The Benin Bronzes restitution saga has taken a new turn after the Nigerian government has officially recognised the Oba of Benin (Oba Ewuare II) as the owner and custodian of the artefacts looted in the late 19th century. The announcement came in the form of a Presidential Declaration, released through the official gazette.
The official notice—entitled “Notice of Presidential Declaration on the Recognition of Ownership and an Order Vesting Custody and Management of Repatriated Looted Benin Artefacts in the Oba of Benin”—was issued on 23 March.
“[According to the proposed] law, all artefacts must be delivered to the Oba of Benin who exercises the rights of original owner. This covers the ones already repatriated and those yet to be repatriated,” a report on the Arise news website says. The Oba, the current traditional ruler of Benin, wants the bronzes to be held by his family in a royal museum or palace.
Barnaby Phillips, the author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (2021), tells The Art Newspaper: “For many Edo people, it is right and proper that such objects go back to the Oba as they were looted from his great-great-grandfather. It has however caused confusion amongst many European museums who are negotiating deals with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)—they are now asking, who is our partner? It also blindsided the NCMM.”
The so-called Benin bronzes have become a touchstone to test European museums’ readiness to restitute heritage looted from Africa in the colonial era. After the violent 1897 plunder and devastation of the Royal Palace of Benin by British troops, at least 3,000 artefacts were dispersed internationally. The Benin Kingdom was thereafter incorporated into the British protectorate of Nigeria, which became the independent Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1960.
The latest development complicates matters for Western institutions aiming to restitute Benin Bronzes. The NCMM is responsible for coordinating efforts with European museums. For instance, the German government last year transferred ownership of 1,117 Benin bronzes from five German museum collections to Nigeria and the care of the NCMM.
Crucially, Godwin Obaseki, the local Edo State governor, has backed the Edo Museum of West African Art to house the Benin Bronzes which is due to open in stages from 2024. The Edo Museum is overseen by the Emowaa trust, a Nigerian non-profit organisation. We reported earlier this month that the prospect of hundreds of looted treasures returning to Nigeria has given impetus to an array of museum constructions plans. The museum had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.