Bozimo: Nigeria’s Antiquities Abroad, A Daily Times Investigation (1976)

This press cut is taken from a weighty file constituted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London containing several hundred pieces dealing with the negotiations that took place throughout 1976 in response to the request for a loan of the Ivory Mask representing the Queen Mother Iy’Oba Idia of Benin. The mask, in the possession of the British Museum, was requested by the Federal Government of Nigeria for Africa’s Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC’77) set to be held in Lagos at the beginning of 1977. The collection of press cuttings and radio transcripts show that the administration paid careful attention to the mood and public opinion on this issue in Nigeria as it mediated between Nigerian demands and the considerations of the museums involved, most particularly the British Museum.

commented by Felicity Bodenstein

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Sources and literature

Nigeria’s Antiquities Abroad, A Daily Times Investigation

Willy Bozimo: Nigeria’s Antiquities Abroad, A Daily Times Investigation, 23 August, 1976. Source: Antiquities of Nigeria: refusal of British Museum to loan Benin Ivory Mask, 1976 Jan 01 – 1976 Dec 31 [file]. The National Archives, Kew FCO 65/1797.

Due to the age of the paper and the erasure of the ink, it has been impossible to transcribe certain letters, indicated here as *.

Nigerians are colourful people. If they had their way, they would always live a life full of colour, pomp and splendour.

And before the darkness fell on the last regime, many Nigerians would agree that one of the hallmarks of the last regime was its love for the display of the usual pomp and pageantry that go with a regime that thrived on high ›pro***‹. The Second All-Africa Games was the apogee of that regime’s love for colourful shows.

But in the midst of the ballyhoo about our cultural renaissance, the fundamental issue of Nigeria’s cultural heritage as symbolised in its Antiquities came into focus. Art connoisseurs are of the view that while dancing and singing are the visual and dramatic expressions of our rich cultural repertoire, the real soul of our glorious past could only be found in the preservation and appreciation of our priceless antiquities which had been stolen and stocked away in foreign vaults and museums.

One could not agree more. The issue of retrieving our valuable antiquities from abroad is so complex and politically intriguing that the sheer weight of the financial burdens would make the exercise into another white elephant.

Spiritual regeneration

There are two schools of thought who are as divided as they are controversial. One group feels that retrieving the antiquities from abroad would be too expensive and that the money could be more gainfully spent on providing infrastructural facilities for the masses. The other group, the more intellectually oriented, feels and perhaps, justifiably too, that while rapid economic development is healthy for our country, people do not live by bread alone but need some measure of spiritual regeneration and upliftment. And that any money spent on retrieving antiquities is not money wasted.

Both schools of thought have a right to their views. They may be right and may be wrong.

But in order to set our bearings right especially in this era of cultural awareness and with FESTAC knocking at our doors, I decided to find out the issues involved in retrieving our antiquities. The man charged with that onerous task and who is also the chairman of the National Antiquities Commission is the one time Vice-Chancellor, University of Lagos – Professor Sabori Biobaku.

Professor Biobaku’s background as a frontline historian makes him the right man for the job because his explanations concerning the importance of antiquities in the cultural growth of a nation were so convincing that I had to modify some of my earlier views about preserving our antiquities.

In a brief encounter I had with him at his Investment House Office along Broad Street, Professor Biobaku defined to me what the whole concept of Antiquities was all about. He said: »Generally speaking, talking about Antiquities, we regard anything portraying the past as representative of our culture. And in legal terms, any cultural artefact made before 1918 or if some of them have been used in a ritual we call them all antiquities. It is not everything we keep especially those that we have in plenty we don’t keep them like the IBEJI twin figures used in rituals are all over the place because the Yoruba’s venerated the twin. If one died, they keep an effigy of the other.«

The professor’s definition of antiquities also embraced »sacred writings of the Arabic books and ancient apparels«. However, Professor Biobaku wondered why »Moslems have tended to mix religion with culture and think that all antiquities are fetish things for idol worshippers.«

