The Bronze Elephant in the Room After the Benin Bronzes Come Home, What Next?

Beyond leveraging the global push for repatriation and calling for the return of stolen cultural artefacts, the Nigerian government needs to change its attitude towards cultural art to guarantee the Benin Bronzes a meaningful future at home. 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

In April 2018, the Beninese minister of culture and sports, Oswald Homecky, considered the restitution of African cultural artefacts by the French government unlikely, akin to ‘the reunification of North and South Korea’. This was after attempts by the Beninese government to recover artefacts held in French museums stalled in a legal impasse. The artefacts, royal statues, were looted in the pillage of Abomey palace by French forces in 1892. But, in 2016, when the Beninese government requested these artefacts, the French government refused to release them, citing local laws. For several years, the Nigerian government has also demanded the repatriation of several Benin Bronzes and other cultural artefacts held in museums worldwide to no avail.  

What was once considered mission impossible just a few years ago, now, however, seems to be coming to fruition. In October 2022, the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art in the US officially returned 29 Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government. This followed a restitution agreement between Germany and Nigeria, also in 2022. As a result, Germany handed over two Benin Bronzes and ceded ownership of a thousand other cultural items to Nigeria. 


In December 2022, the Charity Commission in the UK approved Cambridge University’s decision to return 116 Benin artefacts which are held in the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. These artefacts were looted when the British sacked the Benin Kingdom in 1897, a raid that led to the exile of Oba Ovonramwen. 

Continued public outcry for restitution, among other global movements like Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter have rekindled the interest in decolonization, of which the repatriation of looted artefacts is an important part. The oft-cited legal reasons for withholding the artefacts are beginning to lose their appeal and, as the Smithsonian and the Charity Commission in the UK have both acknowledged, there is a strong moral and ethical ground for the return and transfer of ownership of these African cultural artefacts.  

The return of stolen artefacts is indeed a welcome development for Nigeria. Not only are these artefacts important threads in our cultural history, they also have practical significance in terms of driving tourism and promoting our cultural heritage. Consequently, however, it begs wondering what the fates of these Benin Bronzes will be when they return to Nigeria.  


In Teju Cole’s 2007 novel, Every Day is for the Thief, the narrator returns to Nigeria after years of studying in America. To his dismay, however, he finds out that the Nigeria he left and the Nigeria he has returned to are still essentially the same. In one scene, the narrator visits the National Museum in Onikan. At that time, the museum was poorly maintained and lacked important collections and documentation. In Cole’s words:  

the whole place has a tired, improvised air about it, like a secondary school assignment finished years ago and never touched since. The deepest disappointment, though, is not in presentation. It is in content. I honestly expected to find the glory of Nigerian archaeology and art history on display here. I had hoped to see the best of Ife bronzes, the fine Benin brass plaques and figures, Nok terra-cottas, the roped vessels of Igbo-Ukwu, the art for which Nigeria is justly admired in academies and museums the world over…Though there are examples of each kind of art, they are few, are rarely of the best quality, and are meagrely documented. 

Although Cole’s book was published in 2007, the realities he pictured in the book are still very much the same in today’s Nigeria. Critics have complained about the poor state of the national museum. Gallery spaces are small, most artefacts wallow away in storage rooms with only a few exhibited and these hardly have proper documentation. Artefacts have also been vulnerable to theft and illegal trade.  

In this context, the planned Benin Royal Museum in Edo State is great news and it is hoped that this development will spur growth for Nigeria’s cultural heritage and tourism sector. But existing museums and national monuments also need to be properly maintained. 

Maintenance is often cited as a cause of concern and the reluctance of Western institutions to return looted artefacts. While this cannot justify the continued hoarding of the artefacts by Western museums, it is important to reinforce the need for proper maintenance and preservation, as these artefacts now make their way home. 


The issue of maintenance also raises another important point on education and the sensitization of Nigerians on the value of cultural heritage. Nigeria’s educational system has been silent on history and cultural memory. In 2007, history was removed from the curriculum. Although it was re-introduced in 2018, its initial removal has seen several generations of students, mine included, pass through the education system without any formal or informal education on Nigerian history.   

Memorializing the past, in truth, can be uncomfortable especially when that past is complex and tumultuous. But it is nonetheless important for young people to know this history and learn from it. More importantly, memorializing the past and teaching history and the value of one’s cultural heritage is crucial for decolonizing the knowledge politics that dominates scholarship in and about Africa. 

Britain’s 1897 raid of the Benin Kingdom destroyed not only material culture but also centuries-old systems of knowledge. The argument can be made that even the return of these bronzes cannot not restore these destroyed knowledge systems. However, the return can begin an ‘inward restoration’ within the populace, crucial not only in dignifying cultural heritage but also in shaping the way the general public sees these returned artefacts, values them and promotes their preservation, among other cultural property.  

Improving public awareness through formal and informal education is pivotal. Artefactstheir history and the discourse on restitutionought to be included in the curriculum of schools. The same goes for the promotion of the value of museums and national monuments. Digital Benin is already leading the charge in promoting the understanding of the rich culture of Benin and its artefacts. As a platform that digitizes several Benin Bronzes held in museums across the world, Digital Benin also includes an oral history of Benin and proper cataloguing of the Benin Bronzes in the Edo language. The government needs to partner with the team working on this project to ensure the platform can be accessed by students and if possible replicated for other cultures.   


