In the past couple of months, the offer by Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), a group of museums directors and curators in the UK and Europe, to loan the Benin bronzes, looted during the so-called ‘Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897’, to Nigeria has stirred up controversy. The BDG is proposing the return of the looted Benin bronzes for a permanent, but rotating, exhibition in Benin City on the understanding that they are on loan and a guarantee that the artifacts will be returned after an agreed period.
On the one hand, are the staunch advocates of nothing but unconditional permanent restitution, who considers the offer an insult and assert that acceptance of the loan deal will weaken Nigeria’s claims to the stolen cultural objects. One such advocate, Dr. Kwame Opoku, in this lengthy article on Pambazuka News, warned of the dangers of such an arrangement and raised these pertinent questions:
Since when do looters or their successors loan the very stolen objects to the owners instead of simply and correctly returning them? What will be the status of the Benin artefacts that were wrenched from their locations with great violence and mayhem? Would this mean that, for instance, Nigerians cannot send any of the artefacts to Ghanaians for a Pan African festival in Accra without the consent of Europeans? …
It would be interesting to know what price Nigerians would pay for this revolving display of Benin artefacts. Would they have to pay money for the loan? Would they be paying for the loan of their own artefacts to the successors of the notorious looters? Or would there be some other consideration such as renouncing forever any claim to the looted artefacts? There is in the museum world, as elsewhere, no such thing as free lunch.
On the other hand, are those who believe that the compromise to accept a loan of the artifacts at first is an alternative starting point towards permanent restitution. An article in Reuters quoted the governor of Edo state, Godwin Obaseki, thus:
Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are. We would be open to such conversations.
Earlier in the year, the Governor had revealed there was a plan to build a world-class museum in Benin City with the hope of creating confidence in the fate of repatriated artifacts.
To be against the loan arrangement requires some sort of faith in the Nigerian government’s interest in vigorously pursuing restitution of the artifacts. But with their twice-a-decade dialogues and vague Benin Plan of Action 2013, I don’t see how we can believe that. At least with this creative, albeit precarious, compromise, Nigerians get to see the artifacts and, maybe, their physical presence in the country will evoke an emotional response that will make the next generation angry enough to put up a serious fight for repatriation.