The Demand for Repatriation of African Artefacts on the Rise.
When British Colonial Forces attacked the palace of the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin State in south Nigeria in 1897, they ransacked and looted precious works of art known as the Benin Bronzes worth $4.7 million at that time.
The Benin Bronzes— a range of 16th-century artefacts including sculptural pieces, brass plaques, ivory leopard statues, ornate staffs, carved elephant tusks, and wooden heads—are considered Africa’s most precious collection of art that is yet to be returned despite the growing clamour for reparations of the continent’s stolen artefacts.
This collection comprises a collection of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments that are still displayed at British Museums earning the country hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
For over a century, European museums have been resisting to initiate restitution of African heritage materials stolen during colonial rule, either under the pretext of the lack of relevant laws or the so-called lack of capacity of the African countries to take care of them.
It is estimated that between 80 and 90 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s ancient cultural heritage is held outside the continent as a result of conquest, plunder, theft, and colonisation, as well as legitimate trade and exchange.
Juma Ondeng, a former National Museums of Kenya (NMK) curator at Kitale Museum—who has been leading the International Inventories Programme (IIP), said the biggest challenge for most African countries is that they don’t have regulations on repatriation.
Mr Ondeng says that the IIP — funded by the Goethe Institute and working with Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK and other partners in Germany and France — has so far collected data from 32,501 objects of Kenyan origin held by 30 institutions in seven countries
Besides the UK, it is estimated that France alone holds more than 90,000 African artefacts in various museums. Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and virtually all African countries that were colonized have at various times demanded unconditional repatriations of their artefacts.
After French President Emmanuel Macron took power in 2017, promised to initiate the repatriation of African cultural heritage items unjustly held “prisoner” by French museums:
Kenya— just like other African countries–has been pushing for the return of stolen cultural artefacts by the Western powers during colonial times, but with little success.
But the push is bearing some fruits, albeit drudgingly. Recently, Oxford University had to “bribe” the Maasai in Narok with 98 cows over their stolen artefacts that have been displayed at Pitt Rivers Museum for 138 years.
In July, The Illinois State Museum returned 37 wooden memorial statues, known as Vigango, to the NMK for repatriation to Mijikenda communities.
These statues (or grave markers) are revered as sacred cultural artefacts and are thought to house the spirits of deceased male elders who have passed away.
Dr Brooke Morgan, curator of anthropology at the Museum, while returning Vigangos said that the items are sacred and inalienable from the people who created them,
“Separating Vigango from their rightful owners harms the spiritual well-being of the whole community,” he said. But that is not what Europe believes.
Kenya is not alone. For instance, the wooden carving statue representing the Bangwa Queen of Cameroon—which represents the power and health of the Bangwa people—was traced to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin.
It was looted around 1899 before the territory was colonized. It ended up in and was then bought by an art collector in 1926.
In 2005, Ethiopia negotiated for the return of its 1,700-year-old Obelisk, a religious granite post that was returned after 68 years in Italy. It was looted by the troops of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
From East Africa, the British are holding hundreds of historical and cultural items such as the Baganda Royal Drums, and the cloaks worn by Marakwet paramount chief Chemtut when he visited London in the 1960s at the invitation of English Queen Elizabeth II.
In January 2021, Heritage activist Mwazulu Diyabanza, from the Democratic of Congo captured international headlines when he went on a grabbing spree of African artefacts in European museums that were stolen from former colonies.
Diyabanza, 41, has always defended himself on the basis that his actions cannot be considered theft because the objects were already stolen property. He represents millions of Africans who are seeking restitution of cultural artefacts stolen decades ago
He has faced a series of fines a total bill of $9,771, but he maintains that he is driven by frustration with stringent ancient laws that go back to the 16th century in most European countries that consider cultural heritage materials stolen from Africa as “inalienable”.
According to Mr Ondeng, the biggest obstacles to repatriation are that European countries consider these items national assets with value attached to them and that museums use them as collateral to secure funds for their operations.
It is emerging that Items held in national museums in Europe are subject to parliamentary approval, while those held by private museums are flexible such as the Pitt Rivers Museum which is currently revisiting its repatriation policy.
In Kenya, the Pokomo community from the Coast has petitioned the British government for the return of the unique Pokomo drum known as Ngach, which was stolen by British soldiers during the Second World War.
The Bukusu community from Bungoma County in western Kenya have also petitioned for the return of their cultural materials that were looted by British soldiers in 1895 during the Lumboka expedition.
The Luo traditional Ogut Tigo (beaded cap) worn by Kenyan politicians Jomo Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and Ronald Ngala during the Independence constitutional negotiations at Lancaster, as a symbol of nationalism, is also in their museums.
The stuffed bodies of the two man-eaters of Tsavo are on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. These were two infamous lions from Tsavo in Kenya that killed several railway workers on the British Kenya-Uganda track at the end of the 19th century.
Purity Kiura, a Heritage Experts says that most museums abroad have been advocating for the loaning of the artefacts because they hold international collections and it would be a blow for them to repatriate most of the objects.
Some European museums have turned to long-term loans of these objects to African nations in an effort to quell the mounting call for their return, but in practise they are only required to keep them safe and display them; they are not permitted to claim ownership.
Individual collectors have been giving their collections to museums in large numbers. They are aware that no laws exist to compel museums to return collections, and the majority of them have imposed conditions on museums, such as requesting that these collections be included in permanent exhibitions.