The federal government has called on the British government to repatriate the stolen Benin bronze cockerel, known as Okpa, and other artefacts currently exhibited in different British museums back to Nigeria.
The Okpa, which was commissioned by the Oba of Benin for the Queen Mother to decorate her ancestral shrine in Uselu, depicted fowls and other animals sacrificed during rituals in honour of royal ancestors even as it symbolised that the Queen Mother was different from other women, and shared powers as well as privileges with men.
This is coming on the heels of protest by students of Jesus College, Cambridge University of England, who recalled with nostalgia the 19th Century invasion of Benin Kingdom where the bronze cockerel was stolen and later kept in the college hall, insisting that the British government must return the artefact back to Nigeria.
Reacting, the director-general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments ( NCMM ), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, commended the students and college authorities for their doggedness in advocating the immediate repatriation of Nigeria artefacts.
According to him, “It is heartrending that such iconic cultural object will be forcefully taken away and exhibited for more than a century but our position is that this and other objects similarly purloined should be returned to their countries of origin notwithstanding the one sided legalese that have been introduced by the purloiners to justify the acquisition.”
He enjoined other countries to join forces with Nigeria towards redressing the ills of the colonial masters, adding that Nigeria has ratified many treaties for preventing illicit export and return of unlawfully exported cultural property.
He said, “The commission has an existing plan of action concerning the Benin bronzes in European museums. We are adopting the policy of collaboration, cooperation, and negotiation in getting back our cultural heritage properties from European museums and other public institutions around the world.”
Usman said that talks are ongoing in Germany, Austria, and Nigeria just as he expressed optimism that the Benin Plan of Action was the first step that would lead to greater understanding between the countries, and appealed to Cambridge University and other organisations in the United Kingdom to participate in the talks, stressing that Nigeria has signed a Bilateral Agreement with China and Peru to facilitate the return of Nigeria’s artefacts in their custody.
“Though Nigeria has joined the scheme for the protection of cultural heritage within the commonwealth to facilitate the return of its antiquities, it has also expressed its rights over some of the antiquities in certain museum and has opened an opportunity for discussion,” he said.
Usman revealed that the commission, on June 12, 2012, asserted ownership of 32 artefacts from Benin Kingdom which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFAB), through donations, adding that the commission has continued to question the legitimacy of the donation. However, in a motion sponsored by 57 legislators on January 24, 2002, the House of Representative unanimously sought the return of Nigerian works of art in the British museum with a call on the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to request for the repatriation of these artefacts.
The DG maintained that the commission was working assiduously towards the repatriation of the cultural objects, noting that the campaign for repatriation must be complimented by an all inclusive war against illicit trafficking in cultural goods.