Returner's Remorse? Why Germany Is Worried About The Benin Bronzes
Germany is returning looted Benin bronzes back to Nigeria. But there are now concerns that they will now disappear into private ownership or that they will be threatened with damage or loss
BERLIN — It was supposed to be the world's most extensive repatriation of looted colonial property: the transfer of ownership of some 1,130 Benin bronzes from 20 German ethnological collections to the Nigerian government.
But there has been a great deal of agitation since it was revealed that Ewuare II, the current Oba of Benin, or traditional ruler of Nigeria's Edo State, was appointed the owner and administrator of the first 22 Benin bronzes returned by Germany to the Nigerian state — and for all other old Benin treasures returning to the country.
This was the decision of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, published as a decree in the official gazette number 57 of March 28, 2023.
For weeks now, people in Germany have been puzzling over the meaning and consequences of the presidential decree.
Their fear: will important cultural assets disappear into private chambers instead of being shown to the people of Africa?
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper questioned the decision on May 6 and triggered a wave of indignation. But the root of the controversy could have been foreseen for quite some time.
Early warning signs
If you listen around in Nigeria and follow the local media, you will learn that the German government did not inform the German public about an important detail: on April 28, 2022 — i.e. before Germany signed the treaty — Oba Ewuare II, traditional king of Benin in Nigeria's Edo State, and President Buhari had already met in the parliamentary building of Abuja and organized their collaboration.
Three days later, the British-Nigerian broadcaster Arise reported the meeting in detail on its website. According to the article, Nigeria's government was already planning to support the construction of a "Benin Royal Museum" to house the Benin bronzes returned from around the world.
The restitution took place behind palace walls in a courtly ceremony closed to the public.
The Arise article describes it as "ultramodern international standard". As Die Welt reported back in March 2022, the Abuja-based online newspaper Peoples Gazette quoted the country's top museum chief, Abba Tijani, as saying that the federal government of Nigeria would fast-track the construction of a royal palace museum to house the Benin bronzes repatriated from Germany.
At the same time, it was reported that two artifacts, worth the equivalent of a good three million euros, had been handed over to the Oba.
The two pieces are metal castings — a rooster and a royal memorial head — that Tijani had taken over from two British universities as Nigeria's official representative. As the guardian of the legally protected cultural property, the National Commission for Monuments and Museums (NCMM) that was actually responsible for the care of the repatriated artifacts in one of the 53 national museums.
Instead, the restitution took place behind palace walls in a courtly ceremony closed to the public. This raised concerns that the people of Edo State and Nigeria would not see the artifacts returned by Germany either. This would be a clear violation of the recognition of the Benin bronzes as an important cultural asset for the general public, which the standardized contract of all German museums has stipulated for Nigeria.
Annalena Baerbock Federal Foreign Minister, and Geoffrey Onyeama, Foreign Minister of Nigeria, during a joint press conference in Abuja about the Benin Bronzes.
But if we now take a closer look at the outcome of the meeting between Oba Ewuare and President Buhari, this existential concern for the Benin bronzes turns out to be unjustified.
According to local media, the king stressed that the Benin bronzes are the cultural heritage of the country in particular and Africa in general. "We hold these objects in trust as the original owners, in conjunction with NCMM for the benefit of all," said the Oba. The federal government of Nigeria and the Oba of Benin would oversee issues of security of all repatriated Benin artifacts. The order does not mention the person of Ewuare II, but the institution of the Oba, which lasts forever.
So why did the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, ruminate in an interview with Die Welt just a few days ago: "The NCMM is not mentioned in the decree. That's unusual, since the NCMM is responsible for national cultural property." He hoped that the German government would clarify what that means.
But even the Foreign Office continues to be in the dark so far. At the government press conference earlier in May, a Foreign Office spokesman said it was "still too early" to make a final assessment of where the Benin bronzes would be displayed in the future. Yet, everything has been on the table for more than a year now.
In light of this, the fact that museum property is being transferred to the responsibility of the Oba is now less surprising — it has definitely been clear to all parties involved as a consequence of an unconditional return of looted property.
Meanwhile, no evidence yet of the promised Royal Museum.
The Oba had been the custodian of most of the treasures for some 800 years until 1897, during the so-called Benin massacre, when the British Royal Marines invaded the ancient Palace of the Oba, looted and carted away thousands of artifacts of Benin origin from the Palace of the Oba and other parts of Benin kingdom.
So what is astonishing here is the alleged cluelessness of those responsible for the restitutions in Germany.
What does this mean for the quality of the much-lauded museum co-operations that Hermann Parzinger wants to push with the restitution of the objects? After all, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is not just anyone in this matter. He has been the federal government's coordinator for these restitutions since 2021 — alongside the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, Barbara Plankensteiner, who was also surprised by the transfer of ownership to the Oba.
And another question: Germany's Foreign Office claims they are holding "close talks" with the Nigerian government. But how close are they?
Intensive cooperation must now finally begin. Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, have signed for the "unconditional return" of about 850 pieces, but owners such as Saxony and Bavaria — who have about 300 Benin artifacts in total — are still hesitating.
Meanwhile, no evidence yet of the promised Royal Museum.
What is already moving forward are foundation works for the pavilion in Benin City, which was co-financed by Germany. It should be the first construction phase for a future Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA). Germany has already contributed €500,000 to the construction work, and a further €4.4 million are to be added by the time it is completed in 2024. Germany is contributing just under €700,000 for operating costs.
Now that the bronzes will not be shown there at all, but have been assigned to the Royal Museum, the exhibition area has been reduced, and, according to the latest ideas, the EMOWAA will also show contemporary art. The foundation's chairman, Philipp Ihenacho, said that laboratories, libraries and a digital center are to move into the building, which will support general museum work for the whole of Nigeria.
If all the plans come true, research and training will be carried out at the EMOWAA from 2024, with support from Germany — and next door you can then admire the Benin bronzes.