Oba Ewuare, Obaseki and the Benin Arts Divide
In March this year, the University of Aberdeen, Scotland announced it would return one of the thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings looted by British soldiers from the palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897. According to the Head of Museums and Special Collections, Neil Curtis, the University had previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, following a procedure that considers such requests in consultation with claimants. “An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do,” said Curtis. Professor George Boyne, principal and vice chancellor, provided further insight into what informed the university’s decision: “It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We therefore decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”
For the Twitter generation who may not understand what I am talking about (because they were deprived of learning Nigeria’s history), let me break it down in two paragraphs before I go to the controversy that provokes this intervention. In the late 19th century, what is now the Edo state capital had a strong kingdom that survived the British expedition and the 1885 Berlin Conference where Africa was partitioned and shared among European powers at the time. In the last decade of that century, James Phillips, the British Consul General for Niger Coast Protectorate (the present-day South-South zone) found the Benin Kingdom too independent and sought to neutralise the powers of the Oba on the pretext that the palace was engaged in human sacrifices. He therefore requested permission from London to invade the city, depose the Oba and replace him with a Native Council. “I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool,” Phillips wrote in his December 1896 letter to Lord Salisbury, then Foreign Secretary.
Without waiting for a response from London, Phillips sent a request to the Benin palace to expect a delegation from him. Despite the plea from the Oba of Benin that he could not at the period receive visitors, Philips nonetheless sent a military contingent on a supposedly peaceful mission. But knowing the history of the British, particularly in their dealings with King Jaja of Opobo, the suspicious chiefs decided to confront the British troops. In the aftermath, only two members of the contingent survived to tell the tale of what became known in British history as the ‘Benin Massacre’. In retaliation, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, a Naval commander was appointed to lead as many as 1,200 Royal Marines for the 9th February 1897 invasion of Benin, capture the Oba and destroy the city, in an operation codenamed ‘The Benin Punitive Expedition.’
It took just weeks after that invasion for the looted Benin artifacts to find their way to museums and private collections around the world; either as gifts or through purchases. The first public auction reportedly took place in May 1897, following advertisement in the ‘Times’ newspaper for the sale of “several carved tusks and other trophies from Benin city collected by naval officers in the recent expedition”. But from France (where President Emmanuel Macron has openly endorsed the idea) to Germany that intends to return many (of about 580 Benin artworks scattered in Berlin museums) next year, there is an ongoing conversation around the world about the morality of keeping these artifacts. But there is serious contention in Nigeria between the current Benin monarch, Oba Ewuare II and the Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Obaseki regarding the issue of ownership and where these artifacts will be domiciled when they return. While Obaseki is working towards the creation of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in the state capital, Oba Ewuare II contends that only a museum domiciled within the palace from where the artifacts were looted, will serve the end of justice.
Two weeks ago, the Oba of Benin was in Abuja, and he called me. After a long telephone chat, he arranged a meeting between me and the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Emmanuel Ehanire, who hails from Benin. A day after my meeting with Ehinare who briefed me on developments concerning the artifacts and the contending issues, I met Oba Ewuare II at his Asokoro residence amid Benin Chiefs, including my egbon, Oseni Elamah, the executive secretary of the Joint Tax Board (JTB) and the Okaoivbiore of Benin Kingdom. In an emotional voice that spoke to his pain and anger, Oba Ewuare II shared the story of the artifacts and the sacred mandate he received from his late father, the revered Oba Erediuawa, 39th Benin monarch who ruled for 37 years from 1979 to 2016. Before I get to the beef of my chat with Oba Ewuare II, let me recount the exchange between him and Governor Obaseki on the matter.
A letter dated 10th March 2021 signed by Mr Dennis I. Osaretin, executive assistant to Oba Ewuare II on legal & corporate affairs, was directed to all foreign missions and embassies in Nigeria, the European Union Commission Office, the British Museum, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Information and Culture and the Director General, National Museum Commission. In the letter, Oba Ewuare II claimed that he is “from time immemorial, the sole authority and custodian of Benin traditional law and custom” and for that reason “all Edo traditional and cultural rites, citizen interests and proprietary rights over collective intellectual property as well as landed, movable, non-moveable property within the premises of the Palace of the Oba” are vested in him. Same with “dealings in any artifact of historical, ancestral, spiritual, cultural or native religious rites’ of significance and value, pertaining to the great Benin kingdom and her heritage,” also vested solely in him or persons or groups so delegated by him.
