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Recovering Nigeria's Terracotta

It is now five months since the issue of looted African terracotta was raised in connection with the exhibition entitled “African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage”, at the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva and brought to the attention of all concerned. (1) A group of renowned scholars alleged that many of the objects on display had been looted from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. It appeared at that time that some consideration would be given to the matter by those responsible for the preservation and protection of Nigerian cultural heritage. To this day, there has not been any public information, directly or indirectly, that action has been taken or is contemplated. It could well be that one has missed relevant information in the mass media.

This is a matter on which silence is not an available option: either the terracotta on exhibition is looted or it is not. One way or other, the public must be informed about Nigeria’s position. Information from the Nigerian authorities would be helpful in assisting the public to understand the underlying issues and the interests of African States in combating illicit traffic in cultural objects.
In the meanwhile, an article on Nigerian terracotta in the popular German magazine Der Spiegel, gives the impression that Nigerians are not interested in their terracotta which has been left to German and Austrian scholars who, through good relations with a local chief, have access to an area where even Nigerian police authorities dare not venture. (2) However, we know from reliable Nigerian sources that this is not the case and that the Spiegel article is misleading. But so far the report has not been rejected or corrected. The impression created that Nigeria is not properly organized to protect its cultural artefacts from predatory Westerners and their helpers thus still remains.

Is this a case where one language is used when dealing with African collaborators but for the general public, an entirely different language is used which creates different, often misleading, impressions? If we look at the Spiegel article, we could think only the Germans and Austrians were interested in Nok culture and the puzzles it presents. Nigerians are totally absent from the article. Not even a mention of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments can be found. Moreover, the Nigerian Police is presented as not having the right or ability to visit the area which is described as being under the tight control of a local potentate on friendly terms with the Europeans.

Do we have here the familiar pattern where Africans lead Europeans to the source of the river or the mountain and are perhaps materially compensated for their efforts? But who turns out to be the discoverer of the river or the mountain? Whose name is forever linked to the discovery? Recognition in scientific publications is not enough. How many people read such publications? Unless Africans insist energetically, loudly and openly for equal general public recognition in such enterprises, this game will go on forever. Even if such projects were financed by European entities this should not lead to their complete control over the projects and the dissemination of information thereon.

In the context of the present dispute over looted Nigerian terracotta, we recall the 2002 case of the Nigerian Nok terracotta which were looted and eventually turned up at the Musée de Quai Branly, Paris. The French had bought the three Nok and Sokoto terracotta knowing fully well that they must have been looted and illegally exported from Nigeria since the objects were on the Red List of International Council of Museums (ICOM).(3) The intervention of ICOM was necessary to preserve  Nigeria’s ownership of the terracotta. The arrangement between Nigeria and France to loan the artefacts for a renewable period of 25 years raised doubts and scepticism about the will to enforce the observance of laws prohibiting illicit traffic in artefacts. (4) Moreover, the text of the curious agreement does not appear to have been published.
Spirit vessel Mbirhlen’nda, Ga’anda, Nigeria, now in Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, Switzerland.

How would the lack of vigorous public reaction by Nigerian authorities to the display of alleged looted Nigerian terra cotta be interpreted?

The scholars who protested against the exhibition of looted objects in Geneva would probably feel that their identification of the stolen artefacts is not very important for the Nigerian authorities who do not intend to act on their research and information. They may thus feel discouraged from pursuing in future such active identification of stolen/looted artefacts.

Looters of the artefacts could understand that they may continue with their activities so long as they are not caught red-handed with the objects since the Nigerian authorities will not pursue investigations on the basis of the objects successfully deposited in Switzerland and other Western countries. Museums in those States may well be reinforced in their mendacious and self-serving propaganda that they are rendering a service to art and humankind by purchasing those objects. They persistently refuse to acknowledge that by offering a lucrative market for looted objects they maintain and sustain, directly or indirectly, illegal traffic in cultural objects. (5)

The Nigerian public could well understand that even though Nigeria has laws against looting of cultural artefacts, there is no intention on the part of the authorities to deprive anyone of earnings acquired from the illicit trade. (6)

Members of the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM may gain the impression that despite all statements and declarations to the contrary, Nigeria’s commitment to the fight against illicit traffic in artefacts is only lip-service with no serious intention to achieve effective implementation of the various laws and regulations. Some may argue that actions speak louder than words. Professor Shyllon has written that:

“It is a matter of surprise indeed that to date Nigeria which at various
times served on the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of
Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of
Illicit Appropriation (she was in fact a foundation member of the Committee)
has never sought the good offices of the Committee on the matter.”(7)

The general public in the rest of the world may well conclude that the Nigerian authorities are not very keen to seek the return of looted artefacts. Usually, it is very difficult to know where looted objects are and who is in possession. It is seldom that we have many such objects displayed in an exhibition and in its catalogue. A lack of interest or passivity must necessarily discourage those interested in assisting in more complicated situations. As has been amply demonstrated in public opinions polls, for example in Great Britain, the general public is in favour of returning looted objects or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. (8) Interested States must encourage or at least, not discourage this sympathetic public.

In his excellent article on the Benin invasion by Britain, Prof. Akin Oyebode mentioned Zik’s reference to the “manifest destiny” of Nigeria. (9) This was a phrase used often in the days preceding and following Independence. In those days, the average school pupil understood that given its size, resources, both human and natural, that great country was destined to play an important role on our continent and thus contribute to shaping the world and the future of the African peoples. But this manifest destiny would not be fulfilled if those in charge of the administration and governance of the country do not create the conditions propitious for the fulfilment of this potential.

