The art of the kingdom of Benin and the burden of proof

“Those things that were removed were chapters of our history book,” says Prince Edun Akenzua, reacting to the British Museum on their reluctance to release Benin objects.

To have the British Museum return the 800 pieces of priceless artefacts would be fantastic – parts of the puzzles of the years gone by can be closer to being solved.

The BM is not in dispute about the true owner of the Benin bronzes, the display are in the open for all visitors from around the world to see at the British Museum however it seems there are issues within Nigeria itself about the return of these massive part of the history to the place they were looted taken from.

Given Benin is now part of Nigeria, these are National Treasures that would require Nigeria government involvement before the release.

The British Museum is in no hurry to return the Benin objects as is obvious from the BBC article:

The British Museum says it has not recently received any new official requests for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.”

So how realistic is Prince Edun Akenzua efforts to get the BM to listen and do the needful? An interesting point from the article states one of the obvious problems in todays’ Nigeria that the objects if returned to the country are likely to ‘crawl’ out and disappeared without a trace.

Also, there were issues of preservation the ‘right’ way.

The objects, when returned to Nigeria would mean being closer to the people whose stories were engraved in those ivories, bronzes, woods, stones etc.

Prince Edun Akenzua is a royal family, a brother to the sitting Oba – his hard work on this is enduring however,  as a Nigerian, I’d love to see these National Treasures have adequate backings of Nigeria government whereby funding to preserve the objects can be guaranteed.

Nigeria government full support could also ensure that no one sitting Oba would claim ownership of the returned arts and it will mean Nigerians can have access to view and appreciate our past history even if we have to pay access fees.

Why is British Museum doubting Benin Oba’s ability to take proper care of the artefacts?

A lot has happened over the last one hundred years that has influenced the way Nigerians see the world around them today. Aftermaths of the British punitive expedition on Benin in 1897 did not just take the physical objects away from the people, it also made these amazing works foreign to us.

To many Nigerians today, these artefacts were seeing as idols rendering any appreciation for history in any form of arts ‘small god’ worshiping.

Prophet Chris Okafor, two years ago proclaimed Nigeria challenges including Boko Haram should be blamed on FECTAC 77 –  this was Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, second of its kind that was hosted in Lagos for the purpose of coming together to appreciate Black culture. This was supposedly a big event that involved participants from 50 countries around the world.

How do we get people to the stage where we all understand that learning about the past is different from idol worshiping?

Perhaps this is the first task to tackle.

Categories: A Yoruba Monarch, Africa, Nigeria

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. “Haters are gonna hate”, but here goes…
    FK, I don’t have a problem with the Benin Kingdom’s artefacts being on display in London.

    My reasons are as follows.
    1) Security, where they currently are ie the British Museum they are safe and guarded. Their are systems in place to catch potential thieves. The staff take pride in their work, and are less likely to steal the items.
    2) Unstable landscape, until the Boko Haram thing emerged, I would never have imagined Nigeria to be as rickety and flimsy as other African states, I too believed the misplaced propaganda put out by the government. You know the Joseph Kony of Uganda and his Lord’s Resistance Army, that was causing mayhem on Northern Uganda for decades. You have seen how IS (Islamic State)in Mosul in Iraq are destroying the country’s heritage. It’s not so far to see that Boko Haram could do the same thing should they ever get down to Benin. They don’t even need to do that, you pointed out a Mr Okafor, is blaming the misfortunes of the country on an arts festival. So there are (Christian) spoilers at close quarters. So there is room for plunder and or destruction from ‘within’.
    3) Many Nigerians don’t care for such things, large tracts of Northern Nigeria are now Muslim, and they were determined to wipe out any trace of their non-Muslim past, so any artefact, statue, carving etc was burnt or destroyed, as if to say there was no ‘life before the coming of Islam’ (much like IS in Iraq). If they are not ready to tolerate the acknowledgement of their own home truths, do you think they are happy to accept from others? I think not. Nigeria is becoming more extreme and intolerant with it’s ‘observance of religion’.
    Others may view it as an uncomfortable reminder of their pre-colonial past. In fact the Binis were more advanced than most, so many would not have built up a society as sophisticated as the Benin Kingdom. Their descendants would rather overlook that aspect of their history.
    4) Archeology is not well organised or funded in Nigeria, so returning the items in question will not be the case of sending them to a better home, but to at best an insecure future, at worst destruction at the hands of Nigerians.
    5) Those artefacts are in a secure location, and are well catered for, any maintenance they have access to technology and professional expertise. I think that if the British Museum and the Benin royal family could enter into some sort of financial arrangement, that a percentage of the receipts could be sent to them. Or the British Museum could pay the money to the Nigerian government and then (the Nigerian government and Benin royal family can come to some sort of agreement on how to divide up the money).
    6) With the historical treasures being kept in London, they are on display to a wider audience and can serve to show the world what ancient Nigeria was capable of. By repatriating them to Benin City, with all due respect not many world visitors go there, (even Lagos, doesn’t get the number of visitors that London does). I believe a greater good can be served by having them on permanent / long-term display in London.
    7) This is not a personal slight against Nigeria, Greece a European country has been campaigning for decades to have the Elgin marbles returned to Greece. The country is European and knows how to preserve it’s antiquities, but still they have not succeeded. However, with the economic crisis that has befallen the country, they have now gone quiet on that issue – I guess due to cash constraints. This issue should not be treated as such, the government acknowledges who the owners are.

