Germany will now return to Nigerian, artifacts that were stolen in 1897 by troops in the thick of British colonization efforts in the West African country, it was announced by German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters on Thursday, April 29.
The Ethnological Museum alone in Berlin holds hover 530 artifacts in this category. After they were looted, Britain auctioned many of the artworks to museums in Europe and in the United States. Over the last few decades, there have been calls, supported by many European politicians, to return the artifacts to Nigeria.
Announcing the deal reached with the Nigerian government, Gruetters said her country wanted to “contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen” during the European occupation of Africa. The artworks that will be returning to Nigeria from 2022 are usually collectively called the Benin bronzes although some are made of ivory.
The Benin Kingdom of old is not related to the Republic of Benin even if some of the peoples in the modern sovereign state are descendants of the Benin people who flourished between the 11th and 16th centuries on the west coast of Africa.
Since the beginning of the last decade, there has been increasing international pressure on European and American museums to give back Africa’s priceless pieces of cultural heritage.
In 2018, the French government released a report by a commission it had set up to investigate the matter of returning stolen artifacts in French ownership. Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy concluded that some 90% of known material arts of ancient Africa are outside the continent.
It was the first time the weight of the matter had been put into a quantifiable perspective. Yet, for those who had hopes that restitution would be quickened, they have been disappointed. Although museums and countries have said they are committed to returning the artworks, the process has been slow. One of the reasons for this has been attributed to the unavailability of technological conditions in African museums to receive the artifacts.
That notwithstanding the calls have continued to come. The British Museum, which holds nearly a thousand Benin artifacts, says it is “committed to facilitating a permanent display of Benin material” but has not explained how this will be facilitated.