Facing opposition accusations that the government acted naively, lawmakers in Germany’s ruling parties defended their decision to unconditionally restitute 22 Benin bronzes to Nigeria last year.
A declaration by the outgoing president of Nigeria naming the oba of Benin as the owner of the returning artefacts has raised consternation in Germany that world heritage could disappear into the private royal collection and not be on public view. Today’s parliamentary debate came after a series of press reports calling the return of the bronzes a “fiasco” and “scandal.”
“Is this a scandal?” asked Helge Lindh, a Social Democratic Party member of parliament.“No, on the contrary it is a very healthy lesson in humility for us all. It’s like a test to see if we are serious about restitution, and if so, some of us have clearly failed. If you restitute with conditions you might as well not bother. Restitution with conditions is neo-colonialism.”
The German government, states and museums last year transferred ownership of more than 1,100 Benin bronzes from five museum collections to Nigeria, making Germany the first country to return hundreds of items looted in the British raid on the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.
The fate of the 22 artefacts already repatriated will be closely watched by other countries and museums in negotiations with the Nigerian authorities. In view of the current confusion, Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has postponed the handover of 116 Benin bronzes to a Nigerian delegation that was scheduled to take place on 16 May, according to a BBC report.
Today’s debate in the German parliament was called by the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose representative Marc Jongen accused the government of being “hyper-moral.” He said it had frittered away public money by pledging funds for the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), once envisaged as a showcase for the Benin bronzes. Oba Ewuare II opposes displaying the bronzes at the future EMOWAA, and instead wants to build a royal museum connected to the palace.
“The very least we demand from the government is that they stop delivering more bronzes after the trust has been broken,” Jongen said in parliament. “Other European countries are now thinking very carefully about whether and how much they want to restitute.”
In his presidential declaration of March 23, Muhammadu Buhari named, the oba as the owner of any repatriated artefacts looted from the royal palace and the kingdom. The declaration also gives the oba responsibility for management of the returning bronzes and allows him to keep them in the palace or “any other place that the Oba and the Federal Government of Nigeria may consider secure and safe.”
But the declaration “has not yet entered into force in Nigeria and there are discussions about how this will continue,” Michelle Müntefering, a Social Democratic Party member of parliament, told the Bundestag today. “The last word on this has not been spoken,” she said.
Western museums with holdings of Benin artefacts have been conducting negotiations with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Abba Tijani, the director of the NCMM, said by email that he is in discussions with the Nigerian justice ministry to make some revisions to the presidential declaration.