At the origin of the disturbance, a decree promulgated on March 28 by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, succeeded in May Bola Ahmed Tinubu, which confers ownership of the repatriated works to the "Oba of Benin", and not to the Nigerian State.

This traditional chief is the heir of the sovereign who ruled this kingdom (southwest Nigeria) at the time the bronzes were stolen, during a British colonial expedition at the end of the 19th century.

"As the original owner," the 'Oba' (the king) "must be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated objects are domiciled," the decree said.

When Berlin reached an agreement on the return of around 1,100 bronzes from 20 German collections and museums, both countries agreed on the importance of making the works accessible to the public.

The bronzes are scheduled to be displayed in a new museum in Benin City, southern Edo State.

What will happen under the presidential decree?

No conditions

The authorities of the region of Saxony are demanding clarification and have paused the restitution process. Saxony still has 262 Beninese bronzes in its museums, the second largest collection in Germany.

The German region wants to see "what is the effect of this decree (...) and how the new government will proceed."

Bronze restitution ceremony by Germany in Nigeria, December 20, 2022 in Abuja © Kola Sulaimon / AFP/Archives

Before that, "we will not take any new steps," a spokesman for the state's culture ministry told AFP.

A reaction greeted with annoyance by the Federal Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth.

"What happens to the bronzes now is up to the current owner to decide, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria," she told ZDF.

"The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria was not subject to conditions," Foreign Ministry spokesman Christopher Burger said.

But to recall how it is "important that the public continues to have access to the Benin bronzes after the restitution".

The debate goes beyond the question of where the objects will be displayed, writes the German newspaper FAZ.

"When works of art are privatized, their interpretation also becomes private," the liberal daily writes, pointing to historical research according to which the former royal family of Benin "was not the least involved in the slave trade, which benefited not only the European powers, but also the local elites."

The newspaper warns against the temptation to erase this aspect 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 property to Africa with loss, destruction and sale?" he wrote at the beginning of May.

Its museum has 530 historical objects from the ancient Beninese kingdom, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection after that of the British Museum in London.

During a ceremony accompanying the return of bronzes by Germany to Nigeria, on December 20, 2022, in Abuja © Kola Sulaimon / AFP/Archives

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.

As for the construction of the Benin City museum, it "continues".

"The Oba royal family of Benin relies on this museum, nothing has changed, since it does not have the expertise and staff to run the museum," he continued.

Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria, who is very involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, castigates a "propaganda that consists in saying that the objects will be lost".

She recalls that the Oba has always "clearly" indicated that a museum would be created.

All this is just an "excuse not to return the objects," she says, "because they don't want to return them."

© 2023 AFP