Then the kernel of the message: “Particular mention is made here of extensive property seized or stolen from the palace, during the reign of Oba Ovenramen Nogbaisi, Oba of Benin Kingdom, (1888 to 1897) the great, great grandfather and direct bloodline ancestor of Oba Ewuare II, in the wake of an invasion by British Forces in the year 1897, during which the Oba’s palace was burglarized, vandalized and items looted by aliens; a calamity that seriously impacted the over 1,000 years old Benin civilization in a destructive manner. By that expedition, the history, cultural identity and dignity of Benin people were injured, when priceless ancient heirlooms, the expressions of their history, heritage, and values, were forcefully appropriated and exported by aliens, only to be found in museums around the world.” The monarch then put it on record that neither the Benin royal family nor the board of trustees of the ‘Oba Ewuare II Foundation’, at any point in time, whether verbally or in written form, waived their “proprietary rights of custody of ancient Benin Palace and religious cult artifacts, nor appointed agents or intermediaries to act for, or on behalf of the Palace for this purpose or on any such other business.”
While Oba Ewuare II welcomes the interest and renewed commitment of Edo sons and daughters and other local and international stakeholders, including Governor Obaseki, in the bid to correct “a historical wrong on the royal family and people of Benin, by restoring their expropriated property to their rightful owner and location,” he announced that the ‘Oba Ewuare II Foundation’ had already been established as a special purpose vehicle to “midwife the setting up, for national and international public good, of museums to hold and place on display, said artifacts, of which the Palace shall be lead custodian.”
On what he considers the only appropriate solution to the logjam, the Benin monarch concluded that he and the Board of Trustees of Oba Ewuare II Foundation, “have long before now, mooted the idea of building a classic museum to be known as ‘The Benin Royal Museums’ and to be located in the premises of the palace of the Oba of Benin, where they rightly belong. The Royal Museum is to inherit, protect and manage all artifacts that are returned from the various museums across the world, in trust for the royal family as the heritage of Edo people, for the benefit of students and visitors from all around Nigeria and the world.”
Meanwhile, the governor has responded to the issues raised by Oba Ewuare II by stating his own side of the story. The Benin Dialogue Group, according to Obaseki in a 14th May 2021 letter he personally signed and addressed to Oba Ewuare II, “is a body made up of curators of major European museums and representative of the palace of the Oba of Benin” that had been meeting for over a decade without much success until he became governor. Upon interrogation, Obaseki said he discovered that three main problems were inhibiting progress in the effort to return the artifacts. The first, according to the governor, has to do with the lack of advanced museum storage and display infrastructure in Benin. “Having had these works in their custody for almost a century, the international museums argued that artifacts of this importance need to be stored in an environment that possess adequate climatic controls regulating humidity, temperature and other conditions, as well as advanced security systems that operate on a 24/7 basis. To preserve these artifacts, they argue that this infrastructure does not exist in Nigeria today, and are expensive to build and maintain.” The need to respond to this challenge, Obaseki wrote, led him to launch the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) project which he said, “will provide a comprehensive, world-class set of infrastructure for the storage, research and display of objects not just for Benin artifacts, but for artifacts and art from all West Africa spanning the influence of Great Benin empire.”
The second problem, according to the governor, centred around the multiple claims of owners/relevance in the negotiation process. Obaseki said that to return such priceless objects, “many institutions and governments who have custody of these works abroad want to be certain that they are dealing with relevant counterparties in Nigeria. One argument raised to forestall the return of artifacts is the question of who the works should be returned to. They argue that there was no country called Nigeria or state government when many of the works were taken to Europe. However, under Nigeria Law, these artifacts of national important come under the purview of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments.” So, according to Obaseki, “a Trust that is independent of all three parties but where each party as an interest allows these issues to be dealt with once and for all,” became imperative, hence he acted accordingly. “The trust does NOT own the object and can only hold an object with the implicit authorization of each party, which means that all relevant parties continue to maintain any and all ownership claims it has – the trust simply acts as a common agent for the federal government, state government and royal palace. It allows the artifacts to be returned to Nigeria and then we can resolve the ownership and display issues on our soil without the involvement of foreign parties,” Obaseki stated.
The third problem the governor identified as informing his decision was the lack of an international standard funding vehicle for the project. Obaseki contends that creating world class facilities and infrastructure to house and maintain these objects requires substantial funding. “A credible funding vehicle will need to be set up which will be structured specifically to attract funding from international foundations, institutions and individuals. Such international funding source required a new vehicle, designed to their requirements with participation/ownership by relevant stakeholders but with a majority of independent directors (satisfactory to them) who they will hold personally accountable for the financial transparency, reporting and performance of the Trust.”
