Commemorative head of a king (Kingdom of Benin, dated 17th-18th Century, made of copper alloy), one of the African artworks exhibited in the Bode Museum under the theme “Beyond Compare”, December 2018. Thousands of African artworks are in the possession of European museums, most of which were taken illegally from the continent during the era of colonialism/ Photo: Femi Awoniyi

Nigeria, Germany to sign agreement for return of Benin bronzes in Berlin

An agreement between the governments of Germany and Nigeria on the return of the Benin artefacts in German museums to Nigeria will be signed on Friday in Berlin.

The historic signing of the ‘Joint Declaration on the Return of the Benin Bronzes and Bilateral Museum Cooperation between Germany and Nigeria’ is the culmination of years of agitation for the return of the cultural goods – famous Benin bronze heads and other artefacts – that were pillaged from the royal palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 during a punitive expedition of the British Army.

The Nigerian delegation to the event, holding at the Federal Foreign Office, includes Information and Culture Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Zubairu Dada, Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany, Alhaji Yusuf Tuggar, and Professor Abba Tijani Isa, Director General of the Nigeria Commission for Museums and Monuments. The German government will be represented, among others, by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, and Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth.

After Germany announced that it would return its collection of the world-famous artefacts early last year, a Nigerian delegation, led by Alhaji Lai Mohammed, visited Berlin in July to conduct negotiations with their German counterparts. Other members of the high-powered delegation from Nigeria were Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, Professor Isa, and the Benin Crown Prince, HRH Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare.

It was at the meeting of the Nigerian delegation with German officials that a firm commitment was made by Berlin on the return of the artefacts.

In October, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Nigeria and Germany in Abuja on the repatriation of the about 1,130 pieces of artefact.

“The German Government and the German people have taken a bold step by agreeing to voluntarily, without too much coercion on the part of Nigeria, to return these artefacts. Because what the return of the artefacts will do is that it’s going to really cement further relationship between Nigeria and Germany. Culture today has become one of the effective tools for soft diplomacy,” Culture Minister Mohammed said at the event, at which a visiting German delegation, led by the Director General for Culture and Communication of the German Federal Foreign Office, Dr Andreas Gorgen, participated.

In his remarks, Gorgen said the release of the artefacts was part of a cultural policy that would contribute to healing the wound inflicted by the looting of the artefacts from Nigeria and to establishing new relationship between Germany and Nigeria.

In a related development, the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has announced that it would return artefacts taken from three African nations during the German colonial era.

The Foundation, which manages the city’s various museums, said on Monday it had begun negotiations to return the artefacts to Namibia, Tanzania and Cameroon.

Among the artefacts is a goddess statue, known as Ngonnso’, which will be returned to the kingdom of Nso’ in northwestern Cameroon.

“Bring Back Ngonnso,” a civil society initiative, has been campaigning for the statue’s return for years, as the Nso people say they have suffered numerous calamities since the statue was stolen. “The Ngonnso’ has a central role for the Nso’, as she is considered a mother deity,” the foundation said in a statement.

Femi Awoniyi

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