To ensure proper maintenance of Nigeria’s cultural property and effective sensitization, it is essential to revamp Nigeria’s cultural property policy. According to Global Art and Heritage Law Series: Nigeria Report’ prepared by Adepetun Caxton-Martins of Agbor and Segun law firm in 2020, since 1990 there has not been any improvement in Nigerian cultural property policy.  

The current national law on cultural heritage originated from Decree No. 77 of 1979. It established the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), replacing previous laws and departments in charge of antiquities. Decree No. 77 of 1979 was later re-enacted into law in 1990 and became the NCMM Act. The NCMM is charged with the responsibility of managing and preserving Nigeria’s cultural property. Currently, the commission oversees about 51 museums and 65 national monuments. This NCMM Act is the primary legislation guiding Nigerian cultural heritage. However, the law is outdated and has not been revised for over 30 years. 

The activities of the NCMM are hindered by poor funding. The commission is not saddled with the responsibility of educating the populace on the value of cultural heritage. There is no synergy between the NCMM and state and local governments to drive proper maintenance. Current provisions are insufficient to ensure deterrence from the destruction or theft of cultural property. For instance, penalties for intentional destruction of cultural property according to the NCMM Act include a fine of two thousand naira. In addition, although Nigeria has ratified the UNESCO 1970 convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, according to the 2020 Global Heritage and Law report, this convention has not been domesticated effectively. With weak laws and poor enforcement, theft and vandalism of cultural property have inevitably become a challenge and threat to Nigeria’s cultural heritage.  

Currently, a bill to amend the cultural heritage law is pending in the National Assembly. A process that began in 2011. This ‘Private Bill to Amend the Enabling Act of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)’ was submitted to the National Assembly in October 2019. If passed into law, promoters expect this bill to strengthen the powers of the NCMM to prevent violations and destruction of Nigerian cultural property and prosecute offenders.  

Aside from theft and illegal trading, several national monuments are vulnerable to violations and vandalization from individuals and government agencies. In 2016, the Lagos State government under Akinwunmi Ambode reportedly demolished the Ilojo Bar, a designated national monument, without any consequences. Built in 1856, the Ilojo bar also known as Olaiya House or Casa do Fernandez was the only building left in Lagos with Brazilian architecture. The family that owns the building alleged the building was demolished due to the inability of NCMM to repair it, after several letters to the commission. The family’s lawyer, Olanrewaju Falola said the Lagos State government ordered the demolition of the building after it failed an integrity test and was considered unsafe for habitation. On the contrary, the thenNCMM director, Yusuf Abdallah Usman, claimed the building was demolished without proper approval. Since its demolition, there has been no prosecution. This shows the poor state of protection and preservation of cultural property in the country.   

According to the pending bill, one of the improvements to the law on cultural heritage is an increase in the penalties for offenders. For a ‘natural person’ (an individual without government association) the fine would be N500,000 or the cost of restoration (whichever is greater), or two years imprisonment. For a juridical person (an individual or group associated with a government agency) the fine would be N5,000,000 and the cost of restoration. Implementing and enforcing the law when passed is another issue but passing in the first place it would be a step in the right direction as it would empower NCMM to protect Nigeria’s cultural heritage.  

Indeed, the demolition of Ilojo bar and the tension between NCMM and the Lagos State government on this issue signals another crucial point which needs to be considered in discussions around preserving cultural heritage in Nigeria. At the moment, the management of cultural property in Nigeria is the exclusive preserve of the federal government.  

‘There is no doubt, no contest, about the exclusive authority of the federal government to the exclusion of either state or traditional authorities in matters relating to monuments, museums, and artifacts,’ Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, recently told David Frum, Staff Writer, at The Atlantic 

The exclusive management of cultural property by the federal government has its downsides. One, it could prevent the state government from taking initiatives that seek to promote the preservation of cultural property in their state. Secondly, as evident in the demolition of the Ilojo Bar, it creates unnecessary division and bureaucracy which ultimately does not serve the interest of preserving cultural heritage. Furthermore, there is complex nature of land ownership in Nigeria. According to the 1978 Land Use Act, the federal government does not own land. The state government controls land ownership in urban centres while the local government controls land ownership in rural areas.  

As such, there needs to be more synergy between NCMM and every layer of government from the federal to the local government when it comes to protecting and preserving cultural property. This synergy could aid the development of initiatives to bolster a thriving cultural heritage and tourism sector as we have seen with the plans by the Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, to build the Benin Royal Museum. 

The awakening and heightened interest in the return of Nigerian cultural property is great. Beyond just leveraging the global push for repatriation and calling for the return of cultural artefacts, the government needs to change its attitude towards cultural art. Nigeria needs more adequate funding of museums and the arts in general, more training opportunities, and more laws to deter theft and illegal trading of artefacts. Increased public sensitization on the value of Nigeria’s cultural property and the need for preserving them is also important.  

As efforts intensify to bring the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria, the government needs to do more to ensure these artefacts are well-preserved and positioned to contribute meaningfully to wider society

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