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Germany to return looted artifacts to Africa

June 29, 2022

Germany has agreed to return trove of looted African colonial artifacts, including over 1,000 Benin Bronzes that will be repatriated to Nigeria.

 statute of the goddess Ngonnso
The statute of the goddess Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in CameroonImage: Erik Hesmerg/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Ethnologisches Museum

The German government has reached an agreement with Nigeria on the return of around 1,100 Benin Bronzes.

The collection of metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwestern Nigeria, were looted during colonial times. The bronzes that have found their way into 20 museums across Germany were mostly taken by British forces when they conquered, burned, and looted the city of Benin in 1897.

The invaluable Benin Bronzes will be restituted to Nigeria after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth sign a memorandum of understanding with their Nigerian counterparts in Berlin on Friday that clears the way for the transfer of ownership rights.

Over 1,100 Berlin Bronzes in 20 German museums will be repatriated to NigeriaImage: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

"The return of the Benin Bronzes underpins our commitment to coming to terms with our colonial history. It should be the beginning of a new, a different cultural cooperation," said Roth in a statement released by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is charged with implementing the return.

"The agreement to be signed between the Nigerian and German governments is the general declaration for the return of some 1,130 Benin artifacts," Abba Isa Tijani, director of the Nigerian Museums and Monuments Authority, told DW. "With this agreement, ownership will be transferred to Nigeria."

Two bronzes are to be handed over to Nigeria directly after the signing of the memorandum of understanding.

In February, France returned 26 bronzes to Nigeria that were stolen in 1892 by French colonial forces from the former Dahomey kingdom, in the south of modern-day Benin. 

For many decades, museums and political leaders in Germany — which was the third-biggest colonial power after Britain and France until World War One — had avoided talks on concrete agreements for transfers or even restitution. But that has changed since 2021, when representatives of the German and Nigerian governments, and museums, announced the decision to transfer ownership.

Museums begin restitution process

The ornate artifacts can be found in some 20 German museums. Five museums with the most extensive collections are involved in the planned transfer of ownership to date.

These included the Linden Museum in Stuttgart.

"I am very confident that we will now quickly achieve comprehensive restitutions, especially from the Linden Museum," Theresia Bauer, the minister for art, science and education in the state of Baden-Württemberg, said on Tuesday.

Once the letter of intent for the ownership transfer is signed, organizing for the transfer between German and Nigerian museums can begin.

"We will meet with the various museums and discuss the technical aspects of the physical return of these objects, as well as other aspects of cooperation," explained Abba Isa Tijani. 

Discussions are ongoing, not only about the objects that will be transferred in the near future, but which can also remain in Germany on loan. 

Stolen Soul — Africa's Looted Art


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Stolen goddess statue to be returned to Cameroon

As part of an increasing commitment to return artifacts looted during the colonial era, the Prussian

Cultural Heritage Foundation said on Monday that the female figure known as Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in northwestern Cameroon.

It was taken by Kurt von Pavel, a colonial officer in Cameroon, who donated the statue to Berlin's Ethnological Museum in 1903.

"Bring Back Ngonnso," a civil society initiative, has been campaigning for the statue's return for years, as the Nso people say they have suffered misfortunes since the statue was stolen.

"The Ngonnso' has a central role for the Nso, as she is considered a mother deity," the foundation said in a statement.

A protester from Cameroon demands the return of the Ngonnso statue stands outside the Humboldt Forum's Ethnological Museum in BerlinImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It added the artifact was not removed by war looting from Kumbo, the capital of the Nso kingdom. However, Pavel was accompanied by armed soldiers in Cameroon, which would have intimidated the Nso, the foundation said.

Mbinglo Gilles Yumo Nyuydzewira, an Nso kingdom prince, praised the decision to return the statue. 

"After more than 120 years, we can only remain happy for it is a moment to commemorate and come closer to our ancestral links with love and togetherness," Yumo Nyuydzewira told Reuters.

The foundation also announced that it will return 23 pieces to Namibia and is planning an agreement to repatriate objects to Tanzania.

Foundation president Hermann Parzinger said that objects that were not necessarily looted should also be repatriated.

"The special — especially spiritual — significance of an object for the society of origin can also justify a return," he said.

sb/eg (dpa, Reuters)

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