In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Professor Abba Isa Tijani, explains how the present security challenge in the country affects museums and monuments, lack of fund in the commission, how to stop theft of Nigeria’s artifacts and other issues in the sector.
You took over as director-general recently, what do you have in stock for this commission?
I took over on September 1, 2020, and since then, I have been making efforts to see how we can reposition the commission so that it will be in its rightful place.
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When we came on board, there were a lot of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought a lot of hitches. We also have issues of funding and so on.
We want to start on a new footing. Our first challenge is that there is a serious lack of awareness on the commission’s activities, so we felt it was one of the things we would address. We want to create awareness and let Nigerians know what the mandate of the commission is and our area of coverage. Also, some agencies of government are totally not aware of the size of the commission.
The NCMM has 52 national museums across the country and we have the mandate of collecting (acquiring) and documenting our cultural heritage across the country, with a view to displaying for Nigerians and people from outside to see and appreciate. We also want to store these artifacts for generations to come.
In addition to the 52 museums, we also have 65 national monuments and sites across the country. These are being declared; we have quite a number of them.
What are the roles of the commission in protecting national heritage?
There is this growing neglect of this sector. And communities are not aware of the values and privileges attached to national monuments. This is a serious problem. That’s why we have so much encroachment on our monuments across the country. For example, 70 per cent of the Kano City Wall has completely been encroached and destroyed. New structures are being constructed in those areas.
There is also the issue of the Olujoba national monument in Lagos that was completely brought down by property developers, in conjunction with some family members who claim to own it.
We had to go to court but later settled out of court. It was agreed that the place would be reconstructed. We have these encroachments on our national monuments across the country, so it is expedient that we publicise the importance of these monuments.
We also have the issue of archaeological sites that are under the commission. We engage in archaeological excavations of our historical past.
Again, the commission actually gives approval for any excavation work to take place in Nigeria. So researchers who want to do excavation have to get the permission of the commission. And any discovery coming out of those excavations must come to the commission so that we can keep them for their purposes.
The commission has offices across the country, with many heritage sites, yet its budget is far below what is needed. So we have a serious challenge of funding. We need to start looking outside our budgetary allocations. Let us start partnering with the private sector. That is why we have been reaching out to see how the private sector and organisations can assist in funding the commission’s activities.
You’ve identified some challenges, what are you doing to tackle them?
When I came in, I discovered that the mausoleum of Tafawa Balewa in Bauchi was actually in a very bad condition, so we had to seek the intervention of the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), which renovated the galleries, the roofs that were licking, the ceilings that were completely down, and the libraries. The exhibition area was also funded by the corporation.
We are also awaiting other financial institutions to come in and help with the landscape of the mausoleum. We need to make the place attractive.
As a tourism centre, the mausoleum requires rehabilitation, but the state government has come in to say they would help. And we are doing this across the country.
What are you doing to repatriate several artifacts in foreign countries?
We are also looking at the issue of repatriation, which is going on in the country. We have seriously engaged in trying to get our artifacts that were taken out of the country returned so that Nigerians can see and appreciate their history and identity.
Recently, we succeeded in getting a number of artifacts back; some were actually voluntarily returned. Example is the Ife Teraquarter head that was recently intercepted in the Netherlands through our embassy. The artifact has been returned and it is in our possession.
Few days ago, the University of Harbadeen Museum in the United Kingdom decided to voluntarily return ‘Benin’ head, which is part of what were taken away during the expedition of 1897. We are making arrangements to get that object back. We really appreciate the University of Harbadeen Museum for coming out to return our object. We want to see that other museums across the world also do so.
We are also discussing with other museums, particularly within the Benin dialogue group that are willing to return our artifacts. We will see how artifacts taken away would be returned to Nigeria.
There is also a plan to build a new museum in Benin City, through collaboration with our partners. We are contributing some fund and the state government is contributing. This new Benin museum is where most of these objects that are coming outside the country will be displayed.
What is the difference between the commission and the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC)?
Our mandates are completely different. The NCMM is dealing with our national historical heritage in terms of objects, artifacts and monuments etc, while the NCAC is dealing with contemporary arts and culture like craftworks, artisans and so on – more of contemporary things. However, we work together, in the sense that we are promoting our arts, culture and tradition. But in terms of our mandate, there is a clear distinction. We can say we are partnering because we do some ethnographic work as well, which is within our mandate. We go to the field, interview communities and try to see how we will acquire antiquities so that we can keep them in our museums.
How many researchers have approached the commission between September last year and now?
Research is an ongoing thing. If there is any archeological site that an international scholar or researcher wants to come and do excavation, he or she would write to us and we will give him the permit. And our staff will work with them so that findings will come to the commission.
Our staff went out to some communities and did some research.
How would Nigerians benefit more from this commission?
We are working for communities. Don’t forget that we are talking about our culture, tradition and heritage, so there is no way we can walk without interacting with the people, who are the custodians of our culture and tradition.
There are so many ways Nigerians can actually benefit. The establishment of museums across the country is number one. We are establishing museums in communities so that our cultural heritage and identity will be displayed there for people to see, appreciate and understand their cultures.
We are also interacting with schools because we have an educational department mandated to organise workshops for school children, as well as invite them to museums to see and appreciate our cultural heritage. All these things are done within the framework of their syllabus.
Many artifacts are missing in our museums, what are the strategies the commission is adopting to ensure adequate security?
Museum security is a very important component of our mandate because you cannot have priceless artifacts and antiquities without protecting them.
We had an issue regarding security when the government said it should be outsourced. But we argued that our artifacts were priceless and we would not trust outsiders to look after them. We need to have an in-house security structure. That’s why we call them Antiquity Protection Unit, with officers directly engaged to protect our heritage. But you know that as human beings, you would find people wanting to capitalise on weaknesses to take some of our artifacts. We are very much aware of that and have put measures in place.
We have the issue of artifacts stolen a long time ago, such as those taken away in 1897. That’s a different thing, and we are working towards getting them back.
We also want to emphasise the importance of getting our artifacts insured because they are priceless. When they are insured, if any fortunate thing happens, we will know that they are protected.