The Legacy Restoration Trust, according to Obaseki, was established to satisfy these exacting funding requirements. “This vehicle will be responsible for not just the establishment of the museum complex but on-going maintenance of such complex,” argued Obaseki who said he had to get a seasoned financier that is very familiar to the international investment community to chair that body. “To date, the Trust has already attracted substantial funding from both international institutions as well as local sources, on the back of the full, written support and authorization from both federal and state government.”
Obaseki explained further that plans by ‘The Legacy Restoration Trust’ and the EMOWAA remain “an integral part of a revamped cultural district” that is central to his government’s urban regeneration and planning. He then concluded his letter with an admonition for Oba Ewuare II: “While I understand that there are concerns and issues that need to be discussed, however given the progress and successes in our efforts to repatriate these works and the role of German Government in this regard, it is important that we present a united position and avoid the appearance of disunity which gives detractors and those opposed to the return of object the excuse to delay such returns.”
In my conversation with Oba Ewuare II, he explained what the Benin artifacts mean to him and why he can never agree to any deal that would return them anywhere except the palace. The more the Oba spoke, the more his story resembled the Biblical account in the book of Chronicles when King David was preparing to transfer the throne to his son, Solomon. Oba Ewuare II who started his diplomatic career with the United Nations in the early eighties served as Nigeria’s Ambassador to Sweden, with accreditation to Norway, Denmark, and the Republic of Finland. He would later serve in Angola and Italy. It was during his diplomatic assignment in the nineties that the idea started for the monarch. “When I was appointed the ambassador to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, my father (who was then on the throne) considered it a very strategic posting because these Scandinavian countries are also royalties. Before I left Nigeria, he commissioned two special Benin bronze works for the Kings of Norway and Sweden. There was also a present for the Queen of Denmark which I cannot now remember. But the two others were big bronze works, heavy materials that were shipped to me abroad and were cleared by embassy officials.”
Pointing to the Health Minister, Ehanire who was seated beside me, the Oba said: “the district where they do those bronze works in Benin is where the honourable minister comes from. That was why I asked you to meet him yesterday. These bronze works have spiritual and aesthetic values. Now, why did my father send those bronze materials? The idea was for my host countries to know that the ambassador they were receiving was also coming from an ancient and respected kingdom. My father also gave me a special message for them. In presenting the bronze gifts, I told the kings in these countries about the stolen Benin artifacts that were scattered across homes and museums in Europe and the fact that we needed their help to return some of them. My father always said that we should not seek a return of all the artifacts. His message was that we should allow some to remain in Europe so that they can continue to tell our stories. That was how these efforts started.”
According to Oba Ewuare II, he used his tours of duty as Nigerian ambassador to lead this campaign because he saw it as a national duty, even though he had a personal interest as a direct descendant (great great grandson) of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi under whose reign the artifacts were carted away. “Any opportunity I had; I spoke about these artifacts. From Sweden, I was posted to Angola where I happened to have met the current Chief of Staff to the President, Prof Ibrahim Gambari. As UN Under-Secretary General, he was there to broker the peace deal. From Angola, I moved to Rome as Nigerian ambassador to Italy where I hosted your late boss (President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua) during the G8 Summit in L’Aquila in July 2009.”
Oba Ewuare II said he was in constant communication with his late father whose efforts on the issue, along with others, led UNESCO to recognise the Benin Moth as a World Heritage Site. “Incidentally, I learnt a significant lesson while I was serving in Rome. When I started the conversation on Benin arts, they told me of their own experience with France which, as at then, I was not conversant with. They said most of their artefacts were carried away and were in France and that they were also battling to retrieve them. I felt encouraged by what I learnt from them about their own history.” A significant event also occurred while Oba Ewuare II was in Rome as Nigerian ambassador which he recalls. “Dr Boladei Igali was the ambassador to Sweden at the time so one day, he called me about an exhibition on Benin Arts in Stockholm. When he noticed I was hesitant about attending, he pleaded that my presence had become central to the event since it was about my heritage. He added that he had used my presence to sell the exhibition to the Swedish royal family. I had to clear from the Ministry of foreign affairs in Abuja and I was granted leave to go to Sweden. It turned out to be a big event. In my speech at the occasion, I made a peach for the return of the stolen Benin artworks. It was a passionate plea. I told them that the artworks would only have value when they are domiciled in their original abode. The discussions I had with a few people after the event convinced me that people in Europe were paying attention to the campaign.”
Having gone to such lengths, Oba Ewuare II said he could not understand why Governor Obaseki would be establishing a museum to house such artifacts outside the palace and without prior consultation with him. He recalled the day in 2014 when a retired medical consultant, Dr Mark Walker, whose grandfather was one of the soldiers involved in the 1897 British raid, visited Benin to personally hand over two statues to his later father, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, at a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries. “So, there were already discussions which my father started on the possible site for the museum within the precincts of the palace. I had held a discussion with the governor on this before. He is aware of the place we have in mind. But now, all these ideas have been jettisoned,” Oba Ewuare lamented.
