By Suyi Ayodele
The Benin massacre of 1897 was yet another in the series of the unpardonable atrocities perpetrated by the agents of the Royal Niger Company in their bid to secure for Britain, economic dominion of the Niger Delta”. This quotation describes the unfortunate event that led to the death of one of Africa’s most prosperous empires, the Benin Empire, some 124 years ago. Abiola E. Ola’s ‘A Textbook of West African History: AD 1000 to Present Day’, contains details of that calamity. At the end of the killings and arson by the British imperialists, the Benin Kingdom was brought to its knees. The reigning Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, was exiled to Calabar in the present-day Cross River State. In his place, Chief Agho Ogbedeoyo Obaseki, a childhood friend of the Oba, who also held the title Obaseki of Benin Kingdom was appointed head of the Benin Council of Chiefs in September 1897 by the British Lords.
And like the biblical thief, the invading army of the British government looted everything that was golden in the kingdom. The palace of Oba Ovonramwen was looted and every valuable item, especially the priceless Benin bronze and artworks were carted away by the rampaging army of occupation. Like the locusts that they were, the British invading army left nothing in the most expansive palace ever in the history of the Black race. The stolen artefacts, mostly what the first set of missionaries in the Benin Kingdom labelled “idols”, were taken to Britain and other European nations, where they were polished and put in the various museums for Africans, the original owners, to come and see at very huge costs! In the last 124 years, no mortal knows how much Britain and the other nations have made from the stolen items. It is on record that for the period that Oba Ovonramwen was in exile and till he joined his ancestors in January 1913, the Benin refused to crown any oba.
Not even the pressure by the imperialists to name Chief Agho Obaseki as the oba could move them. Think about a people with culture, think about the Benin people. Till date, Benin Palace remains one place where the madness of “civilization” has no place. No matter how educated or “civilized” a Benin man is, when it comes to the Palace, “civilization” takes the back seat. No compromise; no negotiations. The Benin resisted appointing another oba and at any point the issue came up, history has it that the people were always quick to point out that the name, Obaseki, means “Oba’s favour is more valuable”. In essence, Chief Agho Obaseki became the Obaseki of Benin because he found favour with the then reigning Oba Ovonramwen. Obaseki’s father, Ogbeide, was the Ine of Benin, a title given to him by Oba Adolo.
While the period of the interregnum lasted between 1897 and 1914, when Oba Eweka II ascended the throne, not a few Benin had misgivings about the roles Chief Agho Obaseki allegedly played in the travails of Oba Ovonramwen. They could be right, they could be wrong; the truth resides in the bowel of history. The current governor, Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki, is a descendant of Chief Agho Obaseki, who, according to Professor Philip Igbafe in his ‘The Nemesis of Power: Agho Obaseki and Benin Politics 1897-1956”, died of pneumonia on September 9, 1920.
I have delved into this brief history in an attempt to foreground the fact that the present crisis of trust between the Edo State government, headed by Godwin Obaseki and the Palace of Benin, represented by Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II over the 1897 stolen artefacts of the Benin Kingdom, could be a mere atavistic regression after all. The crisis of custody of the 1,130 artefacts the German government has promised to return to Nigeria has been in hushed tones for months now.
However, the matter came to full public knowledge on June 25, this year, when, while hosting the 2021 National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) Retreat for Management Staff and Curators at the Government House, Governor Obaseki unveiled the plans to build a new museum to be named Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA), to house the proposed repatriated stolen artefacts. “In this plan, we have included the carving out of a large area as a Cultural District and the Museum will be located in the Cultural District. If we host 5,000 visitors every year as a result of the attraction to the Museum, the state will benefit from it. EMOWAA will be part of the national museum complex and home for the comprehensive display of the Benin Art collections across the world”. His interest, he said, was to create an iconic edifice to represent “the extent of the prowess of the Benin empire”. EMOWAA, he added, would be a research institution for the Benin Empire. Days later, Oba Ewuare II, precisely on July 9, 2021, at a meeting with his chiefs and subjects, fired back with a caveat emptor, warning that anyone, group, organisation, or government dealing with any organization or artificial group in the process of returning the looted artefacts from the Benin kingdom would be doing so against the will of the people of Benin kingdom.
