The Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, and Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, may be heading for a showdown over the impending return of looted artefacts from the Benin Palace in 1897 during Benin Invasion by the British.
They have been talks between the Edo State Government, Oba of Benin and European authorities over the return of these artefacts scattered across museums in Europe since 2010 and the dialogue has yielded positive results before this rift engulfed.
Oba Ewuare II had mandated the Benin Dialogue Group through the Oba Ewuare Foundation in 2010 to oversee the repatriation process and the building of the Benin Royal Museum.
However, the Edo State Government led by Governor Godwin Obaseki initiated The Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) project with the same objectives and stakeholders in the Benin Royal Museum project but introduced a private trust., “The Legacy Restoration Trust” which comprises of Phillip Ihenacho, (alleged to be Obaseki’s business partner in Afrinvest), Victor Ehikhamenor, Enotie Ogbebor, Eric Idiahi and Babatunde Adebiyi as trustees with renowned British Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye as architectural consultant.
The Edo Museum of West African Arts is proposed to be sited opposite the Oba’s Palace at Adesogbe road, Benin City.
It is alleged that the “Legacy Restoration Trust” has been parading itself as the custodian of these artefacts which the Oba of Benin frowns at.
Oba Ewuare II is said not be averse to where the museum should be built but believes entrusting the artefacts to a private trust would amount to private appropriation of the cultural heritage of his kingdom.
In a terse statement released in May by the Palace Press Secretary, Frank Irabor, the Oba of Benin denounced the activities of the Legacy Restoration Trust and the EMOWAA project, reechoing his Benin Royal Museum idea. The statement said, the Oba of Benin or his duly authorised representative or body corporate, is, therefore, the only person that can have any dealings with any foreign donours or missions or any international institution over the artefacts.
Following that statement, the Secretary to the State Government had conversations with the palace secretary but the meeting ended in a deadlock with both parties hugging their mutually exclusive positions.
Already, the German government is committed to an initial donation of 4.5 million Euros to the Edo Museum of West African Arts and Cultural District projected to be built in Benin City.
This was revealed in a statement on Wednesday by Foreign Minister Maas, which spoke eloquently about the desire of Germany to return the artefacts in its custody and pay adequate reparation.
The rift took a new dimension yesterday when the Oba of Benin called for an emergency meeting whom many perceive to be due to the artifact issue
While the motive of the emergency remains sketchy, the crown prince and son of the Oba Ewuare II, Okoro Ezelekhae Ewuare II was spotted with a Nigerian delegation meeting with with German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Monika Grutters, and Foreign Minister, Mr. Heiko Maas, German for the repatriation of the artefacts that consisted Governor Godwin Obaseki, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed in Germany.
The Crown prince, went on to post on his Instagram page “The Bottom line is to have our artefacts returned from Germany to our Father, our people and Nigeria. To do this, we must be unified”
At the meeting, The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the return should be whole rather than substantial on the heel of remarks by Grutters that the European nation was ready to make “substantial return” of the 1,130 looted artefacts.
He added that the issue of provenance, which has to do with the place of origin of the artefacts, should not be allowed to unduly delay the repatriation of the artworks.
“That they are known as Benin Bronzes is already a confirmation of their source of origin (which is Benin),” Mohammed said.
At a separate meeting with Maas, the minister reiterated that no conditions should be attached to the return of the artefacts.
He stressed the need for the parties to commit to definite timelines for the return of the artefacts, in addition to concluding all negotiations in a very short term.
He said the discussions between Nigeria and Germany on the return of the artworks were not the end of an era but rather the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between both countries.
He thanked Germany for taking the lead
in the global efforts to repatriate all artefacts looted from Nigeria and the African continent.
“We see Germany as a leader in the efforts to take practical steps to repatriate our stolen artefacts, and we hope Germany will sustain that lead,” he said Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, who was also on the Nigerian delegation said a “transformational” museum was being built-in Benin City to house the artefacts upon their return, as part of a new cultural district in the city.
He said he was attending the talks to demonstrate the strong partnership involving the federal government, the (Benin) royal family and the people of Edo State.
On his part, the Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, Mr. Yusuf Tuggar, said the issue of the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes should be seen as an opportunity to take the cooperation between Nigeria and Germany to a greater height.
He commended Germany for taking the lead in the repatriation process.
Earlier, the German Minister of State for Culture, Prof. Grutters, had said: “The way we deal with the issue of Benin Bronzes is important to addressing our colonial past,” describing the issues as “an important personal concern.”
She assured the Nigerian delegation that the 1,130 artefacts would be returned to Nigeria from next year.
She stated that the fact that Germany had twice sent delegations to Nigeria for talks over the planned repatriation indicated that both sides had moved beyond mere talks, adding that all the museums in Germany stockpiling Benin Bronzes have agreed to cooperate.
They delegates were later taken on a guided tour of the Humboldt-Forum, a royal palace-turned-museum in the heart of Berlin that houses art works from around the world.
According to THISDAY newspaper, Obaseki had told them that he was working on a tripartite arrangement, involving the federal and state governments, the Oba of Benin and a private trust that would manage the artefacts on behalf of the palace and the people while accusing a palace chief, Elema Oseni for misinforming the revered Oba about his plans and he would straighten out things with the monarch on his return from Germany.