The Nigerian government on Thursday inaugurated a Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Looted/Smuggled Artifacts from around the world.
Announcing the inauguration at a media briefing in Lagos, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said government is putting on notice all those who are holding on to the nation’s cultural property anywhere in the world to return them.
“We are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.
“We are under no illusion that this will be an easy task, but no one should also doubt our determination to make a success of this campaign.
“We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them.
“We have never laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt.
“Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those/who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past,” he said.
According to Mr Mohammed, the campaign is statutorily supported by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention.
He said the Convention, to which most nations subscribe, identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each member state, thereby belonging to that State.
The minister added that by the provisions of the Article, they include cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned.
“They also include cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property,” he said..
Mr Mohammed said the provisions, therefore, capture both Ife bronze head and Benin Bronze head, made several centuries ago and stolen from the people.
The minister added that the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region met in December 2018 in Abuja and adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin.
He said Nigeria was bound by the Declaration, which had further brought discussions toward a Plan of Action.
Speaking on why Nigeria was inaugurating the campaign, Mr Mohammed said the stolen artifacts were invaluable heritage of the people and potential veritable source of income to the country.
“Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or restitute them?
“Our answer is simple: these timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history.
“Also, those who proudly display what they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not.
“Of course, as you all know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play.
“How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe them as their properties?,” he said.
The minister commended the efforts of a discussion group, now known as the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’, on the same stolen artifacts recovery and assured that government would work with them on terms.
Mr Mohammed also clarified that Nigeria is not averse to the circulation of its heritage resources around the world, but it should be done legally.
“We are aware that art lovers all over the world truly love them and we also know that all the major museums around the world desire to have them on loan.
“For these reasons, we do not mind to conduct joint exhibitions and have the objects loaned out too.
“But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever.
“Under no legal interpretation or rule shall we ever be divested of the ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours.
“They represent important pages in our history,” he said.
Mr Mohammed called on every museum and person holding on to the nation’s heritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue on the basis of the conditions enumerated.
He said the country would not be deterred by the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of antiquities in war time in the 19th century, when most of the antiquities were looted.
The minister said Nigeria would not also succumb to the position that the claims were statute barred.
“We will also not be swayed by the insulting argument that Nigeria, and Africa in general, does not have places to keep the antiquities.
“After all, we kept them somewhere before they were looted. If those who make that argument so desire, they can join us to build more museums that will house such returned antiquities,” he said.