The fate of the Benin bronzes never ceases to torment and divide the German authorities. Five months after returning to Nigeria 22 objects from the former kingdom of Benin looted during the colonial era, a certain vagueness reigns in Germany over the fate of the pieces supposed to be exhibited at the Edo Museum for the Arts of South Africa. West (EMOWAA), under construction in Benin City. And for good reason: a decree promulgated on March 28 by President Muhammadu Buhari, succeeded in May by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, confers ownership of the works returned in December to the Nigerian State to Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II, the king ("oba") from Benin.
In response to this transfer, the authorities of the Saxony region - responsible for the Leipzig ethnology museum where the objects were kept - demanded clarifications from Nigeria and put their restitution efforts on hold. According to the agreement signed by Berlin on the return of around 1,100 bronzes from 20 German collections and museums, the returned works were to remain accessible to the public. Eventually, it is planned that the bronzes will be exhibited in the future Benin City museum. A destiny that could be called into question by the privatization of the goods in question, suggests the region.
One of Nigeria's most important traditional leaders, Uku Akpolokpolor Ewuare II is the heir to the sovereign who reigned over the Kingdom of Benin at the time the bronzes were looted during the 1897 sacking of the royal palace in Benin. 'Edo by a British colonial expedition. “As the original owner, the Oba shall be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated objects are domiciled,” the Nigerian presidential decree states. In February 2022, the Oba of Benin had already recovered two bronzes returned the previous year to Nigeria by a London museum.
A few years ago, the Leipzig museum kept 262 Beninese bronzes, the second largest collection in Germany after that of Berlin. Cautious, the region of Saxony is now waiting to see "what is the effect of this decree (...) and how the new government will proceed". Before that, "we will not take any new steps," a spokesman for the state's culture ministry told AFP.
The approach of the Saxon authorities - whose majority in the regional parliament belongs to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) - was however greeted with annoyance by the Federal Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth. “What happens to the bronzes now is up to the current owner, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria,” she told ZDF. "The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria was not subject to conditions," added Christopher Burger, spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry, adding that it is "important that the public continue to have access to bronzes of Benin after the restitution”.
The debate goes beyond the question of where the objects will be exhibited, writes the German newspaper FAZ. "When works of art are privatized, their interpretation also becomes private," said the liberal daily, pointing to historical research that the former royal family of Benin "was not the least involved in the slave trade, including benefited not only the European powers, but also the local elites”.
The newspaper thus warns against the temptation to erase this aspect in order to present a glorious historical account of the context in which the bronzes were created. These fears irritate the president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger, in charge of the ethnological museum in Berlin: "Do we really want to return to the attitude of the 1970s, when we Europeans equated the return of cultural goods to Africa to loss, destruction and sale?" he wrote in early May. Its museum has 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom of Benin, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection after that of the British Museum in London.
In Nigeria, the president of the government agency in charge of the return of looted works, Abba Isa Tijani, wants to calm the debate. "We want to reassure our partners, museums in Europe (...) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (...) and cannot be sold," he told AFP. , confirming that construction of the Benin City Museum is proceeding as planned. The Oba royal family of Benin is counting on this museum, nothing has changed, since it does not have the expertise and the staff to manage the museum”.
Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria, very involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, castigates a “propaganda which consists in saying that the objects will be lost”. She recalls that the Oba has always "clearly" indicated that a museum would be created. This is all just an "excuse not to return the items, she says, because they don't want to return them."