And true to his discipline, Professor Saburi Biobaku gave a historical backcloth to the importance of Nigerian Antiquities abroad. He said »The Nigerian antiquities became very well known during the 1897 Benin Expedition in which they took away well over 44,000 Benin Bronzes abroad, they were taken mostly to Britain, America and West Germany. Since then, there has been quite a lot bought from the ordinary Nigerian just for a pittance. We are anxious to stop this trend whereby our valuable works of art filter out of this country.« Professor Saburi Biobaku also intimated to me about the Federal Government’s Antiquities Prohibited Transfers decrees of 1974 which forbids the sale of antiquities to anyone other than the accredited representatives of the Antiquities Commission. It is hoped that this attempt by the government to foretell the sale and buying of Nigerian antiquities would reduce the smuggling and trafficking in the vital artworks still left in the country.

It has been claimed that the large borders and frontiers have made it virtually impossible to check trafficking in Nigerian arts and the government had enlisted the assistance of INTERPOL – to help regain some stolen antiquities.

Meanwhile, »the National Antiquities Commission had started a registration of antiquities for documentation purposes and in this way we shall be able to know where our antiquities are and find out best ways of preserving them.«

Talking about the ways of bringing back all antiquities looted from our shores, the chairman told me that there are three ways open to the country to retrieve the looted antiquities.

»Firstly, there is the diplomatic channel between government to government — which is not very easy. Secondly, there is the attempt at buying back most of the valuable antiquities – which are usually found in private collections. For example, the war generals who took part in the sack of Benin in [the] 1897 Expedition made away with most of the precious antiquities which are now in private collections. In these cases, we have to go to the open markets to bid and haggle with other buyers. A single Benin bronze could easily cost ₦200,000. Third avenue is to appeal to people’s voluntary will and following own renewed appeals, a wooden figure stolen from an Oba’s palace at Ilobu near Osogbo was bought by an American University which in turn had to be bought and returned to Ibadan University for keep. Of all these methods, the government to government approach is not easy and the British Museum is very reluctant to seed back the antiquities in their custody. The nearest best bet is to give us a replica of the originals.«

On the issue of buying back it is not always automatic because representatives of the commission have to see to it that art works are genuine and that they are from Nigeria before negotiations get started. Recently, I was told, a lower Niger bronze was available from one of the collectors in England and it is being bargained for ₦50,000, but after a certain date, they would sell it to other bidders if we are not ready. Professor Biobaku confirmed, »We bought three antiquities for ₦120 000 and we are grateful to the Federal Government for making the money available.«

Retrieving and buying back our antiquities is one thing but preserving them in befitting Museums for posterity is the most crucial aspect. As far as the ordinary Nigerian is concerned, the impact of our local museums have been infinitesimal. The fault is either that we have not got enough publicity and education about the role of our museums or that the modern educated elite in Nigeria does not appreciate what Museums are all about.

Apart from caring for the occasional touristic curiosity of the foreign visitors, our Museums have not attracted the kind of audiences that one finds at local wake keeping ceremonies in Lagos. What role are the various Museums playing in the FESTAC one may ask and what is the level of Museum education that is being planned by the National Antiquities Commission?

Professor Blobaka told me »We are trying to launch a book on the eve of FESTAC, the book is on NOK culture. We shall also exhibit 8.000 years of Nigerian Art and Culture during FESTAC.«

On Museums, the aim of the Antiquities Commission is to set up one in every state capital.

On the controversial aspect of spending millions of petro-naira on buying back antiquities, most Nigerians who cannot claim three square meals a day cannot understand the rationale behind the feverish campaigns to bring back forgotten antiquities.

In this era of Operation Feed the Nation and TFE Schemes, what bothers the ordinary man is the availability of gari to feed ***** ******, and at least educational opportunities for the younger generations.