‘Manifest destiny’ is a potentiality and not inevitability. It is a potentiality that must be cultivated and nurtured. How is Nigeria to play its role, manifest or otherwise, if its rich cultural heritage is seen to be open to pray by all and no attempts are made to convey the message that its cultural heritage is not up for grabs by predators? A great nation with a rich and old cultural heritage that does not care about protection and preservation? Failure to demonstrate a resolve to preserve cultural heritage has wider implications. Not only does such a position lead to an enormous loss of prestige but also to great financial losses in so far as these objects are worth millions. It is also likely that failure or unwillingness to protect cultural heritage may be considered a symptom of general failure to protect national interests in other areas.

The will and resolve to protect Nigerian cultural heritage in particular and Nigerian interests generally, must be emphasized and demonstrated in all cases in order to imprint the message on the minds of all: Nigeria’s cultural heritage belongs to Nigeria and it is intended to keep it that way.
Kwame Opoku. 1 October, 2009.

Nok Terra Cotta Acquired Illegally by France. Seated person, 500 BC - 500 AD. Quai Branly, depot of Louvre, inv. No. 70. 1998. 11. One of the three looted items from Nigeria now in Paris.

1. Eric Huysecom, « Le pillage de l’histoire africaine » www.letemps. http://groups.google.com K. Opoku, “Let others loot for you”, www.modernghana  http://www.barbier-mueller.ch, http://www.swissinfo.ch Kwame Opoku “Is Africa closer to Oceania than to Europe?” http://www.modernghana.com See also Patrick J. Darling, “The Rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities”, http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk

2. “German Archaeologists Labor to Solve Mystery of the Nok” http://www.spiegel.de The article has also been reprinted in the Nigerian paper, Guardian, Tuesday, September 01, 2009“German archaeologists revisit the mystery of Nok”, http://www.ngrguardiannews.com

3. K. Opoku, “Would Western Museums Return Looted Objects if Nigeria and other African States were governed by Angels? http://www.modernghana.com

4. Folarin Shyllon, “Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from Nigeria - An unrighteous Conclusion.”

This presentation recounted the controversy over the three illegally exported Nok and Sokoto objects originating from Nigeria which landed in an exhibition at the Louvre organized in anticipation of the new Quai Branly Museum. Despite the fact that these objects were on the Red List posted on ICOM’s website, the French government negotiated their acquisition from a Belgian art dealer with the proviso that an agreement from the Nigerian government would be required before the actual purchase. President Chirac is reported to have personally sought and obtained the approval for the purchase of the Noks from President Obasanjo of Nigeria despite the strong opposition of the top echelon of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments on the grounds that the objects were illegally exported from Nigeria and therefore remained the legal cultural property of Nigeria. In the end a wholly unsatisfactory and unrighteous arrangement was entered into between Nigeria and France which consisted of France’s recognition of Nigeria’s ownership of the three Nok and Sokoto objects deposited with the Musée du Quai Branly, to be exhibited with the museum’s permanent collection for the exceptionally long period of twenty-five years (renewable).

UNESCO Regional Workshop on the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, Cape Town, South Africa 27-30 September 2004

5. Colin Renfrew, a leading British archaeologist, has this to say on the role of Western museums in the illicit trade in artefacts:
“The world's archaeological resource, which through the practice of archaeology is our principal source of knowledge about the early human past, is being destroyed at a formidable and increasing rate. It is destroyed by looters in order to serve the lucrative market in illicit artefacts through which private collectors and alas, some of the major museums of the world, fulfil their desire to accumulate antiquities. Such unprovenanced antiquities, ripped from their archaeological context without record (and without any hope of publication), can tell us little that is new. The opportunity is thereby lost for them to add to our understanding of the past history and prehistory of the regions from which they come, or to our perception of the early development of human society.” Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, Duckworth, London, 2006, p.9.

6. National Commission For Museums and Monuments Act, Chapter 242, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 www.nigeria-law

7. Folarin Shyllon, “Museums and Universal Heritage: Right of Return and Right of Access”, text of a Lecture delivered to mark the International Museum Day at the Women Development Centre, Abuja on 18 May 2007.http://list.africom.museum

African States have indeed not made great use of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation). The Committee was set up in 1978 at the 20th Session of the UNESCO General Conference largely at their instigation. The committee provides a framework for negotiating the return of the cultural objects stolen during the colonial days as well as those looted in post-colonial times. The current report of the committee at its 15th session contains very interesting information on restitution. Tanzania is the only African State having presently a case before the Committee. The Republic of Tanzania has submitted a request to the Committee in 2006, for the return of a ritual Makonde mask stolen from the National Museum and now held in the territory of the Swiss Confederation at the Barbier-Mueller Museum. The Swiss authorities are in regular contact with the owner of the museum where the mask is held. http://portal.unesco.org/culture

8. Aida Edemariam, “How G2's Parthenon marbles poll went global”, http://www.elginism.com)

9. Akin Oyebode: “It is self-evident that Nigeria is a most important actor on the African continent if not, in fact, the world. I am on record as having stated that as Nigeria goes, so does the rest of Africa. Indeed, Nigeria possesses tremendous hope and promise which must not continue to be betrayed but must be fulfilled in the interest of the Black race. What Azikiwe had called our manifest destiny must be realized soonest in order to ensure that we remain a beacon to the African and Black worlds. Since foreign policy is, to a large extent, a continuation of domestic policies, Nigeria must endeavour to put its house in order and get its act together if it wishes to be taken seriously by the rest of the world.” “The 1892 British-Benin Treaty: Legal and Diplomatic Implications for Contemporary Nigeria.”, http://www.edo-nation.net/

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