University of Aberdeen returns stolen Benin bronze head

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University of Aberdeen returns stolen Benin bronze head

By Rotimi Ijikanmi

The University of Aberdeen, Scotland has returned a Benin Bronze head, one of thousands of religious and cultural artefacts looted in ancient Benin kingdom by British forces in 1897.

The sculpture, which depicts the head of an Oba (king) and stolen during the destruction of Benin City by the British military expedition, was handed over at a ceremony on Thursday in Aberdeen.

According to a statement made available to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on the handing, the artefact was purchased by the University of Aberdeen at an auction in 1957.

Mr Babatunde Adebiyi, the Legal Adviser of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), who made the statement available said the University agreed to the full repatriation of the Benin Bronze in March.

He said the Nigerian team to the handing over was led by Malam Suleiman Sani, the Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria in UK and the Director-General of NCMM, Prof. Abba Tijani.

Also in the team were Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the younger brother of the current Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare 11, Chief Charles Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, the Obasuyi of Benin, Prince Isa Bayero, a Prince of the Kano Emirates and Malam Abdul Gimba, Director Museums, NCMM.

Adebiyi said the conversation for the repatriation of the artefact commenced with a recent review of collections and research into its provenance.

He said the research confirmed that it was one of the  ‘bronzes’, acquired in immoral circumstances during the Benin Punitive Expedition in which the royal palace of the Oba was looted and burned.

“As a result, in 2020 the University instigated a conversation through Prof. Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in Babcock University, Nigeria, with the Legal Adviser of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, the Edo State Government and the Royal Court of the Oba, regarding its return.

“A formal request for repatriation by the Nigerian Federal Government through Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture and supported by the other parties, was then proposed”

“In March 2021, this was unanimously approved by the University Court following discussion by an expert panel, which included representatives of the University, the Director of the Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow and Prof. Sodipo representing the Nigerian partners,’’ he said.

Adebiyi said the process of a legal transfer of the artefact then began through his office with the University working to support the timescales identified by the Nigerian partners for its physical return.

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As contained in the statement, the Information minister whose message was delivered at the event said Nigeria warmly welcomed the return of the Benin Bronze Head by the university.

Mohammed reiterated his calls on all individuals, organisations and countries in possession of Nigerian artefacts to voluntarily return them to where they belong.

The Oba of Benin who also sent a message, said regardless of the resistance in some quarters, the return of stolen art was the right thing to do.

“Some say that they acquired their own collections. This is like saying, well, I know this item was originally stolen but because I bought it somewhere, then I’m okay. That notion is completely wrong and unfortunate.’’

On his part, Tijani, the NCMM boss appreciated the initiative of the university to release the Benin Bronze head in their collection.

“The university commenced this move without being instigated. This is unprecedented.

“On its volition, the university felt it ought to return to Nigeria an important cultural object it obtained some decades ago through what can pass in the United Kingdom as legal acquisition.

“We earnestly expect without any doubt that other persons and institutions will reach out to us for talks on the way forward concerning Nigerian artefacts in their possession,’’ he said.

Prof. George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: “over the last 40 years the Benin Bronzes have become important symbols of injustice.

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.

“The university took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do.

“And we are extremely grateful for the collective approach taken by the partners in Nigeria, which has facilitated this return,’’ Boyne said.

Boyne reiterated commitment to the safe-keeping of the bronze “in true essence of its sovereignty’, until it is put on public display in Nigeria.