With European museums on the back foot following Black Lives Matter protests, Nigerian politicians have the opportunity to shape the fate of the famous Benin Bronzes, writes Barnaby Phillips, an expert on the subject.
A debate which has been heating up for years has reached boiling point. Many in Africa, and elsewhere, say the time has come for the return of cultural treasures looted during colonialism.
The Benin Bronzes – thousands of brass, bronze and ivory sculptures and carvings – have become highly charged symbols of injustice. They are originally from what is now Edo State, in southern Nigeria.
Stolen by British soldiers and sailors in 1897, most are in Western museums and private collections.
The British Museum, which has some 950 Benin Bronzes, has come under particular criticism for its refusal to give them back, but is only one of many museums struggling to justify the legitimacy of its collection.
The Edo kings – the obas- campaigned for decades in vain for the Benin Bronzes to be returned.
But few in the West took seriously African demands for restitution. Western curators argued that Africa lacked the resources to look after its treasures, but also that Western museums had no moral obligation to repair any damage inflicted during decades of colonialism.
That has now changed, and behind the scenes, things have been moving.
Since 2017, the Benin Dialogue Group, which brings together the current oba, the Edo state governor, the Nigerian government and museums in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK (including the British Museum) – has been working on a compromise plan for some Benin Bronzes to return to Nigeria.
They have agreed that Benin City, the capital of Edo state, will host a new Benin Royal Museum.
European museums will take turns to lend (although some may donate) a few hundred Benin Bronzes.
The effect, says the Oba’s Palace, will be a “permanent collection in rotation” in Benin City.
At long last, the Edo people will be reunited with a significant part of their cultural patrimony.
Governor Godwin Obaseki has been instrumental in the negotiations.
He hired the Anglo-Ghanaian architect, Sir David Adjaye, designer of the acclaimed National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
Sir David’s profile and vision – he wants the new museum to be “the jewel in the ring” of a wider cultural reinvigoration of Benin City – has impressed European curators.
Phillip Iheanacho, an old friend to both Mr Obaseki and Sir David, is in charge of fundraising.
He too has wooed the Europeans.
It seems the stars have aligned. A committed Nigerian governor has attracted a famous architect and credible fundraiser, and the Europeans are onboard.