    As an aside, I only came to know of these things at secondary school out of school hours. I would go to the library and read about Africa’s kingdoms. I saw these really cool, carvings I then discovered they came from the Benin Kingdom (in today’s Nigeria). I’ve never actually seen them, there is no need for me to do that. For me it was useful to know that black people were not living like savages in the wilds, before the coming of the European. This was part of the teasing I got at school, by my European class mates. I then read more and found out about the Yoruba Kingdoms and the Hausa-Fulani emirate, (nothing exceptional occured in the East, they have the tiny Igbo-Ukwu – but that doesn’t compare) that are now part of what is today’s Nigeria.

    Well FK, that’s my two cents. So please leave the pieces in London for safe-keeping.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you jco – I could not have expressed it any better. We do need to talk about issues like these to raise awareness.

      See even if the north is stable, the British Museum is not going to release these objects to the Benin Oba, however, I just don’t see why people who knew the significance of this do not work together from within so that eventually, when there’s stability some items can be released.

      It is important for us that sooner rather than later some of these artefact are released – many older people who are hard core religious junkies in Nigeria today heard about these artefacts but have never set eyes on them to fully appreciate what it once was – hence the objects were deemed ‘idols’ – many people who followed suits just repeat the words of the preachers

      My worries are not even about the north Muslim, see in Yoruba itself where we are predominantly Christian, we have been off the ‘tangent’ for so long that the disconnection between the people and the ancestor is vast.

      Undoubtedly these items are secure in the BM and is available to the wider world – would be fantastic if Nigerians can have similar access – not now but discussion must continue, I suppose.


      • I agree it is a task Nigeria can work towards. Thank you for not shooting me down for offering a contrary opinion.

        In Latin America, the indigenous people of the Andes who despite being ‘Christian’ retain their link with the pre-Columbian past, and maintain many of the rituals.

        As you well know “Candomble” of Brazil (the Afro-Brazilian religion) is recognised as an official religion and incorporates both African and Christian elements, there is no issue there. Maybe there is a leaf that Africa can take out of the Latin American experience, rather than the experience of intolerance and hatred from the Middle East

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thats a good one “…rather than the experience of intolerance and hatred from the Middle East”

          Actually, I think Nigeria is doing a bit of that now especially with Cuba.

          I actually only learnt about the Afro-Brazillian religion recently from a Brazillian lady who is Catholic and talked fondly of all of the gods with paintings on batik – it was enlightening.

          Hey, I tend not to be too personal with issues so do appreciate reading your different views on this – imagine a world where we all nod along on every issue or insecure that we are quiet on issues we have differing opinion on?


  2. Some years ago an artifact of Esu was found but it wasn’t given to Nigeria on the contrary, it made its way to the US to be displayed in one of Texas museums. Idol worship really? What is Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny….I could go on,. They will always continue and steal from us and tell us our culture has no value, no worth but some how when it’s in the hands of others its value is priceless and we just don’t know how to properly care for it……RUBBISH!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It runs deep, this is one of the reasons we have religious centres in every corner of our streets today because those priceless artefacts to many is a symbol of ‘backwardness’ the gods we once worshiped when we didn’t know any better – citizens are not taught to see these arts as part of our history that were taken away.
      Well, as is evidenced from our lifestyle today, Nigeria spends millions of naira on pilgrimage every year to show how much religious we are, and less so the culture that binds us.


  3. Interesting, this. It appears that the Elgin Marbles aren’t just confined to UK/Greece (or Egypt, I forgot where they were from originally). Oh, those British colonials.

    Liked by 1 person

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