Twenty-one precious artefacts that were looted by British soldiers from the former west African kingdom of Benin 125 years ago have been handed over by Germany to Nigeria amid laughter, tears, and some audible frustration with the ongoing silence of the country that first stole them.
The objects from the haul of treasures known as the Benin bronzes, including a brass head of an oba (king), a ceremonial ada and a throne depicting a coiled-up python, were taken from the sacked city during a British punitive expedition in 1897 and later sold to German museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Cologne.
Shortly after lunchtime on Tuesday, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, passed perhaps the most spectacular of the returned objects into the gloved hands of Nigeria’s culture minister, Lai Mohammed.
“She comes back to where she belongs,” Baerbock said as she handed over a miniature mask of the Iyoba (queen Mother), made of ivory and decorated with yellow glass pearls, red coral and a crown of stylised electric catfish, which was looted from the bedchamber of the last independent oba.
A sample of more than 1,000 Benin bronzes whose ownership Germany legally transferred to Nigeria on 1 July, the artworks were picked up 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.
On Tuesday, the artworks were unwrapped and put on display on the back of a stage inside the wood-panelled conference hall at Nigeria’s foreign ministry.
But as a nation celebrated the return of its long-lost cultural heritage, frustration was expressed with Britain, which holds the single largest collection of Benin bronzes at the British Museum but whose governments have stonewalled restitution debates 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.”
At the handover ceremony, Mohammed said he had hoped Germany’s move would nudge the UK into opening talks about the bronzes held at the British Museum. “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.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who kickstarted a debate about restituting colonial objects to Africa five years ago, returned 26 objects in November 2021 from France’s Musée du quai Branly to the neighbouring republic of Benin, which is not linked to the former kingdom of Benin.
But these are the first Benin bronzes to be returned as part of a government delegation, peacefully completing a journey from European museums that Marvel’s 2018 Black Panther and blaxploitation movies of the 1980s had imagined would have to come by force.
Political leaders in Edo state expressed hope that Berlin’s move would create political momentum that would force the UK government to end its century-long silence on the subject.
Germany’s announcement in the summer drew critical questions from other European states, especially 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.
“This is not the end of a process but the beginning,” said Germany’s culture commissioner, Claudia Roth. “It marks a turning point in international cultural policy.”
For Germany, the arrival of a dynamic young politician in the foreign ministry proved a catalyst for a return movement that had been agreed in principle during the Merkel era but had threatened to lose momentum.
“What would it mean for us to be deprived of our cultural heritage?”, Baerbock said in Abuja on Tuesday. “To not be able to marvel at the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz? To be unable to admire Martin Luther’s writings? To stand in front of a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin or at Goethe’s desk in Weimar? It evokes a sense of loss I can hardly imagine. To you here in Nigeria, however, this loss has been your reality.”
At the end of her speech, the 42-year-old held up a large brass key decorated with leopard figures, which had made its way to Cologne via Britain, Ireland and France at the end of the 19th century. “Today, it’s back here, it’s back where it belongs”, she said.
Before Baerbock took office last winter, some activists had feared a repeat of when German museums managed to draw out and eventually stifle a national debate on restitutions after Nigeria first requested to take bronzes back on a permanent loan 50 years ago.
Those museum directors who travelled to Abuja with the foreign ministers this week struck a different note, however. “The bronzes won’t leave an empty space in my museum’s collection, partly because we are allowed to keep some on a permanent loan”, said Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of Hamburg’s Museum am Rothenbaum–World Cultures and Arts.
Out of 179 Benin artefacts held in the Hamburg museum, three arrived in Nigeria this week with one-third staying in northern Germany. “It’s important that this chapter of African history can continue to be told in Germany too,” she added.
The fact that Germany has no direct colonial history with modern-day Nigeria has simplified the debate over righting wrongs. “Germany was not the country that burned down our kingdom, Germany was only a commercial beneficiary,” Obaseki said at a reception in Benin City on Monday. A rare position for German diplomats to find themselves in given the country’s 20th-century history of aggression, one official in the room remarked off-hand.
The stalling of attempts between Germany and Namibia to reach an agreement over the massacre of the Herero and Namaqua peoples shows how much more difficult such talks can be with former colonial dependencies.
With presidential elections coming up in Nigeria in 10 weeks’ time, the potential for Germany to use the artworks as a diplomatic bargaining chip is limited. Economic ties between Africa’s and Europe’s largest economies by GDP are less developed than they could be, with German businesses concerns about corruption one obstacle for investment. Transparency International’s last corruption index has the west African state at number 154 out of 180 countries.
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 opened in 2024 and 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.