French MPs vote to return stolen West African artifacts

Abu Mubarik October 07, 2020
African artifacts in European museums serve a timeless reminder of how overwhelming European domination over Africans used to be. Photo Credit: New York Times

Lawmakers in France have unanimously voted to return stolen artifacts in the possession of the French government for more than a century to Benin and Senegal. The bill for the restitution of the stolen artifacts will now head to the Senate and if approved, it will be returned to the two West African states.

France will officially restore to Benin 26 items from the “Treasure of Behanzin”, AFP reports. The treasure set, which includes the throne of King Glele held at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris, was looted in 1892 at the palace of Abomey.

Senegal, on the other hand, will get back a sword and scabbard belonging to the 19th-century military and religious figure, Omar Saidou Tall. According to AFP, the pieces are officially held by the Army Museum in Paris but are on long-term loan to Dakar, where they have been exhibited since last November.

In 2018, the French government set up a commission to look into the issue of returning looted African artifacts to their rightful African countries. The announcement was made during a joint press conference with the then visiting president of Benin, Patrice Talon.

“African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou. In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa,” Talon said at the time.

The commission was made up of Senegalese writer and economist, Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedict Savoy. The commission submitted its findings that same year and recommended that the artefacts be permanently returned to their country of origin if the country asks for them.

The commission identified about 5, 142 objects that originally belong to Senegal in the Quai Brany-Jacques Chirac Museum for indigenous art from Africa, Asia and the Americas in France. Of the 5,142 African objects identified, 2000 of them are photos and pieces of pottery, statues, fishermen’s’ nets and ancient African textiles.

Historically, the French government has been hostile to the idea of restitution with the notion that artifacts belonged to the public once they were placed in museums. In 2016, a letter was written to the then president of France, Francois Hollande stating that close to 6,500 artifacts between 1892 to 1894 were looted by French missionaries and authorities during the Franco-Dahomey War.

The letter was sent to the former president by the lawmakers and civil societies from Benin and France. However, the French government responded negatively to the letter stating that the artefacts rightfully belonged to France after being in the country for centuries. They also argued that one African country could not take ownership of all the artefacts as the then Kingdom of Dahomey, which is now Benin extended to parts of modern-day Nigeria.

The negative feedback did not stop the President of Benin, Patrice Talon from pushing for the return of Africa’s rightful properties lost to Europe after calling on French President Macron to revisit the case to see to the successful return of the artefacts to three modern museums set up to preserve the Dahomey royal culture.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 7, 2020


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