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Returned to be Re-stolen?: Safety Matters and Africa’s Homecoming Artifacts

Demands for the return of Africa’s stolen artifacts must be made with an insistence on reparations payment.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Some of the greatest art robberies in the history of modern exhibition took place in the world’s ‘most secured’ museums. That reality raises serious concerns around the recent high-profile return of some of Africa’s stolen artifacts.

Most African countries lack highly secured and technologically advanced museums to house the returning artifacts. It is bewildering that Africa’s artworks are being returned without any form of monetary reparations attached to them for the construction of structures to ensure their safety. Museums and institutions that housed these artifacts have for years massively benefitted economically from them. How come there is so much fanfare attached to the fact that they are being returned without any form of monetary compensation or security plans in place?

It becomes essential, therefore, to demand that Africa’s stolen artifacts must not be returned orphaned of the economic benefits that accumulated to the countries that held them for decades. Reparations must go hand-in-hand with the return of the stolen artifacts. Funds from the payments of reparations will be invested in safeguarding the artifacts and in the reconstruction of the arts sector in concerned African countries, cities and communities.

Henceforth, demands for the return of Africa’s stolen artifacts must be made with an insistence on reparations payment; anything short of that makes a mockery of the entire exercise and perpetuates the very injustice it aims to redress.

The returning artifacts are products of the first mugging of Africa’s art space, spearheaded by European state actors and some non-state actors. During this first wave of the heist, a sizeable number of artifacts ended up in museums and other known and traceable spaces in the Western hemisphere, making the possibility of their return to Africa feasible.

However, the envisaged re-robbery that will follow the returning artifacts, this time, will be the clandestine prerogative of untraceable individuals and underground networks scattered around the globe. The implications are ominous for Africa. To forestall this tragedy, steps can be taken at the community, national and regional levels as far as securing Africa’s returned and returning artifacts is concerned.

We shall begin with the low lying fruits: these are security measures that can immediately be taken to secure the artifacts that have been returned already or those on their way back. Since it is generally preferable that these artifacts be returned to the communities from where they were taken, community policing will be the first call for the preservation of these artifacts and in ensuring their safety. Community members will be adequately sensitized on the importance, significance and value of the artifacts. They also must be well equipped and trained on community policing and neighbourhood watch strategies.

Indeed, community involvement is critical in the preservation of Africa’s artifacts. When, in 2012, the Jihadists invaded Timbuktu and sought to destroy the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that were stored in the National Library, it was globally funded community policing, spearheaded by renowned Timbuktu community librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, that preserved the ancient manuscripts. Abdel Kader, working closely with community members, used several strategies to secure the manuscripts from the Salafist fundamentalists who considered them anathema. When the community tactics were no longer sufficient, community members, again led by Abdel Kader, collectively devised means to ship the manuscripts away to safety in Bamako, where they remain to date.

Another more elaborate option is for a supranational kind of arrangement, where, say, the African Union can step in to ensure the safety of these returning artifacts. A collective management of the returned artifacts will be a huge step in the right direction, as far as the idea of continental unity is concerned. Many of Africa’s nationalists envisioned a United States of Africa as the most practical strategy for Africa’s advancement. In the words of Kwame Nkrumah, “no sporadic act nor pious resolution can resolve our present problems. Nothing will be of avail, except the united act of a united Africa. We have already reached the stage where we must unite or sink into that condition…”

Several strategies can be employed by the African Union to secure the returned artifacts. Take, for example, the construction of world-class regional museums across select African cities where these artworks will be housed. Proceeds from the museums will be shared among communities from which these artworks were initially stolen. Funds will also be made available to elders, students, researchers and members of these communities to travel, work with, hold conferences or meetings around their ancestral artifacts. Several opportunities for these artifacts to be taken to their ancestral homes for exhibitions will be created from time to time. A percentage of the proceeds from these museums will go towards funding the African Union, which, it is well known, is starved of funds, as many African countries often default on dues.

In addition, a Pan-African University of the Arts could be established to house the museums that will hold the returned artifacts. That way, proceeds from the artifacts will transcend economic gains to the more enduring, trans-generational and wide-reaching intellectual benefits.

Rather than this piecemeal, uncoordinated, media fanfare-filled return of artifacts without monetary reparations, African governments and the AU should proactively strategize and demand a more concerted exercise. A carefully calculated demand for monetary reparations to follow the return of these artifacts must be emphasized at the same time. As these artifacts are returned, they should be stored in a safe house, and the reparations immediately invested in commencing the construction of museums and Pan-African University of the Arts across the continent.

Since the idea is for the communities from which these artifacts were stolen to access their ancestral heritage again unhindered, communities from where large collections were stolen should be a top priority as far as the establishment of art museums and Pan-African University of Arts in cities across Africa is concerned.  The ancient Benin kingdom, now located in Edo State in Nigeria, is a good example. Edo State is a prime candidate for a Pan-African University of Arts, where a museum to house not just Benin Arts but other arts can be built.

In conclusion, Africa can, once again, rise as an enduring place of research and advancement of the arts. In the words of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Former Emperor of Ethiopia, what we require is a strong “single African organization through which Africa’s single voice may be heard, within which Africa’s problems may be studied and resolved.”The African Union, working with African governments and communities, can champion the planned return of Africa’s stolen artworks with full compensation, which will be invested in developing the continent’s art space.


You may follow Dr Chika Esiobu on Twitter and Instagram @drchikaesiobu


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