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Tunde Phillips: Nigeria’s Stolen Art May Return But Not In Our Era



“Attention, please. Passengers on Air Peace flight P47131 to Lagos will be delayed for 40 minutes due to… ” The familiar barely-audible feminine voice informed us. I sank into my chair at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and unlocked my phone to catch up with all I’d missed from the news. The first headline my eyes caught was from Quartz Africa, and it read:

After 120 years, Nigeria’s stolen art could be returning home from Britain—but only on loan.

The happiness I felt was quickly subdued after a calm digestion of the clause attached to this headline. My anger reemerged with my mind filled with a torrent of questions, ones whose answers could only be answered by the past.

1897, when it all started
In a bid to maintain his independence and seal Benin off from the control of the Europeans, Oba Ovonramwen, who was the last independent king of the 500-year-old kingdom of Benin, imposed customs duties on goods leaving the Benin territory (which at the time was one of the wealthiest territories in terms of human and natural resources in Nigeria). But this fell on the wrong side of the British invaders who in a bid to put a stop to this, sacked the city, burned and killed, before making away with thousands of bronze pieces and other valuable treasures. These stolen valuables were later handed to the British government, who engaged in numerous exchanges and dealings with numerous countries in other continents. These artifacts have mostly ended up in many parts of Europe and America.

This occurrence has since left a dent in the hearts of Nigerians, especially the Benin people, thereby bringing about the many meetings, pleas and relentless persuasions rendered by the Benin Dialogue Group (a multi-lateral collaborative working group that brings together museum representatives from Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom with key representatives from Nigeria).

Like a typical Igbo man hoping for a male heir, the goal was to ensure that some of the most iconic pieces held abroad, especially at the British museum, are returned on a temporary basis to form an exhibition at the new Benin Royal Museum in Edo State within three years.

But what if they aren’t returned?
You see, wars and tribulations have never been strange to Africa (a good example is the Yoruba tribe). Villages and territories waged wars (just and unjust) against one another over and over. Conquerors would go home with slaves and the pricey properties of the vanquished. Life continued. And never had it been heard that the descendants of the defeated clamored for what they lost during the war that happened before they were born.

Other African countries (like Ghana, Ethiopia and Egypt) too had their fair share of this misfortune, but most (if not all) of them shrugged it off by focusing on the portions of their heritage they had control over.

Algeria, in 2017, recorded more than 2 million tourists, an increase of 19% compared to 2015, after the establishment of a national confederation in 2015, the aim of which was to awaken the Algerian tourist industry and attract more foreigners to Algeria. Ethiopia has tripled the size of its main airport as its gets set to be Africa’s gateway hub.

How easy is it for us to catch on?
Somewhat easy!

Just like we did to slavery by focusing on the now (even though the past still hurts), we need to resuscitate our tourism potential by looking into other avenues we haven’t explored.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Energies channeled into pressuring foreign bodies to return our stolen artifact can alternatively be geared toward pestering the state, local and federal government so that basic amenities such as roads, electricity and proper remuneration for workers in the tourism sectors are made readily available.

We then need to let go of the past.

I’m talking about abolishing unreasonable practices like disallowing the taking of pictures in tourist attractions (especially in museums). I doubt we’d have been this interested in getting our stolen artefacts back if the countries who took them hid them from the media. It’s even more interesting when you realize that one of the highest grossing movies of 2018 had a scene acted inside a museum.

I’m taking about encouraging secondary school and university students to understand our history (especially that of these stolen items) then going a step further by encouraging them produce even better sculptures and carvings with the help of modern technology.

I’m charging you to contribute your quota into reviving Nigeria as a whole. It costs the average of 200 to see any museum in Nigeria. Take a day off and go see the remaining of these amazing works of art before they get looted again. In The Lion King, when Rafiki hit Simba in the head with a stick:

Simba: Ow! jeez, what was that for?

Rafiki: It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past

Simba: Yeah, but it still hurts.

Rafiki: Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.

“Attention, please. Passengers on Air Peace flight p47131 to Lagos should proceed to check in.”

I plugged my earpiece into my ears, joined other commuters destined for Lagos, and hoped never to worry about this again. But a few minutes into the journey, the thoughts, like a bad habit, crept in slowly again.


Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Phillips Tunde is a Tourism promoter who (through well-thought-out contents) seeks to redefine the perception of Africans towards travel. Tunde enjoys playing with cameras and washing plates. He’s available for promoting destinations as well as private consultations. You can reach him via [email protected]


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