According to a report in the Nigerian Compass reproduced below, the French Government has returned to the Nigerian Government two artefacts looted during the colonial days. This is good news.
We have in various articles demonstrated the illegality, the illegitimacy and the immorality of detaining the cultural artefacts of others against their consent, whether the objects were looted, stolen or acquired under other dubious circumstances. We have urged Western museums that are full of such objects to endeavour to come to some acceptable arrangements with the owners. However, most Western museums have remained deaf to all reasonable pleas and demands for restitution.
Is the French decision to return two artefacts to Nigeria the beginning of a long process of restitution or simply an act of desperation, intended to buy time and breathing space for keeping the thousands of looted/stolen objects that are in the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée du Quai Branly and other French museums? Only time will tell whether this is an isolated act or part of a conscious policy from a State which prides itself of being the country of birth of human rights. In the meanwhile, we wish to congratulate the French for taking this step soon after returning to Egypt some stolen frescoes. We would like to encourage them to search their museums for looted/stolen objects and return them to the owners. So long have Western States and museums maintained a policy of holding on to stolen/looted cultural artefacts that one may even start believing that to return stolen artefacts to owners is somehow un-Western.
The French have made a gesture, however small it may be. But what about the British, Germans, Americans and others+- that have thousands of looted/stolen African and Asian cultural artefacts? Do they not feel in anyway obliged to return to Nigeria some of the thousands of Nigerian objects in their museums? Take for example, the Benin bronzes which were looted in the infamous bloody military aggression, usually called the Punitive Expedition of 1897. The British stole thousands of the Benin bronzes, massacred the inhabitants of Benin City, executed some nobles, burnt the city, and sent the Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen into exile.
The British kept many of the looted Benin items, but sold a lot to the Germans and others. The British Museum which refuses to state clearly how many of the bronzes it has is alleged to be detaining 700 bronzes whilst the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, has 580 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, has 167 pieces. These museums refuse to return any pieces despite several demands for restitution. They even refuse to respond to requests by the Oba of Benin and other Nigerian bodies for restitution. On the other hand, they constantly proclaim that there has been no demand for restitution. Their lawyers could tell them that there is no rule in International Law or Municipal Law preventing a holder of a looted/stolen item from returning it to the owner even if there has been no demand for restitution.
The continued detention of the cultural artefacts of the African and Asian peoples constitutes a permanent and constant violation of the human rights of peoples to develop their culture and to transmit to subsequent generations their knowledge and culture. How can those who constantly proclaim the need to observe human rights and the various international conventions keep permanently the cultural objects of others? Surely, they are aware that they are thus preventing others from developing their culture whilst at the same time proclaiming the importance of cultural development.
Nigeria, Egypt, China and others should ensure that the Cairo Conference in April sends a clear message to those detaining the cultural objects of others that the time has come to adopt more serious measures to solve this problem which will not go away as long as the African and Asian peoples have not recovered the cultural objects stolen/looted in the heyday of Western imperialism. Contemporary Westerners cannot condemn colonialism and at the same time refuse to return any of the objects that symbolize the subjugation and oppression of peoples.