The monarch believes that if the governor really meant to carry critical stakeholders along, the composition of his ‘Legacy Restoration Trust’ should not have been done without due consultation with, and input from, his Palace. The legal framework under which the Trust was established, the funding requirements, accounting mechanism and the identity of the ‘seasoned financier’ who would be chairman remain shrouded in secrecy, according to Oba Ewuare. These and many other issues make the whole arrangement suspicious to him. Besides, he takes the issue very personal. “Return of the looted Benin artefacts to the palace is a sacred mandate given me by my father. It was something he started and would want me to see to reality. I will not agree to any deal that takes the artifacts to any other place but the palace of the Oba of Benin from where they were looted,” Oba Ewuare II vowed.
Moving forward on this issue will require the governor and the monarch sitting down to resolve their differences. Incidentally, I had been re-introduced to the Benin story when my brother, Ose Oyamendan, a Hollywood-based filmmaker attempted to produce a documentary about the stolen artifacts. After years of trying and being frustrated, Ose abandoned the project to complete an award-winning documentary, ‘Other Voices’, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last Saturday, it was part of Ose’s coming documentary film on the ‘June 12 crisis’ that the federal government adopted for telecast on local channels to mark ‘Democracy Day’. But the conversation around Benin artifacts continues across the world.
Last week, the London Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would be returning to Nigeria three Benin artworks. They include two 16th-century brass plaques created at the Court of Benin, and a brass head produced in Ile-Ife (Osun State) around the 14th century. “The plaques produced at the Court of Benin, ‘Warrior Chief’ and ‘Junior Court Official’, were among the works removed from the Royal Palace in 1897 during the British military occupation of Benin,” the Met explained in a statement. A month earlier, Museums in Germany also agreed on a coordinated approach to the return of Benin bronzes following a meeting with the country’s culture minister, Monika Grütters. According to Grütters, the participants were “in agreement that addressing Germany’s colonial past is an important issue for the whole of society and a core task for cultural policy” and “reaffirmed their willingness in principle to make substantial returns” to Nigeria.
That Germany’s museums, like their London Metropolitan counterpart, pledged to “create extensive transparency” regarding the decision to return the Benin bronzes in their collections resulted from recent efforts by Governor Obaseki through the EMOWAA initiative. Therefore, I believe both the palace and the government should work together with the federal government on this matter. I agree with Oba Ewuare II not only about the proprietary rights of the artworks but also that their return will only have meaning if they are domiciled at the palace from which they were looted. But I don’t see why this should create a problem for Governor Obaseki who I am aware has done extensive work on the proposed museum for which he is really very passionate.
In writing my book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire: How African Migrants Risk Everything in their Futile Search for a Better Life in Europe’, I spent considerable time in Benin early in 2018 to research my chapter on ‘Edo and the Prostitution Ring’. That provided opportunity for me to have extensive discussions with Obaseki on sundry issues, including that of the stolen Benin artworks and his effort to have them returned. So, now that there are positive signals in that direction, there is no reason why Oba Ewuare II and Obaseki cannot work together. The West African museum being envisaged will be enriched if domiciled within the precincts of the palace of the Oba of Benin. The returned Benin artifacts can, for instance, take one wing while other works are featured in another. The palace of the Oba of Benin, with its history (including the fact that it was from there that the artworks were forcefully taken) and culture will add value to the entire project.
As things stand, the controversy between Oba Ewuare II and Governor Obaseki only plays into the hands of political hawks in Britain who do not want these artifacts returned to Nigeria. Last September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden wrote national museums in the country, warning them not to take any action on objects with “difficult and contentious” histories if they want to retain government funding. Given that the British Museum which houses almost 900 of these items is already shielded by the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983, any division in Nigeria will be exploited to ensure that these stolen artifacts remain in Britain.
From my reading of the situation, both Oba Ewuare II and Governor Obaseki are working to achieve the same goal: Return of the stolen Benin assets that are tied to the history of their people and culture as well as the legacy of Oba Ovenramen who refused to be cowed by some brutal colonialists and paid heavy price in the process. The only fitting and proper final resting place for those artworks is the palace of the Oba of Benin. But the governor is also right on the need to put in place proper mechanisms to ensure that the returned artifacts do not deteriorate or disappear. I am sure that both Governor Obaseki and Oba Ewuare II can work out a compromise in the interest of Nigeria and all Benin people.