Benin Bronzes: Nigeria dispute jeopardises return of artefacts

A dispute between Nigerian leaders could jeopardise plans for the return of some of Africa’s most famous artefacts, the Benin Bronzes, which were looted during the colonial era and are now mainly in Western museums, as writer Barnaby Phillips reports. The Bronzes, thousands of metal sculptures and ivory carvings, were seized from the West African kingdom of Benin – in what is today Edo State in southern Nigeria – by a British military force in 1897.

In Europe their beauty and sophistication caused an instant sensation, and they are widely regarded as amongst Africa’s greatest artworks. In recent years, as European governments have come under pressure to atone for colonial-era crimes, some have spoken of their desire to return looted artefacts. In April the German government said it wanted to give back hundreds of Benin Bronzes, and several museums in the UK have made similar announcements. The return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria would mark an extraordinary moment in Africa’s post-colonial history, and is a prospect that seems more likely now than at any time since 1897. Governor Obaseki has convinced a celebrated architect, Sir David Adjaye, to design the new museum, bringing prestige and a wave of positive international publicity to the project. The British Museum has signed a deal with the LRT for an archaeology project in Benin City. The German government is discussing doing the same, and funding an LRT building to initially house returned Bronzes. These contracts are worth millions of dollars.