France has returned a sabre belonging to a 19th Century Senegalese Islamic scholar and ruler.
The move is part of the French government’s commitment to give back key items of cultural heritage it stole from its former West African colonies.
A report commissioned by the French President last year recommended the country amend its strict heritage laws to allow for the return of thousands of African artworks looted during the French colonization.
Authored by Senegalese writer and economist, Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, the report stated that African works being held in French museums should be returned permanently – and not by way of a loan – unless it’s proven they were obtained legitimately.
French Prime minister Edouard Philippe handed the sword, which originally belongs to the revered west African leader Omar Saidou Tall to Senegal’s President Macky Sall in a ceremony in Dakar, BBC reports.
Tall led an anti-colonial struggle against the French.
“This is an historic day,” the Senegalese leader said. Some of Tall’s descendants were present at the ceremony.
On his part, Philippe said the restoration of the sabre was “the first step” in a project aimed at returning more Senegalese artifacts currently in French museums, which hold at least 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s symbolic. It had been lent to us before, but now it is being restored to us,” AFP news agency quoted the head of Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilisations Hamady Bocoum, saying.
The curved iron, brass and wood sword has been kept in its leather sheath in the museum in Senegal’s capital on loan from France, but Sunday’s ceremony saw the item formally returned for five years, according to BBC.
French MPs are said to vote on whether to permanently return the sabre and other artifacts.
Strict French laws prohibit the government from yielding state property but when President Emmanuelle Macron commissioned the report after a trip to Burkina Faso in November 2017, it signaled a radical policy shift.
In a speech in Ouagadougou, he said: “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums”.
Omar Saidou Tall?
According to historians, Tall disappeared mysteriously from the cliffs of Bandiagara in Mali, an area known for its dramatic landscape, in 1864.
He was succeeded by his son Ahmadou (1836-1897) who fought and defeated the French in April 1893 in Bandiagara and that was where the French seized the sword, which had a French-made blade and a handle shaped like a bird’s beak.
French colonialists also looted books belonging to Tall, according to El-Hajj Mamadou Mactar Thiam, a descendant of the Muslim scholar.
“They took everything, including his library, in Segou, and I hope that all our books that are now in France will be returned to us,” Thiam told BBC Afrique.