But Professor Biobaku had to resort to enlightened polemics to convince the doubting Thomases in this vein: »The OFN and other projects presently being undertaken by the government are all praiseworthy and excellent. But it is equally important that, people should know we had a past. We were already working in iron while the Europeans were still living in caves.«

And with a more biblical turn of mind – Profesor Biobaku won me over to his side. »Man does not live by bread alone, and to feed the mind spiritually, we need our people to stand erect and be proud of our glorious past. All I am saying is that while the average Nigerian must not be denied the blessings of modernity, he must live and die only in the assumption of his own contribution to the present from his past. In other words we must allow some element of spiritual quality to temper the materialistic world.«

It is really not easy to kick against the wisdom of the cultural oracles when they pontificate on the need for buying back our antiquities. It is on record that campaigns to retrieve our terra-cotta heads and priceless bronze heads have cost the government some ₦10,000 and it is also the avowed policy of the Federal Government to bring back all Nigeria’s antiquities stolen and looted from this country by our former colonial masters.

Cultural Jamboree

It is equally encouraging that at the Lagos National Museum we have a total collection of more than 500,000 art works and antiquities valued at more than ₦500,000,000.
While Nigerians have a right to wallow in the heydays of their glorious past as symbolised in their commitment to retrieving all antiquities. Nigerians must learn to appreciate the over 500,000 collections in the various museums in the country. It is also sad that up till now, the FESTAC-mask which is so crucial to the cultural jamboree in January 1977 has not been retrieved. I want to believe that if we cannot get the original FESTAC Mask, we had better apply for a replica.

In the final analysis, if we failed to retrieve all our priceless antiquities from the looters, it would always be on record that the hands that gave expression to the IFE and Benin bronzes now lying in the mortuary of British American and the European museums are those of authentic Black Nigerians.

That pride which belongs to us eternally cannot be plagiarised, it is our unwilling contribution to the enrichment of the white world.

Brief biography

The article was published by the journalist Willy Bozimo, known for his commentary on cultural affairs and the arts (Nnadozie 2013, 9) though his work has been more generally dedicated to political and state affairs. The Daily Times was and is one of Nigeria’s major press organs, established in 1926; in 1976 it was at the height of its importance, and had just been nationalised by the military government, a change that was to cause major disruption and a period of decline in the paper’s circulation in the years that followed.

Commentary – Nigeria’s »spiritual regeneration« and the question of antiquities abroad in the run-up to FESTAC 1977

In its apparently dialogical reasoning, this text provides a summary of some of the predominant points of view that were being voiced in Nigeria at this time concerning more largely the question of Nigerian antiquities and epitomized here, as has been so often the case, by the affair of the British Museum ivory mask. He addresses the issue from two points of view, the first as a cultural question about the place of antiquities in Nigeria’s perception and appreciation of its artistic achievements as set against what is presented as a certain popular and traditional preference for the performing arts of dance and theatre. The second is more pragmatic, as he questions how to promote the state of Nigeria’s antiquities, a finite resource whose appreciation and preservation entails considerable economic cost. He discusses the attitudes that should be taken to those antiquities abroad, taken and sold during the colonial period and their continued illicit trafficking. Indeed, in the 1970s there are some examples of a »buying back« of antiquities on the international art market as well as the development of a discourse on repatriation. Despite increasingly high prices, the acquisition of antiquities on the market was made possible by the heyday of the petro-naira. Flourishing petrol exports made it a period of rapid growth in a restrained number of sectors but also of major state spending with massive investments in cultural infrastructure for the benefit of a nation-building ideology. Yet as Bozimo points out economic inequality made it difficult for the »ordinary Nigerian« to understand spending that did not go towards everyday essentials. This confluence of culture in a context of fast capitalism and against a backdrop of strong economic inequality partially explains the journalist’s surprising references to the monetary value of the discussed antiquities and in particular to the value of the national collections of antiquities at ₦ 500,000,000, whilst at the same time referring to those antiquities abroad as »priceless«. It is more generally a context that later lead the FESTAC celebrations to be analysed as a problematic model of rapid cultural commodification (Apter 1996; Ekpo and Chassaing 2008).

