Homecoming Delayed President Buhari Stalls the Return of Looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The planned return of 116 Benin artefacts to Nigeria by the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has been postponed over a gazette signed by President Muhammadu Buhari giving the Oba of Benin authority over the bronzes.

The University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s plan to return 116 stolen artefacts on 16 May to Nigeria has been stalled following the circulation of a presidential gazette signed by President Muhammadu Buhari on 28 March 2023. On Friday, 29 July 2022, Cambridge had announced that it was returning the artefacts following a formal claim by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) headed by Abba Isa Tijani. The NCMM sent these claims on 07 January 2022, asking for all artefacts known or presumed to be taken during the 1897 Benin Expedition to be returned to Nigeria.

However, a government Notice No. 25 in the Federal Republic of Nigeria Official Gazette No. 57, Volume 110 which is dated 28 March 2023 titled: ‘Notice of Presidential Declaration – on the Recognition of Ownership, and an order vesting custody and Management of Repatriated looted Benin Artefacts in the Oba of Benin kingdom’ has affected this process. The gazette ordered that the ‘ownership of artefacts looted from the ancient palace of the Oba and other parts of Benin Kingdom be and is vested in the Oba.’

The document instructed that the repatriated artefacts should be kept within the palace, other locations within Benin City, or other places that the Oba and the government consider safe. It further ordered that the ‘Oba shall be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated artefacts are domiciled or located.’

Initially, the artefacts were supposed to be received by NCMM. With the circulation of the new gazette, the university decided to pause the return process according to Reuters. Tijani said that ‘it is postponed because the gazette is not very clear on some issues and we wanted to clarify to find out which body is responsible for the signing of the agreement.’

NCMM has been in charge of negotiating for the return of thousands of Benin bronzes scattered across universities and museums all over the world. An official of the body was quoted by the BBC as saying that ‘they were blindsided… this is not practical nor compatible with existing Nigerian law (and) it was written by someone who doesn’t understand how museums work.’ The British media also quoted an unnamed German official who said that they, ‘negotiated with the Nigerian government to return Bronzes to the NCMM, and signed contracts with the NCMM…so who are we giving them to?’

The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than 3,000 brass plaques and sculptures dating mainly to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1897, they were looted by British troops from the Benin Kingdom (in present-day Edo State, Nigeria) and auctioned off to be spread among institutions and museums in Europe and North America.

Since the 1960s Nigeria has demanded the return of its artefacts. Calls for the repatriation of these artefacts have steadily gained momentum. These campaigns have yielded positive results in recent years.  In November 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned three artefacts—a 16th-century brass plaque of a warrior chief, a brass plaque junior court official, and a 14th-century Ife head—to Nigeria. On Saturday, 19 February 2022, the Okpa (cockerel also called ‘Okukor’) and Uhunwun Elao (Oba head) were returned to the traditional palace of the Oba of Benin, in Edo State, Nigeria. Also, on 01 July 2022, Germany returned two bronzes—Oba head and a 16th-century plaque—to Nigeria. In December 2022, Germany also returned 20 artefacts with plans to return more in 2023.

In 2019, the Edo Museum of West Africa Art Trust was established with the aim of building a modern museum to house the returned artefacts. Designed by world-renowned architect, David Adjaye, the first building is expected to be completed in 2024

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