Decolonization, Struggle & the Return of Artefacts

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The Yoruba Stool, stolen by Richard Lemon Lander (and now branded the "Lander stool" in a British museum) is probably the first artefact stolen by the British colonisers

The recent flurry of return of stolen artefacts from Nigeria and other African countries is a cause for cheer and, even more so, introspection. These works of art, (amounting to 73,000) which had significant cultural and spiritual value to peoples in pre-capitalist kingdoms and empires on the continent, were stolen during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and even more so, during the colonial era. 

The series of grand thefts were part of a broader campaign of plunder, pillage and massacres. Of particular note is the sacking of the Great Benin Kingdom in 1897. Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was deposed and sent to exile in Calabar, where he died. A British expedition force killed the Bini people in large numbers. They also desecrated the people’s sacred places, while they rampaged the Bini ceremonial sites and palaces of their chiefs. It was from these places that the tons of artefacts taken from this great kingdom were stolen. 

Since the nineteenth century, African peoples have been asking for the return of these artefacts. The colonialists turned deaf ears to these demands. But even after flag independence was granted to prevent revolutionary upsurge for more thorough-going liberation, the British in particular, but as well the French imperialists refused to hand over these artefacts for decades. 

There are over 73,000 of these artefacts scattered across different countries in the Western world. These include museums in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Quite a reasonable number are also in the private hands of billionaires. Yes, these artefacts have also made many people very rich right from when they were stolen and trade during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. 

The responses of Western imperialist countries and their intellectuals to demands for repatriation has always been three-fold. First, they claim that these artefacts belong to humanity. Second, they claim they cannot say precisely where each specific item was taken from in the countries pillaged. And last, they question the capacities of African countries to preserve these historical items. 

But these are nonsensical claims and questions. There’s a Yoruba saying that the farm of father and son cannot be so contiguous to the extent of there being no demarcation. Apart from the fact that the West is not our father (if anything Africa being the cradle of humankind, we can lay claim to being the fathers of Western civilization), it is rather paternalistic to lay claim to our historical heritage as being for all of humanity that has to be kept within the homes of the murderers who stole these at gunpoint, and with bloodshed. 

It is also a bloody lie that the specific locations of these items cannot be identified. A significant proportion can be very well identified, if not be the plunderers, by those whom they plundered from; us! And the question of capacities rather reflects the continued imperialist domination of resources, science and technology. 

The struggle for restitution of the artefacts is not just one for reclaiming our cultural heritage. It is an important part of the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle. It is a critical moment of the continued decolonisation movement. 

The seemingly positive responses of the imperialist in recent times reflect how they handled earlier transitions from slave-trade to colonialism and subsequently from colonial rule to imperialism-as-neo-colonialism. 

They  make such transitions appear to be borne out of their benevolence and goodwill. But they are forced on them by the struggle of we, the oppressed peoples on one hand, and (particularly with the slave-trade) realisation of the fact that the next phase of their continued domination of our lives and societies would be more profitable for them. 

It is not accidental that the seeming flurry of restitution (which actually is still a trickle, really) started after 2020 i.e., after the massive global anti-racist mass movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. 

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, had expressed his intent to return stolen artefacts to its ex-colonies in Africa since 2017. But even this “is coming” promise was made only in the wake of rising anti-French sentiments in its ex-colonies on the continent. 

From 2017 to 2021, France returned only one of the said items, i.e., a sword stolen from Senegal during the colonial period. However, by the end of 2021, it returned 26 looted artefacts to the Benin Republic. 

Riding on the tide created by the 2020 anti-racist massquake, some Nigerians gave an answer to the question of capacity by establishing the Legacy Restoration Trust, with the vision of creating “a world-class museum, research and education centre” which “connects West Africa’s ancient heritage to its thriving contemporary arts and culture.”

The Trust has served as an intermediary for the Nigerian government and been involved in the government’s negotiations with foreign museums. 

The country has signed agreements for returns of our artefacts with several museums, institutions and the Church in Britain, Germany, Ireland and the United States. It is based on these agreements that 73 artefacts where returned in December 2022.

We welcome the return of these items of our cultural heritage, and call for a more rapid and thorough restitution by Western imperialism. And whilst we appreciate the role that the Legacy Restoration Trust has played and continues to play, we make haste to stress that privatisation of the process will not be accepted. 

We have had enough of the commodification of our heritage through colonial plunder. The government must play a central role in ensuring that the artefacts are publicly owned and preserved, with access to all Nigerians.  Above all, we call for the deepening of the decolonisation struggle at all levels; cultural, social, political, and economic. And this multi-faceted anti-imperialist struggle must be a strategic element of an anti-capitalist struggle for the liberation of African people who were brought under the heels of capitalist exploitation through the slave trade and colonialism. We will stand united with all oppressed and exploited people across the world in this fight to overthrow capitalism and bring to birth a socialist global order, where culture flourishes unencumbered by the virus of commodification, plunder, pillage and massacres. 

by Baba AYE

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