So the pedagogical aim in many ways of this interview is to explain the differentiation between cultural and economic values, and also to explain the notion of »antiquities« to a broader public. Indeed, Bozimo sets out to check his own ideas about the importance of the arts in the country’s future development as related to both cultural and economic issues against the opinions expressed by his interviewee Saburi Oladeni Biobaku (1918-2001), a scholar and specialist of Yoruba history with a strong political role. Biobaku was chairman of the Nigerian antiquities commission in 1976. Biobaku had just edited a collective volume entitled The Living Culture of Nigeria, a publication financed by Shell PB, and prefaced by the Oba of Benin City, Akenzua II. It subsumes the ethnic and cultural diversity of Nigeria’s cultural landscape in ten synthetic chapters entirely dedicated to different artistic disciplines: sculpture, arts and crafts, music, dance, dress, drama etc. and draws out a continuous narrative leading from tradition to modernity, also a key element of the FESTAC official discourse where traditional performances were to give way in a seamless manner to more contemporary styles (Apter 1996, 447). In the wake of the Biafra war, and in an effort to overcome or at least to rhetorically address the problem of ethnic divisions, a new national culture was being defined. The planned FESTAC celebrations at the national theatre in Lagos built for the occasion were to provide a key crystallization point for this reconfiguration with its »commutable tropes of radical inclusion« (Apter 1996, 442). An exhibition of antiquities from all over Nigeria and indeed from other African cultures was destined to accompany the event. Equally and as pointed out by Biobaku, national museums were being established in every state so that the idea of national unity through cultural artefacts could be expressed. Efforts to loan a series of antiquities from Britain led to many general public discussions about the value of these objects for Nigerian culture. Biobaku designates the 1897 Benin Expedition as the start of international interest in Nigerian antiquities and of a long trend where »valuable works of art filter out of this country«. He provides details on new regulations to stop this illegal export and points out three modes for recuperating objects that have left the country, including the acquisition of antiquities on the market. Two other possibilities mentioned are inter-state negotiations and the appeal for voluntary returns by individual persons and institutions. Clearly, as the situation with Britain illustrates for him, he has little optimism in regard for results from such talks.

The paradox of the text as it tries to promote the importance of Nigerian antiquities appears in the confrontation between their importance as objects of history and ritual value on the one hand and the high prices that they have acquired on the international market. Biobaku’s discourse tries at once to extract the importance of the antiquities from such »materialist« considerations to focus on the notion of »spiritual regeneration«, yet as the article shows, the issue of their acquisition and the fight against illicit traffic makes it very difficult to construct a discourse around this material heritage that avoids implicit equivalences between cultural and economic values.

Felicity Bodenstein is a PostDoc fellow at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research focus is on the history of archaeological and ethnographic collections, and her current project for translocations is entitled »A Twentieth Century History of Absence and Presence in Benin City: Presentations and Representations of Objects Looted in 1897«.

Sources and literature

Andrew Apter, »The Pan-African Nation: Oil-Money and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria Public Culture« 8 (3), 1996, pp. 441–66, available online.

Denis Ekpo, Marie-Emmanuelle Chassaing, »Festac 77 et projet de modernité africaine : des méfaits d’un nationalisme culturel excessif«, Africultures, 73, 2008. pp. 26–34, available online.

U. Nnadozie, »The press and art journalism in Nigeria: an appraisal of the guardian newspaper«, Ekpoma Journal of Theatre and Media Arts (EJOTMAS) 4, 2013, pp. 1–12.

Cite this article as:
Bozimo: Nigeria’s Antiquities Abroad, A Daily Times Investigation (1976), kommentiert von Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike,, published 19.10.2018.

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