Nigeria Moves to Check Illegal Trafficking of Artifacts
Odogwu Emeka Odogwu13 March 2010
Awka — An artifact is any object made or modified by a human. It is part of the evolution of man in all its ramifications. It tells the greatness of a civilization and its age. Hence, artifacts are of immense value to archaeologists and historians. They give glimpses of what life was like within certain people or region long before written history.
They showcase the culture of the people – even long after such a civilization is considered extinct. In Nigeria, the Benin and Ife Bronze works and the Nok terracotta are among the most prominent.
For centuries, most of these great works adorned shrines and palaces. They were regarded as invaluable and highly precious. It was unimaginable that any of them could be stolen or merely desecrated. Unfortunately, the European expeditionary and colonizing powers did just that.
They stole and illegally shipped Nigerian artifacts out of the country. They armies forcefully looted palaces and museums to steal the superior arts of a people they “considered” uncivilized.
However, one thing remains in favour of the original owners of such artifacts – they have identities. Experts can identify which Terra Kota is Nok and which is from the Nile Valley.
In addition, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO and the International Police (Interpol) are collaborating in recovering and repatriating stolen artifacts.
Bronze works from Ife and Benin are considered as being among the most advanced cultural treasures of Africa.
The oldest bronze works are about 1000 years old and characterised by a masterful casting technology and an unusually sensitive realism.
When the British military expeditionary force invaded the Kingdom of Benin in 1879, their main objective was foggy.
The invaders burnt the palace and museums and sent the monarch into exile. By the time the fires died out, more light had been shed on the mission as more than 3000 artifacts – the best and most precious – had been pillaged and shipped to England!
Some were sold to other countries and individuals. Many were, however, preserved as “national treasures”! They adorn public museums where they are guarded round-the-clock with armed men, trained dogs and technological machinery.
Visitors, including the descendants of the artists and the rightful inheritors, now pay money just to view these stolen artifacts.
The theft of Nigerian artifacts is not abated. However, it is now being done by unpatriotic Nigerians and their foreign backers and sold to oversea customers.
In a bid to curtail this trend, the international community of nations, through UNESCO, in 1970 passed a resolution prohibiting and preventing the illicit import and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
In order to ensure the collective protection of cultural property each member was expected to implement measures in its territory.
Nigeria has been able to formulate and implement some programmes and policies with some measures of success.
The most recent being a national workshop on: Illegal Trafficking of Cultural Property, organized by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).
Alhaji Bello Gada, Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation charged museum professionals and security agencies to put measures in place at protecting Nigeria’s Cultural heritage.
According to the minister, cultural property represents the soul of a nation, the pages of history and the source of inspiration that must be safeguarded for the future.
He urged museums practitioners to make proper used of the UNESCO legislation to prohibit and prevent illegal import and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
“Nigeria has been able to formulate and implement some measure of legal and social instruments to stem this illicit trade on cultural property but more still need to be done,” Gada said.
According to Mallam Yusuf Usman, Director-General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), illegal trafficking diminishes and impoverishes the growth potentialities of a country’s art and culture sector.
It also undermines a country’s tourism potentiality and most unfortunately exposes the apparent lapses in its security procedures.
“Nigeria has suffered greatly from unlawful pillaging of her cultural property. This assault which has come in various forms and guises over the years has further depleted our national collections and added to those of other nation,” he said.
He said Nigeria has over the years put in place various legislations and means of checking this practice by appending signatures to various international conventions entered into by the international community.
“To guarantee more efficiency and effectiveness of these legislations, the NCMM is set to stem the tide of this practice through an integrated, realistic and well coordinated approach by creating the needed awareness and sensitization amongst collaborating agencies that can assist in arresting the trend.
“The commission is now poised, more than ever before, to reinforce and strengthen our security arrangement in our museums all over the country. Added to this, the present administration is set on a renewed drive to vigorously pursue restitution and return of our cultural property taken out of Nigeria during the pre and post-colonial era.
“The call has been made, the responses have been encouraging, the support have been outstanding,” he said
Prof Folarin Shyllon, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, called for the amendment of NCMM Act of 1979 to effectively tackle the problem of illicit trafficking of cultural products.
In a paper entitled ‘Toward a Strategy for Curbing Illicit Trafficking and the Return of Cultural Property” Shyllon noted that the current NCMM laws were inadequate to cope with the modern manifestations of looting and illicit trade in antiquities?
“Beside the fact that NCMM is entrusted with the responsibility for the protection, conservation and preservation of Nigeria’s historical culture, it has not been as assertive to this task.
“It has not been helped by the undermining of its role as protector of Nigerian antiquities by the Nigerian authorities at the highest level”, he said.
Shyllon noted that the UNESCO conference of 1978 established an Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to countries of origin but Nigeria has never used the committee for the return of its artifacts.
He explained that the international market in illicitly acquired art and archaeological treasures was a huge business worth billions of dollars.
He noted that to stem illicit trafficking, it was necessary to declare and create state ownership of all antiquities and to distinguish between ownership and possession.
Shyllon also urged Nigeria to commence bilateral negotiations with governments of the U.S and Republic of Germany for the return of some Nigeria artifacts.
Prof. Tunde Babawale, the Director-General, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), noted that for Nigeria to effectively retrieve her stolen artifacts there must some measures of legal action through the International Court of Justice.
“The only way by which Nigerian government can make any meaningful impact in retrieving the artifacts is to take all the stakeholders to court.
“Nigerian government should take the battle seriously by beginning to write formally, not just to the British executive, but its parliament to return the artifacts,” he said.
Babawale said that Nigeria was losing a lot in terms of revenue from its art works that he said, were serving as revenue generators to foreign countries.
He stated that the British museums alone make enormous amount from patronage of the Nigeria’s artifacts.
According to him, over 5,000 pieces of art works were stolen from Nigeria to Britain and other parts of Europe.
“This is why I said that every effort must be made toward returning the artifacts. Time has come for Nigerian government to end diplomatic niceties.
“We should go to International Court of Justice to secure restitution for these wrongs done to our people. It is important to take decisive action now as the injustice is still ongoing,” Babawale said.
Prince Edun Akenzua, the Enogie of Obazuwa, also said there should be enforcement of laws to prohibit taking Nigeria’s antiquities out of the country irrespective of who was involved.
He urged the federal government to put up a more purposeful and determined demand for the repatriation of Nigeria’s cultural property.
Inspector General of Police, Ogbonna Onovo, added that for effective curbing of illegal trafficking, there must be massive awareness.
He called for the enactment of laws that would be in tune with present day reality and that would protect the county’s cultural legacies and harmonize the relevant laws with those in the sub-region.
“There is need to have an inventory of public collections of cultural property and a distinct identification marks using standards that will make it easy and fast to circulate information in the event of theft”.
Onovo also called for the empowerment of specialized units in relevant law enforcement agencies to operate at optimum levels.
Stakeholders also agree that whenever any artifact is being returned to Nigeria, it should be examined by experts to ensure it is not a fake. This is because of current development in art circles whereby replicas are sold or presented as the real thing.
•Courtesy: Dorcas Essien/News Agency of Nigeria