Text of The Press Conference by HMIC, Alh. Lai Mohammed to Announce the Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Cultural Property from Around the World

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TEXT OF THE PRESS CONFERENCE BY THE HONOURABLE MINISTER OF INFORMATION AND CULTURE, ALHAJI LAI MOHAMMED, TO ANNOUNCE THE RETURN AND RESTITUTION OF NIGERIA’S CULTURAL PROPERTY FROM AROUND THE WORLD…IN LAGOS ON THURSDAY, 28 NOV. 2019

Good afternoon gentlemen and thank you for honouring our invitation once again.

2.     We have called this press conference today to announce the launch of the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts from around the world.

3.     With this announcement, we are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available. Gentlemen, we are under no illusion that this

will be an easy task, but no one should also doubt our determination to make a success of this campaign.

4.     We cannot imagine by what logic an Ife Bronze or a Benin Bronze or a Nok Terracotta can belong to any other part of the globe except to the people of Nigeria, whose ancestors made them. We have never

laid claim to the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past.

5.     Some cynics might wonder: What is in an Ife bronze head or a Nok Terracotta that we will be launching a campaign to return or

restitute them? Our answer is simple: These timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our

heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history. Also, those who proudly display what

they did not produce are daily reaping financial gains from them, while those whose ancestors made them are not. Of course, as you all know, the tourism and culture sector is one of the critical sectors that have been identified for the diversification of the nation’s

economy, and these priceless heritage resources have a role to play.

How can we benefit from what is ours when most of them adorn the museums and private collections of others, who describe as their

properties?

6.     Gentlemen, in launching this campaign, our hands are strengthened by UNESCO and ECOWAS. Article 4 of the UNESCO 1970

Convention, to which most nations subscribe, identifies the categories of cultural property that form part of the cultural heritage of each

member state, thereby belonging to that State. By the provisions of this Article, they include cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property. Let’s relate these provisions to an Ife bronze head or a Benin Bronze head, both made several centuries ago. One cannot fathom how an individual or collective genius of people who had not visited that part of the

world created such object, or how they are “subject of a freely agreed exchange, or received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities”.

7.     Also, the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS Region met in December 2018 in Abuja and adopted a Political Declaration on the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. We are bound by this Declaration, which has further brought discussions towards a Plan of Action.

8.     We want to commend the work of the discussion group that is now known as the ‘Benin Dialogue Group’, which is working to resolve this issue. We are not averse to agreements such as the one being fashioned

out by the group. But whatever decision is taken by the group must be based on the inviolable, logical and natural conclusion that the looted/smuggled artifacts belong to Nigeria. Again, they can be enjoyed by art lovers all over the world, but on our terms, which must also benefit us. We also note some positive steps that have been taken by some countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, on this issue, but those are yet small steps.

9.    Let me say that we desire that our heritage resources circulate around the world, especially because we are aware that art lovers all over the world truly love them. We also know that all the major museums around the world desire to have them on loan. For these reasons, we do not mind to conduct joint exhibitions and have the objects loaned out too. But doing these is predicated on the condition that the nations and museums holding them understand and absolutely

agree that ownership of these cultural objects reside in the Nigerian State now and forever. Under no legal interpretation or rule shall we

ever be divested of the ownership of these objects, for they are intrinsically ours. They represent important pages in our history. In

other words, whether these heritage resources are presently domiciled in Nigeria or are in any other part of the world, whether they are in

public or private museums, in collections or in private households, they were wrought by the genius of our forebears. They shall never

belong to any other person or nation but to us.

10.   Gentlemen, we call on every museum and person holding on to our heritage resources anywhere in the world to initiate dialogue with us on the basis of the conditions we have enumerated today. We urge them to identify what is in their collections, transparently make them public, approach us for discussion on terms of return and restitution, as well as circulation and loans. They must acknowledge that ownership resides in us. They must be ready to sign agreements and Memoranda of

Understanding in this regard, and they must be ready to release some of these antiquities for immediate return to Nigeria.

11.    We will not be deterred by the well-worn argument that there was no customary international law that forbade the looting of

antiquities in war time in the 19th century, when most of these antiquities were looted. We will not agree that our claims are statute

barred. We will also not be swayed by the insulting argument that Nigeria, and Africa in general, does not have places to keep the

antiquities. After all we kept them somewhere before they were looted. If those who make that argument so desire, they can join us to build more museums that will house such returned antiquities.

12.   While we are keeping our strategy for the return and restitution of our artifacts close to our chest, let me announce here that,

beginning from next year, we will be organizing an annual National Conference on Restitution of Cultural Property. This is in line with the recommendation in the Declaration by ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments last year in Abuja. The essence of the conference is to keep the issue of return and restitution on the front burner of national discourse.

13.   Meanwhile, we are kick-starting the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts with a quest to retrieve the Ife Broze Head, which was one of the items stolen in 1987 when one of our national museums was broken into. After it was brought to an auction in London two years ago, the auction house observed that it was an Ife Bronze Head which belongs to the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List of cultural goods that are deemed to be the most vulnerable to illicit traffic. These lists are made available

to national police and customs authorities by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization as well as to museums, auction houses, and galleries. They are intended to help users identify the kinds of artifacts e.t.c that may have been stolen or smuggled so that they can be confiscated and returned to their rightful owners if an attempt is made to sell them illegally.

14.    Now, the London Metropolitan police has seized the object, and it has invited Nigeria to make a claim, otherwise they will have to

return it to the fellow claiming ownership. We have now started work on the return of the Ife Bronze head to Nigeria.

15.   Finally, gentlemen, we appeal to you to be part of this campaign, using your various platforms to publicize the campaign and

to keep it in the front burner of national discourse. We also appeal to Nigerians at home and in the diaspora to lend their support to the campaign. From time to time, we will be briefing Nigerians, through you, of the progress being made in bringing our looted and smuggled artifacts back here in Nigeria, where they belong.

16.   I thank you all for your kind attention

PS:

Gentlemen, we have just heard in the news that Cambridge University’s Jesus College has decided to repatriate a Benin Bronze Cockerel, known as ”okukor”, to Nigeria.

The Cockerel is one of the hundreds of Benin Bronzes that were taken after Benin City was occupied by the imperial troops in 1897, according to the BBC, which quoted the British Museum.

The Nigerian government is very delighted at this development, which we have been following for some time now, especially the role of the Nigerian students in that University in pushing for the repatriation of the Cockerel.

Considering the hundreds of Benin Bronzes looted during that occupation, the decision to return the cockerel is like a drop in the ocean, but it is an important drop and we welcome it. Again, we appeal to all those holding our artifacts to follow the footsteps of the Cambridge University by willingly returning them to Nigeria, where they rightly belong. I thank you once again.