The Jesus College at Cambridge University, London, has handed over to Nigeria the Okukor, a sculpture that was looted by British troops in 1897, setting a precedent expected to put pressure on other institutions to return stolen artefacts.
The handing over documents were signed on Wednesday during a ceremony at the college to transfer ownership of the Okukor to the Nigerian delegation.
London-based Daily Mail reported that the sculpture of a cockerel was one of hundreds of Benin Bronzes pillaged from the Kingdom of Benin, in Nigeria.
The college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party concluded in 2019 that the cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”.
Shedding more light on the development in a brief telephone interview with THISDAY Wednesday night, Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said the campaign to return the stolen artefacts commenced in 2018. Mohammed said he had travelled to London to engage the Secretary of Arts and Culture over the Ife Bronze, which was stolen from the museum in Jos and was thereafter sold to an art collector in Belgium.
According to the minister, “The art collector in Belgium now sent it to an auctioneer to value it for sale. But because we had reported the case to the International Organisation of Museum (IOM), Interpol, and all authorities, it was intercepted and the British government held it.
“So, we asked them to return it to us. I had to travel to London to push for its return. The auctioneer then said we must pay for it and we refused. Then we also pursued the cockerel, which is the one that they are returning now.
“For the cockerel, I must give credit to our young students at Cambridge University. They put up a very good fight asking for the return of the cockerel. It was these young Nigerian students that started the fight about three years ago and then we joined them, as well as several other Nigerians joined in the campaign to get it back.”
The minister told THISDAY that the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom, had also promised to return Nigeria’s artefacts in its custody.
He said, “Before then, France and Mexico have returned some of our artefacts. I was in US in July and we reached an agreement that the US government would help us intercept and return to Nigeria artefacts that were stolen or smuggled out of Nigeria and hope that before the end of November, the agreement would be signed.
“The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) is also going to the US in a few weeks. The Metropolitan Museum has said it is ready to return some arts to us. So, you can see that the momentum is building. We are also negotiating with the German government for the return of 1,130 looted artefacts.”
Mohammed faulted the insinuation in some quarters that the delayed return of the stolen objects was the result of the country’s inability to make a formal request. He pointed out that the late Ekpo Eyo, who was Director General of the NCMM, had at the IOM made a formal request, which was endorsed then.
“So, what I have done now is that I have written a formal letter asking for the return of all the Ife and Benin Bronzes and all other artefacts that were stolen,” he said.
Mohammed added, “Some of these artefacts date back to 18th century. The return of artefacts is an idea whose time has come and no matter how you resist it, they must be returned.
“We have also received a letter from Switzerland for dialogue to see how they can return our artefacts.
“We thank Jesus College for being a trailblazer and we look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them.”
The Daily Mail noted that Okukor was among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts and the Nigerian government had for years been calling for their return.
“This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact,” Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, Sonita Alleyne, was quoted to have said in a statement ahead of a ceremony to hand over the cockerel to a Nigerian delegation.
The college described the handover as, “The first institutional return of its kind.”
It revealed that Germany had agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums from next year, but the British Museum in London, which holds the largest and most significant collection of them, has made no such commitment.
Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, said in a statement, “We truly hope that others will expedite the return of our artworks, which in many cases are of religious importance to us.”
After being looted, the cockerel was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student. The college announced in 2019 it would return it to Nigeria.
“In recent years, a range of British institutions have been grappling with the cultural legacies of colonialism, particularly the issue of what to do about disputed heritage,” the report stated.
It disclosed that the British Museum and other European museums, along with Nigerian authorities, were involved in a Benin Dialogue Group that aimed at facilitating the construction in Benin City of a new museum to house returned bronzes.
The British Museum had spoken about “opportunities for sharing and displaying” items from its collection in Nigeria, but had never said it would transfer ownership.
The master of a Cambridge University college described the return of a looted bronze cockerel to representatives of Nigeria as a “momentous occasion.”
Students had campaigned for the artefact to be returned, and the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party concluded in 2019, that it “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”.
The Oba of Benin is head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire based in Benin City in modern-day Nigeria.
Speaking further after the handover, Alleyne said, “It’s massively significant. It’s a momentous occasion.”
She said it was the “right thing to do” to return the artefact, which is of “cultural and spiritual significance to the people of Nigeria.”
Alleyne added, “It’s part of their ancestral heritage.”
She said the Nigerian delegation would decide how and when to move the Okukor.
Alleyne disclosed that museums in France, Germany and the Netherlands were also engaged in discussions about returning Benin bronzes.
“We hope they do get to the same position as we do. We think it’s a morally grounded position,” she added.
The statue was removed from display at the college in 2016, and would be given to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments at a ceremony attended by delegates from the commission and Benin.
A Paris museum is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artefacts for one last time before France returns them home to Benin.
The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army in the 19th century from Western Africa.
President Emmanuel Macron had suggested that France needed to right the wrongs of the past while making a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said he could no longer accept “that a large part of many African countries’ cultural heritage lies in France”.
This laid down a roadmap for the controversial return of the royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony, a move that could have potential ramifications across European museums.
The French would have a final glimpse of the objects in the Musee du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from October 26th to 31st.
French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to assuage jitters among European museums, emphasising that this initiative “will not create a legal precedent.”
A French law was passed last year to allow the restitution of the statues to the Republic of Benin, as well as a storied sword to the Army Museum in Senegal.
But Bachelot said the French government’s law was intentionally specific in applying solely to the 26 artefacts.
“It does not establish any general right to restitution and in no way calls into question” the right of French museums to hold on to their heritage.
Yet critics of such moves – including the British Museum, which is in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over a restitution of the Elgin Marbles – argue that it would spark a move that could empty Western museums of their treasured collections.