Germany Returns 21 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria Amid Frustration at Britain – Twenty-one precious artifacts that were stolen by British soldiers from the former west African kingdom of Benin 125 years ago have been returned to Nigeria amid laughter, tears, and loud frustration at the continued silence of the government that stole them in the first place. The objects from the haul of treasures known as the Benin bronzes, which included a brass head of an oba (king), a ceremonial ada, and a throne depicting a coiled python, were taken from the sacked city during a British punitive expedition in 1897 and sold to German museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Cologne.
Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, handed possibly the most remarkable of the returned artefacts to Nigeria’s culture minister, Lai Mohammed, shortly after lunch on Tuesday. Baerbock stated as she gave them a miniature mask of the Iyoba (Queen Mother) made of ivory and ornamented with yellow glass pearls, red coral, and a crown of stylized electric catfish that had been stolen from the bedroom of the last independent oba.
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The artworks, a selection of more than 1,000 Benin bronzes whose ownership Germany legally transferred to Nigeria on 1 July, were collected by lorry from the museums, loaded into the cargo hold of a German air force plane at Cologne airport, and then flown to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, via Berlin on Sunday. Tuesday, the artworks were unwrapped and displayed at the back of a stage in the Nigerian foreign ministry’s wooden-paneled conference room.
However, as a nation celebrated the restoration of its long-lost cultural treasure, frustration was directed at Britain, which possesses the biggest collection of Benin bronzes at the British Museum, but whose governments had obstructed restitution discussions for more than a century. “Britain has most of the works, and we thought they would provide leadership,” said Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo state, whose modern borders in Nigeria’s south encompass many of the regions that used to belong to the Benin empire. “They were the ones who came here and destroyed the empire, they were the ones who looted pieces from here, and they should be leading in restitution.”
Mohammed stated at the handover ceremony that he had anticipated Germany’s action would prompt the United Kingdom to begin negotiations on the British Museum bronzes. “But I met a brick wall,” he said. “The British Museum must understand that repatriation is a turn whose time has come.” Other individual bronzes have already been returned to their country of origin: London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens last month handed over six objects from its collection to a Nigerian delegation, one of a handful of British institutions to take unilateral steps.
Political leaders in the state of Edo hoped that Berlin’s action would generate political momentum compelling the British government to cease its century-long quiet on the subject. The announcement made by Germany in the summer prompted critical questions from other European states, notably Britain. But on Monday, German foreign ministry officials said the apology by the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, for the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade added to an impression of a converging EU stance on postcolonial issues.
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The Benin bronzes that have returned to Nigeria are meant to be eventually put on display at a new pavilion in Benin City, which Germany is co-financing with €4m. Currently still only a few holes in the red soil of a plot of land, the pavilion is expected to open in 2024 and is supposed to form the apex of a new cultural centre that would support restitution projects in other African countries. Fundraising for a new Edo museum of west-African art, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, is scheduled to start after the pavilion’s opening.