The news of the return of 1,130 looted artefacts from various European and American countries was received with joy in Edo State but soon afterwards, it generated ripples in the state, pitting the palace against the state government.
The Benin artefacts looted during the 1897 British invasion of the Benin Kingdom by the British Army and kept in the United States of America, Britain, Germany among other countries has continued to generate controversies since its planned return of the artefacts to the country.
- 10 pirates jailed for 12 years for hijacking Chinese vessel
- D’Tigers seek revenge against Australia in Tokyo Olympics opener
The Oba of Benin and the palace had said the artefacts should be returned to the palace and kept in the proposed Benin Royal Museum to be built within the palace area, but Governor Godwin Obaseki said the artworks would be kept in the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) to be built in the new cultural district soon to be carved out.
The Oba of Benin had during a visit to his palace by the Germany government delegations led by Andreas Görgen, Director General of the directorate for culture and communications of the German foreign office, warned that negotiation of return of the artefacts should not involve a third party but the palace only, which is the original owner, to take custody of them.
As the controversy surrounding where the artefact would be kept rages, Obaseki had advised that the state should speak with one voice about the return of the artefacts so as not to give room to the international communities to continue to hold on to the artefacts.
He said constructing a building that would house the artefacts was one of the conditions given by the international communities before returning the stolen artefacts.
Strikingly, the Benin monarch held a meeting with palace chiefs and enigies, market women and others stakeholders on the repatriation of the looted Benin artefacts where he urged the federal government to take custody of the artefacts upon return pending the construction of the Benin Royal Museums.
He said the looted artefacts awaiting repatriation from Europe are not the property of the Edo State government but of the palace.
Speaking through Chief Sam Igbe, the Iyase of Benin kingdom, after the meeting, he said the artefacts are the cultural heritage of the Benin kingdom created by the ancestors and forefathers within the traditional norms and rites of the kingdom.
“They are not the property of the state government or any private corporate entity that is not a creation of the Benin kingdom.
“The right destination for the artefacts to be repatriated as already pronounced by his father is the Benin Royal Museum that will be sited within the palace of the Oba of Benin from where they were looted.
“There are no controversies on the return of the stolen artefacts from Europe but only communication gap between the Palace and the Edo State government over the repatriation.
“I made efforts and acquired additional plots of land from different families within the Adesogbe area near the present-day palace for this purpose.
“I do not believe that the move by a privately registered company, the Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd and the purported establishment of Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) are in consonance with the wishes of the people of Benin kingdom.”
“Shortly after my ascension to the throne, I had several discussions with the governor on the plan for the Benin Royal Museum and pledge to work with the palace.”
He said he was, however, surprised to read from the governor’s letter to the palace where reference was being made to the fact that a new museum to be known as EMOWAA is now being proposed, which would be funded and executed through Legacy Restoration Trust.
“So, it now behoves on the Federal Government to be the only level of government that can take custody of the artefacts with a view to transferring them to their original owner and original place of abode.”
Following the development, the state government noted that there is no conflict between the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II and Governor Godwin Obaseki, on the return of the looted artefacts from Europe.
The statement signed by the secretary to the state government, Osarodion Ogie, said Obaseki will continue to work with the Oba of Benin, local and international stakeholders for the return of the looted Benin artefacts for the benefit of the people.
He said the governor acted transparently and in consonance with existing Federal and State laws in all matters relating to the proposed return of the artefacts and monuments.
He said Governor Godwin Obaseki will continue to display immense respect for traditional institutions and that the government will keep on making efforts to secure a private audience with the royal father to discuss his concerns.
“The attention of the Edo State Government (EDSG) has been drawn to the widely publicized media statement issued by the Palace of His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II.”
“It is concerning that the statement appears to have created the impression that there is a major conflict between the interests of the Edo State government and His Royal Majesty with regards to having our highly valued artefacts returned home to Nigeria.”
“The actions of the government thus far on this issue have been driven by selfless, patriotic considerations and in the best interest of Edo State and its people,” the statement said.
The state government, however, warned that on no account should anyone, whether in government or acting independently, engage in disrespectful exchanges or altercation with the Oba of Benin and the palace.
