Very few regions of the world have been so systematically, intensively and thoroughly deprived of their artefacts as the West African region of our Continent. (2) This is where the Benin artefacts, Asante/Akan gold, Dogon sculptures, Baule masks, Nok sculptures, Ife sculptures etc. all came from. The savannah and forest areas all contributed to the flourishing of cultures which produced the famous artefacts that are now to be found mostly in Western museums and institutions.
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in their report The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics, commissioned by President Macron of France, state that Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac alone has from this region the following number of artefacts (3)
BENIN – 3157.
BURKINA FASO – 1088.
CAPE VERDE – 2.
CÔTE D’IVOIRE – 3951.
GAMBIA – 35.
GHANA – 1656.
GUINEA – 2210.
GUINEA-BISSAU – 125.
LIBERIA – 46.
MALI – 6910.
NIGER – 1615
NIGERIA – 1148.
SENEGAL – 2276
SIERRA LEONE – 75.
TOGO – 240.
The British Museum, London, Ethnology Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin, and other Western institutions also have large quantities of West African artefacts. For example, the Humboldt Forum has at its disposal 580 Benin artefacts held previously by the Ethnology Museum, Berlin. It is true that the rich cultures of West Africa have produced an abundance of objects that astonish by their numbers, diversity and intricacies. But some 500 years of European looting, colonial exploitation, and relatively recent plundering with the connivance of some local inhabitants, have left the area with fewer remarkable artefacts than their production would seem to suggest.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has issued two red lists on West Africa to underline the need for safeguarding artefacts from this region. The latest ICOM Red LIST, A Red List of West African cultural objects at risk states: ‘Though protected by various national laws and international treaties, West African cultural objects are in high demand on the art and antiquities market and are thus at risk of being illegally traded. The recent conflict in Mali also highlighted the need for a new Red List for West Africa, particularly in light of the risks to manuscripts and of the looting of sites in the north of the country. ICOM therefore included in this Red List an “Emergency” section specifically dedicated to Mali’. (4) The document states in its introduction, ‘Throughout history, West Africa has suffered extensive losses of its cultural’ heritage’’. As most readers know by now, West Africa suffered its greatest loss of cultural artefacts during the colonial period when British, Dutch, French, German, and Portuguese regimes enabled the looting, stealing and transfer of African artefacts and other resources. Previous to this publication, ICOM had released a publication, Red List of Archaeological objects at risk, outlining artefacts that should under no circumstances leave Africa because of their archaeological importance for the writing of the history of the Continent, including Nok sculptures, Esie Stone statutes, terra cotta objects from the Niger River Valley, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, North of Ghana,( Komaland) and Côte d’Ivoire, terra cotta from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. (5)
Most readers will know by now that attempts at restitution have not been very successful. The Sarr- Savoy report has added urgency to the need for restitution.(6) But even now there is great reluctance on the part of the illegal Western holders to part with artefacts they have been holding for more than 100 years. Britain, the major holder of looted African artefacts, is not even willing to consider restitution but unashamedly proposes to loan temporarily the looted objects to the original owners. (7) The restitution movement requires all the support it can gather. It is therefore all the more welcome that ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has added its voice in support of measures to ensure that at least some of the looted artefacts are returned to the original owners.
Among the various recommendations made by ECOWAS is that the Member States provide adequate financial resources for the implementation of the action plan on the return of cultural artefacts in their countries.’ It is important and obvious that nothing much can be achieved if States pass lofty resolutions and provide no financial and other means to attain the declared objectives. All African States proclaim their attachment to African cultures but a look at the budget provisions made for cultural institutions sometimes give the impression that our States are content with proclamations. We read in a recent article by Kwame Amoah Labi : ‘ In the early years of the Ghana National Commission, the government occasionally provided funding or guaranteed the support for fundraising abroad, as in the Carnegie Corporation example above. However, the government has not committed any financial support for the recent projects or their continuation, even if money was listed in annual budget proposals. This is the fundamental difference between these new collaborations and the earlier ones – the lack of significant support from the government and local agencies for home-grown initiatives. There is often a lukewarm response to proposals relating to museums and culture ,which has meant that our museums are unable to build upon previous projects using African funds.’ (8)
The lack of provision for financial resources makes our institutions very dependable on financial help from the very countries from which we seek to recover our looted artefacts. Many African bodies can hardly insist on restitution from Western countries on which they depend for assistance of all kinds. This becomes clear in the case of Nigeria that is seeking the restitution of the Benin artefacts but at the same time seeks the assistance of the holders of the artefacts in several ways.(9)
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