He insisted that the artefacts stolen from the Benin palace during the 1897 invasion remained the property of the Benin people as represented by the palace and that there was no alternative native authority and custodian of the cultural heritage of the Benin kingdom outside the Oba of Benin, represented by the Royal Palace. “I do not believe that the move by a privately registered company, the Legacy Restoration Trust Ltd. and the purported establishment of Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) are in consonance with the wishes of the people of Benin Kingdom”, the Oba had said. He disclosed that he had acquired additional plots of land from different families within the Adesogbe area for the Royal Museum and expressed surprise “to read from the Governor’s letter to the Palace that “a new Museum to be known as EMOWAA is now being proposed, which will be funded and executed through the vehicle of another body now referred to as Legacy Restoration Trust”.
Oba Ewuare II intoned: “The looted artefacts awaiting repatriation from Europe are the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom created by our ancestors and forefathers within the traditional norms and rites of the kingdom. They are not the property of the state government or any private corporate entity that is not a creation of the Benin kingdom”. To drive home his resolve, the monarch said he had contacted the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who had assured him that the Federal Government remained committed to getting an unconditional return of the artefacts to Benin kingdom to the exclusion of any unauthorized private entities or third parties.
The issue was at that point until Lai Mohammed dropped the bombshell last Saturday that the Federal Government would take possession of the anticipated artefacts on the grounds that the tenets of international law, as well as the UNESCO Convention, confer on the Federal Government the sole authority to the artefacts. “Nigeria is the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria. The relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or sub-national groups’’. This is exactly where my concern is over the matter. I must confess here that I sat at the retreat where Governor Obaseki made the EMOWAA presentation. Brilliant idea, I must also confess, just as I also believe that if properly executed, the entire Edo State will benefit immensely from the project. My understanding and belief in the brilliant presentation of the governor are, however, immaterial here. Why? We are talking about items stolen from someone’s father. Nobody has any doubt about the fact that those artefacts and many more that we are yet to know of, were stolen from the home of Oba Ovoranmwen. No matter the economic gains the government is looking at, the issue of ownership cannot be swept away. If the governor agreed that the artefacts were stolen from the Benin palace in 1897, why should there be any controversy over their return to the rightful owner, in this case, the Benin Royal Family?
Again, Governor Obaseki has never denied the fact that Oba Ewuare II told him about the Benin Royal Museum, which Oba Erediauwa, the father of the present Oba, started before he joined his ancestors. Why then is it difficult to marry the EMOWAA project with the one the palace told him of at the very beginning? Besides, how do you tell a man which direction he should take his father’s corpse through? The artefacts were stolen from the Benin palace, the thieves are gracious enough to return them, why is it now difficult to give the items back to the original owners? In all sincerity, I think Governor Obaseki has much bigger elephants to slaughter than these stolen artefacts.
Except the governor wants to re-enact the 1897 infamy, this controversy over who should keep the artworks is purely unnecessary and he should be careful lest he is led to a droke. Our leaders should take time to go out incognito. If Governor Obaseki hears one tenth of what the average Benin man or woman thinks about him over the artefacts, he will not dare to attend their exhibition when they are eventually returned. That said, I am also tempted here to ask His Majesty, Oba Ewuare II to take a moment to look at the merits of EMOWAA and consider the benefits he can add to whatever plans the palace has for the artefacts. This becomes necessary when one considers that if the artefacts are eventually returned, the Omo N’Oba will not lock them up in a room. The ones who stole them had made enough money from them, Benin Kingdom too, and Edo State in particular and the Black race in general, should also benefit.
And for the meddlesome interloper, the Federal Government, and its flapdoodle argument of “Nigeria is the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria’’, may we ask, where was Nigeria in 1897 when the artefacts were looted? ‘History Made Easy’ by S. O. Ilesanmi teaches us that Nigeria came into existence on January 1, 1914. That was seventeen clear years after the artworks were stolen. Nigeria cannot play the role of another thief over the artefacts. Any attempt to do this will be tantamount to re-looting of the artefacts by local overlords in the guise of Nigeria’s federal authorities! Granted that bilateral relations are between countries, the ownership of the Benin artefacts is never in doubt.
And the only reasonable thing the Federal Government should do, especially now that the clamour for true federalism is at its crescendo, is to facilitate the return of the artefacts and send them back to their original owners, the Benin people, represented by the Omo N’Oba N’Edo. The artefacts are not insignificant omnium-gatherum, nor are they Abacha or Ibori loots. They are Benin bronze works, stolen or looted from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. This is one more reason why the palace and the Edo State government should resolve their differences over this matter so that strangers don’t inherit their heritage. Obaa ghato kpere, Ise!