Shortly after the Oba’s press briefing, a group under the aegis of Igun-Igbesamwan-Owina Descendants Cultural Movement of Europe and America placed an advertorial in national dailies claiming that 75 per cent of the artefacts looted in the Benin Kingdom during the 1897 British invasion of the kingdom were from Igun, Igbesamwan and Owena quarters which were the production and factory base of the artefacts.
“Our forefathers traded with the artefacts as their means of livelihood from generation to generation. It is absolutely false to continually reel out contrived rhetoric to deny ancestral makers of the artefacts.”
Part of the advertorial signed by the Erahuyi Isokpoponwu, Europe president and Adolor Oviasu-Oreoghene, American President, read “Of the truth, all the artefacts looted from the palace during the reign of Oba Ovoramwen were gifted to the preceding Obas before him. Also, a good number of them were gifted to the traditional rulers of neighbouring Owo, Okenusen, among others.
They said just as the palace was looted, other places and homes of traditional bronze casters seen by the British as treasure islands of the Benin kingdom were invaded and looted.
Interestingly, a local group from the Igun community, under the aegis of Igun Bronze Casters dissociated itself from the publication against the Oba of Benin.
The group, which protested to the secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Edo Council, carried placards with various inscriptions such as, ‘We debunk the claims of Erahuyi Isokponwu and Adolor Oviasu- Oreoghene, they should come out to clear themselves; ‘We are not part of the publication against the Oba of Benin’; ‘We dissociate ourselves from America/Europe fake descendants’; ‘We belong to the Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo’; ‘We are with His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin’; ‘No individual or group can make us become enemies of the Benin monarch’; ‘Igun community will always be loyal to the Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo’, among others.”
According to them, they operate directly under the instructions and guidance of the Oba and not independently.
They said, “the Oba and the palace are the right authorities to be handed over the soon-to-be returned stolen artefacts, as they were looted from the palace.”
“We wish to state that whoever are the mischief-makers acting behind the scene and suddenly becoming so generous by doling out large chunks of money to their acolytes and social media influencers to cause confusion where none exist will not go unrewarded by the ancestors.”
On his part, the Chief Imam of Benin, Alhaji Abdulfatai Enabulele, pledged the support of the Muslim Community in the state to the Oba of Benin on the issue of who takes custody of the artefacts.
The Chief Imam, who led other Muslim leaders to pay Sallah homage to the Oba, said the Muslim Community would queue behind the Oba in the matter of custody of the artefacts.
“We Muslims do not support what is not right and what will cause conflict, problems. But we will support what will bring peace and development in our community as Muslims.
“That is why we are praying that anyone who will want to do anything that is not right, God should change that person. You don’t challenge or contest with the Oba in Benin kingdom. The Oba is the chief custodian of our revered culture and tradition as well as the stolen artefacts wherever they are in the world.”
He said previously stolen artefacts that were returned in 1938 and 2013 during the reigns of Oba Akenzua II and Oba Erediauwa, respectively, were brought directly to the Benin Palace and not somewhere else, so this case cannot be different.
Another group under the umbrella of Ogbaka-Edo, the Indigenous People foundation, in an advertorial, noted that all the artefacts that have been returned so far have been directed to the palace.
The advertorial signed by its chairman, Prof. Sam Guobadia and General Secretary, Hon Dr Andrew O. Izekor, said “In the late 1930s, G.M. Miller, son of a member of the British expedition, withdrew the bid he had lent to the British Museum and returned it to the Oba’s Palace.”
The group, however, advised that the palace of the Oba of Benin be given front-seat honour in the decision that concerns the return and preservation of the artworks.
“Anything else is most unacceptable and ultimately counterproductive,” the group said.
Also speaking, a resident who gave his as Osasuwasa, wondered why the returned artefacts should generate controversy in the kingdom.
“Everyone in the kingdom knows that Oba of Benin is the custodian of our cultural heritage so the palace should take custody of the artefacts.”
He, however, called on the state government to work with the monarch to ensure the successful return of the artefacts, saying engaging a third party in the negotiation of the return is not in the best interest of the Edo people.