By H.E. Mr. Yusuf Tuggar, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Germany.
The subject of restitution of Africa’s stolen cultural properties is not a new one; African countries like Nigeria have been calling for the return of such assets since they gained independence from colonial rule. The momentum the subject has gained of recent, is an attestation to the progress we have made as humans in recognising and observing universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, irrespective of race, sex, language or religion.
When Nigeria became independent in1960, many African countries were still under colonial bondage- Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa were ruled by racist regimes. It was as part of the struggle to liberate such countries that Nigeria hosted the Festival of Black & African Arts & Culture in 1977 (FESTAC ‘77). Culture was at the very centre of the struggle against colonialism because of the manner it was used to racially segregate people under colonial rule in sub-Saharan Africa.
African cultures and their memetic manifestations were considered inferior by colonial overlords. An epistemology was created that promised integration and social mobility to the ‘native’, if she or he abandoned her or his inferior culture and adopted that of the European overlord and mastered it.
Exclusive European living quarters were created that Africans could aspire to live in only if they abandoned their culture and traditions wholesale and adopted European ones. The educational system also emphasised this epistemology with a historiography that presented sub-Saharan Africa as tabula rasa with (to paraphrase Hegel) no history worth studying prior to contact with enlightened outsiders. Such an epistemological foundation to newly independent African nation-states made nation building for countries like Nigeria all the more challenging, even as they struggled to help liberate others.
But in most cases the best evidence to demonstrate to young Africans that African culture and history were neither inferior nor non-existent before contact with ‘enlightened outsiders’ was not available; it was in the possession of northern hemispheric museums and private collectors. Nigeria, the most populous African country with over 350 different languages (and the largest economy today), was not even allowed to borrow the famous Queen Idia mask to use as the symbol of FESTAC 77 from Britain. The mask was part of the huge loot stolen by British soldiers during the murderous attack on Benin City in 1897. Some of these items were sold on to museums in Germany that are today finally beginning to respond positively to Nigeria’s demand for their return.
Restitution has not been short of international legal premises over the last 50 years; the United Nations General Assembly, UNESCO, International Council of Museums (ICOM) have all enacted resolutions and conventions that were for the most part ignored. Although Germany was not a signatory to a 1970 UNESCO Convention prohibiting the export of cultural properties, in 1972, the German Bundesgerichtshof (Supreme Court) in Karlsruhe it upheld the provisions of the Convention as well as Nigerian domestic law in a decision on six bronze statues illegally shipped from Port Harcourt to Hamburg. The court maintained that the UNESCO Convention was representative of international public policy and “the export of cultural property contrary to a prohibition of the country of origin for the reason merits, in the interest of maintaining proper standards for the international trade in cultural objects, no protection from [German] civil law”.
Nigeria is happy with the support restitution of its stolen cultural properties is receiving in Germany and the all-important cooperation of the German government. The discourse further presents an opportunity for a global re-evaluation of the ontology of Museums in the 21st Century. The time is rife.
For further information:
Embassy of Nigeria in Germany: https://nigeriaembassygermany.org
H.E. Mr. Yusuf Tuggar, photography by Marie Staggat.