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
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.
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.
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.
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.