the privatization of the assets in question, suggests the region.
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One of Nigeria's most important traditional chiefs, Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II is the heir to the ruler who ruled the Kingdom of Benin when the bronzes were looted during the sacking of the Edo Royal Palace in 1897 by a British colonial expedition. "As the original owner, the Oba shall be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated objects are domiciled," the Nigerian presidential decree states. In February 2022, the Oba of Benin had already recovered two bronzes returned the previous year to Nigeria by a London museum.
A few years ago, the Leipzig Museum kept 262 Beninese bronzes, the second largest collection in Germany after that of Berlin. Cautious, the region of Saxony is now waiting to see "what is the effect of this decree (...) and how the new government will proceed." Before that, "we will not take any new steps," a spokesman for the state's Ministry of Culture told AFP.
The move by the Saxon authorities - whose majority of regional parliament belongs to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) - was however greeted with annoyance by the Federal Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth. "What happens to the bronzes now is up to the current owner to decide, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria," she told ZDF. "The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria was not subject to conditions," added Christopher Burger, spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, adding that it is "important that the public continues to have access to the Benin bronzes after the restitution."
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The debate goes beyond the question of where the objects will be displayed, writes the German newspaper FAZ. "When works of art are privatized, their interpretation also becomes private," writes the liberal daily, pointing to historical research according to which the former royal family of Benin "was not the least involved in the slave trade, from which benefited not only the European powers, but also the local elites".
We want to reassure our partners, (...) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (...) and cannot be sold.
Abba Isa Tijani, president of Nigeria's government agency in charge of returning looted works
The newspaper thus warns against the temptation to erase this aspect to present a glorious historical account of the context in which the bronzes were created. These fears irritate the president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger, in charge of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin: "Do we really want to return to the attitude of the 1970s, when we Europeans equated the return of cultural property to Africa with loss, destruction and sale?" he wrote in early May. Its museum has 530 historical objects from the ancient Beninese kingdom, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection after that of the British Museum in London.
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In Nigeria, the president of the government agency in charge of the return of looted works, Abba Isa Tijani, wants to calm the debate. "We want to reassure our partners, the museums in Europe (...) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (...) and will not be able to be sold, he told AFP, confirming that the construction of the Benin City museum continues as planned. The Oba royal family of Benin relies on this museum, nothing has changed, since it does not have the expertise and staff to manage the museum.
Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria, who is very involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, castigates a "propaganda that consists in saying that the objects will be lost". She recalls that the Oba has always "clearly" indicated that a museum would be created. All this is just an "excuse not to return the objects," she says, "because they don't want to return them."