July 31, (THEWILL) – They were stolen in time of war. They were returned in time of peace. But 125 years after the British looted hundreds of Benin artefacts in 1897, finding an ideal home for them from whence they were purloined is pitting some traditional institutions in Benin against the state government. THEWILL looks at the unfolding drama between locals laying claim to what ought to be a common treasure. Michael Jimoh reports…
In the afternoon of Thursday July 28, 2022, under a relentless tropical downpour, the road from Holy Aruosa Catholic Cathedral on Akpakpava Street Benin City had some unusual gathering of young men and women in a protest march. Apparently, the unceasing rainfall didn’t seem to deter them from their mission that day. The procession moved to the palace of Oba Ewuare 11 and then ended a few metres away directly opposite the royal grounds, the proposed site for Benin Royal Museum.
It was not for nothing.
Aruosa Cathedral Church itself is one of the oldest Christian religious institutions in Nigeria build circa 1515 or 1517. Generations of Benin kings have worshipped there, including the current monarch. For the protesters, starting the great trek from the ancient church to the palace is symbolic because the reason for the march itself concerned the monarch and the recently returned Benin artefacts from Germany.
The protesters had mapped out their route from the church straight to Oba’s palace just across Ring Road on the other side of Airport Road. It was a protest against the Edo State Government over some artworks belonging to all sons and daughters of Edo state.
Under the aegis of Coalition of Benin Socio Cultural Organisation, the marchers insisted that the planned Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) be stopped by Governor Godwin Obaseki’s administration. In place of EMOWAA, they rooted for Benin Royal Museum not far from Oba Ewuare’s palace. Their reason is less because of the proximity and more for cultural factors.
Many of the artefacts were looted from the palace of Oba Ovoramwen during whose reign the British attacked Benin with a detachment of Hausa and Rhodesian soldiers. Speaking for CBSCO, Osaze Amos-Edobor, Coordinator General of the group led the procession from the ancient church to the seat of traditional authority in the ancient city and then to the site of the BRM, insisting that construction should begin at the proposed site. Obaseki’s planned EMOWAA, the group claimed, was “alien to them.”
Also speaking on behalf of CBSCO, Osaro Iyamu who is Secretary declared thusly: “Today, we are here to inform our great Oba, the Oba of Benin Kingdom, to appeal to him not to be deterred, not to be disturbed. We are here to appeal to him to commence work on the proposed Benin Royal Museum. We are appealing that work should commence next week.
“We have great sons and daughters who have the wherewithal and we are also using this medium to advise them and appeal to them to join the palace to commence the construction of Benin Royal Museum. It is only the Benin Royal Museum that we the Edo people know.
“We are at the permanent site for the museum to show to the world that Omo N’Oba already has a place for the construction of the Benin Royal Museum, which is just opposite the palace. We don’t know any other museum for our artefacts apart from this.”
At about this time last year, rumours made the round that the state government was planning to build a museum for the repatriated artefacts from Europe, specifically Germany. The state government, it was said, had liaised with a company, Legacy Trust Company to manage EMOWAA where the artworks would be housed. It seemed at the time a direct counter command to the Benin monarch’s wish to have the works in the palace grounds.
Though work is yet to begin on either site, the controversy over who has the right to build a museum for the repatriated works has lingered up till last week, which was the reason for the march in the rain by a number of Benin youths.
The week before, perhaps following security reports of the imminent march and support for Oba Ewuare11, and possibly not wanting any run-in with the monarch, Governor Obaseki himself made it plainly clear that his government was not in any conflict with the palace over the repatriated works of art – mostly bronze works, sculptural pieces and figurines.
At a stakeholders meeting of the first phase of EMOWAA, Obaseki asked rhetorically: “What is our plan for culture? As a people, we have a lot of assets from our past and it’s our responsibility to recreate them. So, it is beyond just several pieces of artwork; no, it’s beyond that. It is about using that as the contact point to bring out the best of who we are”.
Continuing, he let on that “there is a whole lot of research that still needs to be done. We can’t have things about us being explained to us from Europe. Nobody is going to do it for us. That is why we must insist that when these works come, we host them here in Edo state, their home, so that it’s available for everybody to see. There is no quarrel with the palace.”
Also speaking on his principal’s behalf on July 13, Osarodion Ogie, SSG to the state, drove home Obaseki’s point about the supposed conflict of interest with the palace.
The Edo State government has said there was no conflict of interest between it and the Oba of Benin over the artefacts, adding that the seeming negative perception was unfortunate…
“The publicity being given the issues creates a wrong impression
of conflict between the government and the Oba of Benin, His Majesty, Oba Ewuare II.
“The Edo State government and the governor have always acted transparently and in consonance with existing federal and state laws in all matters relating to the proposed return of the artefacts and monuments.
“The actions of the state government thus far on this issue have been driven by selfless, patriotic considerations and in the best interest of Edo state and Edo people…Governor Godwin Obaseki has displayed and will continue to display immense respect for our traditional institutions and, therefore, will continue to make effort to secure a private audience with His Royal Majesty to discuss his concern
“The governor has, consequently, ordered that on no account should anyone, whether in government or acting independently, engage in disrespectful exchanges and/or altercation with our revered Royal Majesty and the Benin Royal Palace.”
In the meantime, like CBSCO, many prominent Benin sons and daughters, have rooted for the palace as the custodian of returned works from Europe. Benjamin Onyenwense is one, and also a social activist. The looted works should be “kept in the custody of the Oba of Benin.”
On the lingering controversy between state and traditional institution, Onyenwense enjoins Obaseki “to have sincere dialogue with the Benin monarch with a view to reaching mutual understanding on the best way the artefacts would be of utmost benefit to the royal palace and the Edo people.”
Onetime deputy governor of Edo state, Lucky Imasuen, also spoke his mind on the lingering controversy. In one interview on Arise TV, Imasuen stated clearly that the works should be housed in a museum in the palace. “The fight to return this artefacts back to Benin started several years ago during the reign of Oba Akenzua and Oba Erediauw,” Imasuen said. “The current Oba who was Crown Prince and an ambassador to several European countries was mandated by his father to ensure that these artefacts are returned back to Nigeria. The palace of the Oba of Benin belong to Benin people. The artefacts belong to the Benin people. The Oba of Benin is the authorized custodian of our heritage…You cannot possibly take things out of the palace of the Oba of Benin.”