Necessity for the restitution of Africa’s cultural objects


A discussion on African property cannot be complete without reference to the two foremost experiences Africa has had through her contact with other continents, especially Europe and America. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism have greatly affected the free growth and development of Africa in many ramifications, be it culturally, politically, religiously and socially.

Africa has been disturbed, disrupted, invaded and looted by the colonial powers. Empires in Africa were prevented from developing into sovereign nation states with their customs and traditions intact, as other continents. Sadly, imperialist invasion of African cultural heritage derailed the continent from its natural course of traditional origins, growth and development.

With the discovery of America by Christopher Colombus in 1497 and following demands for labour in the mines of Spanish America, the Portuguese in 1510 commenced the sale of African slaves and, for a long time, enjoyed the dominance of the trade on the African coast. It became a venture most profitable at every point to the taskmasters but destructive to the Africans. It corrupted Africans into exchanging human beings for tobacco, furs, mirrors and bottles of gin.

Undoubtedly, the western world gained tremendously from the trade in African slaves at the expense of Africans. The prosperity of America and Western Europe was partly based on capital accumulated from the illicit and condemnable trade, which encouraged, in the western world, a feeling of racial and cultural superiority over Africans. Africa lost all the way through, as the trade resulted in misery, death, destruction and impoverishment of Africa. The slave trade negated political, economic, cultural and social development. It destroyed celebrated existing kingdoms like those of Benin and Congo among others and adversely affected the development of the cultural heritage of our continent.

Apart from the slave trade, Europeans also deployed colonization, as another tool to denigrate Africa. Through certain subversive means, they surreptitiously and forcefully, in some cases, signed treaties with indigenous African rulers to gain access into their hinterlands and henceforth control trade, commerce and illicit exportation of African cultural accumulations. Such treaties were signed by Kings Kosoko of Lagos, Jaja of Opobo and Nana of Itsekiri. When such treaties failed, they employed conquest and forceful annexation, as they did in the great kingdom of Benin in 1897, when Oba Ovoramwen and his kingdom were illegally attacked, subdued and massively looted with thousands of cultural artefacts of great value taken to Europe, most of which now adorn museums all over the western world.

Today, many questions arise as to the impropriety of holding onto these cultural objects taken away from Africa. Why does the western find it so difficult to return these objects to their places of origin? Is it right to forcefully acquire and keep other people’s property just because you love them more than their original owners? Why the continued turning of deaf ears to the requests of original owners for the return of these cultural property? In spite of all international outcry and condemnation of slavery, why has there not been any meaningful compensation and restitution to the descendants of the victims?

Africa has made several pleas and conscious attempts towards the return of these cultural properties but has received poor responses compared to the magnitude of loot. In spite of the pleas and requests to these effect the ex-colonial masters of Africa and looters of her cultural property have been reluctant to render apologies and make amends through compensation and restitution to the people so wickedly desecrated. Africa’s objects of traditional and cultural values illegally taken away should unconditionally be released back and returned by all who hold them to their various countries of origin. African cultural objects are just invaluable, the very reason why museums in Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular, view restitution as the last stage of complete decolonization, not minding the ever present state of neo-colonization.

* Sijuade is of the National Museum, Benin City



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