Ghana, Nigeria and the quest for UK looted treasure

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Recently, Ghana celebrated the return of valuable artefacts looted during the colonial era. These artefacts, now on public display, have brought joy and pride to the people of Ghana. In contrast, Nigeria, despite receiving similar returns, has not yet showcased its treasures. This raises questions about the differences in the handling and public display of these significant cultural items.

On April 12, a convoy traveled from Ghana’s capital, Accra, to the central city of Kumasi, carrying 32 pieces of gold and silver. These artefacts included beautiful necklaces, a peace pipe, and a ceremonial sword. Most of these items were taken by British soldiers during invasions in 1874 and 1896. After being in the UK for many years, they were finally returned to Ghana.

The convoy arrived at Manhyia Palace, the residence of the current king, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II. Amid emotional scenes, the king opened the crates containing the returned items. The Asante people, who have long demanded the return of their plundered gold, were thrilled. “We did it,” said Osei Tutu II, highlighting the cultural and emotional significance of these returned treasures.

Ivor Agyeman-Duah, director of the Manhyia Palace Museum, played a crucial role in negotiating the return of the Asante gold. The artefacts were held by the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. Due to British laws preventing the permanent return of these items, they have been sent to Ghana on long-term loan. While this solution is not ideal for many, it was seen as a necessary compromise to end decades of stalemate.

The situation in Nigeria offers a stark contrast. The Benin Bronzes, thousands of brass and ivory artefacts looted in 1897, have also been returned to Nigeria from Germany and other countries. However, none of these returned bronzes have been publicly displayed yet. They remain in secure storage, with a few in the Oba’s palace in Benin City.

There are several reasons for the delay in Nigeria. Disagreements between Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and the Oba’s palace over the ownership of the Benin Bronzes have caused friction. Additionally, the much-anticipated Benin Royal Museum has not yet materialized. Instead, the NCMM is focusing on building a new secure storage facility to address concerns about the safety of the artefacts.

Nigeria’s recent elections and the slow appointment of new ministers and a new head of the NCMM have also contributed to the delays. In contrast, the Ghanaian government has taken a more hands-off approach, allowing quicker decisions and fewer bureaucratic hurdles. This has facilitated smoother negotiations and faster returns of artefacts.

The Fowler Museum at the University of California recently returned seven looted items to Ghana, which are now displayed at Manhyia Palace Museum. Ivor Agyeman-Duah is also in talks with other institutions for more returns. He emphasizes the importance of focusing on the cultural and educational benefits of these artefacts being back home, rather than the terms of their return.

The successful return and public display of looted artefacts in Ghana offer a hopeful example for other countries. Despite the complex negotiations and legal limitations, the outcome has been positive for Ghana. Nigeria, facing its own unique challenges, can still learn from Ghana’s approach. Ultimately, the return of these cultural treasures is about more than just artefacts; it’s about reclaiming history, identity, and inspiring future generations.

Mr. Agyeman-Duah, reflecting on the process, encourages people to appreciate the returned artefacts and their cultural significance. He believes that showcasing these historical items can inspire future generations by highlighting the achievements of their ancestors. The agreement with British museums is for three years, with a possibility of renewal. If the artefacts are requested back, Ghana has pledged to honor the agreement, showing a commitment to their word and fostering continued cooperation.

In summary, while Ghana has made significant strides in returning and displaying its cultural artefacts, Nigeria faces more complex challenges. However, the efforts in both countries highlight a growing recognition of the importance of reclaiming and celebrating cultural heritage.

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