A simmering dispute between Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo state, and Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, could jeopardise the return of the stolen Benin artefacts to Nigeria.
In 1897, the Benin kingdom, which was well-known for its rich cultural heritage and artefacts, was invaded by British soldiers, in what is now known as the Benin invasion of 1897.
Thousands of bronze castings and other cultural artefacts were destroyed while some were carted away.
Monica Grutters, German minister of state for culture, had said the country is ready to make a “substantial return” of the 1,130 looted artefacts from the beginning of 2022.
Several museums in the UK have also made announcements of repatriation.
But Ewuare II and Obaseki have been at loggerheads over who will house the artefacts.
Obaseki had said “a transformational museum is to be built in Benin City, to house the artefacts upon their return, as part of a new cultural district in the city”.
The governor is doing this alongside a Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT) group.
But the Oba of Benin countered his statement, saying the stolen bronzes are not the property of the Edo state government but that of the Benin kingdom and maintained that the “only legitimate destination for the artefacts” is the Benin royal museum which will be sited within the vicinity of the Oba of Benin’s palace.
According to the BBC, the British museum has signed a deal with LRT for an archaeology project in Benin City, and the German government discussing doing the same and funding an LRT building worth millions of dollars to initially house returned Bronzes.
British and German officials, as well as other Europeans, are said to have embraced the LRT in part because they believed trust and the Oba were working together.
The dispute between the leaders may, however, jeopardise the return of the artefacts.
A director of a European museum which has a large collection of the bronzes and has previously spoken in favour of their return, said, “Our policy is that if claimants are in dispute amongst themselves, we wait until they resolve it”.
Similarly, Neil Curtis, director of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland Museum, which had earlier this year said his museum will give back a Benin bronze head unconditionally, said he will be “very uncomfortable” if it is returned without agreement among all parties in Nigeria.
But the federal government has said it will take possession of the repatriated Benin artefacts and will take into “cognizance the culture that produced the art works”.
Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is reported to have said the dispute between the Oba and Obaseki was a private matter between them — “local politics that cannot slow down restitution”.
He suggested that a compromise can be made whereby Benin bronzes are returned to various museums within Benin City, including one within the palace grounds as well as LRT’s Edo Museum of Western African Art (EMOWAA).