Nigeria: Records from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) show that these cultural objects are daily exposed to theft, globalisation and low patronage. Also working against them are environmental degradation, erosion, vandalism and poor appreciation

Preserving the nation’s artifacts.

Before petro-dollars started oiling the nation’s economy, its artifacts and monuments were major sources of foreign exchange. Besides their foreign exchange value, a lot of the nation’s crafts played an utilitarian role which impacted positively on the economy. Today, the artifacts and monuments have suffered so much neglect, with many facing extinction. Records from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) show that these cultural objects are daily exposed to theft, globalisation and low patronage. Also working against them are environmental degradation, erosion, vandalism and poor appreciation. One such monument is the famous Morocco leather which has its historical origin in Borno, Kano and Sokoto. Along with the famous Indigo dyed fabrics, it constituted a major commercial article of trade across the Sahara in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a testimony to the place of the monuments in Nigeria that many people cannot hide their shock over the disappearance of some artifacts in Benin, part of them during the invasion of the city by the British colonialists. According to the Benin National Congress, a pan-Benin socio-cultural organisation which petitioned the NCMM, the artifacts are valued at more than 10 million dollars. The artifacts were said to have been taken for exhibition in 1993 during the world tour of museums and were never returned. These artifacts are now a subject of controversy at the NCMM, an agency saddled with the responsibility of collecting and safeguarding Nigeria’s heritage treasures. Also facing extinction is the Nok Terracota, another artefact, said to be the earliest tradition in sub-Saharan Africa. The artefact, named after a village where the first sculpture was found, flourished between 900 B.C. and 200 A.D. through radiocarbon dating. It represents the earliest tradition of a naturalistic style in Africa and is seen as the earliest attempt at portraiture. Such arts are gradually becoming extinct due to environmental degradation, which has defaced the inscriptions and resulted in breakage. Also on the verge of getting extinct, according to the NCMM, are the Igbo-Ukwu works which present the earliest material evidence of the use of copper alloys in Black Africa. Watchers of Nigerian artefacts got more worried in November when the World Monument Fund (WMF) listed the Ikom monoliths of Cross River as being among the most endangered monument sites. WMF named a total of 100 others globally in that watch list. The monoliths are a collection of more than 300 standing carved stones located in 35 sites within the villages and forests of Ikom Local Government Area. They are mostly basalt and some sand stones measuring four to six feet in height and about one and half feet in diameter. Many of these stones have been broken by falling trees while a large number are being defaced by fungi due to heavy rainfall. A study conducted by the UN Forum for Arts and Culture show that inscriptions on the stones were intended to serve as a historical record, astronomical calendar and a kind of scripture detailing the activities of ancient gods. The study also suggests that the Ikom monoliths alphabet predated Sumerian cuneiform because of two letters it shares with the 11 letters that make the original Sumerian alphabetical system used prior to 3000 B.C. The stones are the only ones of their kind in Nigeria and bear a marked difference from monoliths found in other parts of the African continent. The study further shows that no two stones had the same inscription, indicating that the works were a result of intelligent design and technical expertise. The natives of Ikom venerate the stones as representatives of their ancestors and as the guiding spirits of the tribe and the local communities. They have names for each stone, and have over the years modelled their lives, native customs, religion, ritual ceremonies and cultural institution after the designs found on these stones. Prof. Catherine Acholonu, the head of the study team, says the monument was “greatly endangered’’ by both human and natural activities. “It was shocking to find the stones from the Ikom monoliths at an art market in Paris recently,’’ she says. Acholonu expresses happiness that the stones were identified by officials of the French Museum Authority and returned to Nigeria. For many analysts, the question is: How many of such artefacts and monuments are missing, and how many will be fortunate to be returned? Another puzzle is how best can they be preserved for future generations? Dr Joseph Eboreime, former Director of NCMM, says the artefacts can be protected through the establishment of museums in each state. He also suggests the establishment of a Unity Museum in Abuja. “This will serve as a major resource centre for such treasures that will show the similarities in our different cultures and demonstrate the bond that unites us as a people,’’ he says. Eboreime suggests that the only way to check incessant theft of the artifacts is to develop the museums system around the people. ‘’When we do that, the people become the real custodians and beneficiaries of the objects. ‘’The whole thing lies in developing our museums and eco-museums so that people will appreciate their objects and will not sell them,’’ he says. Eboreime also suggests that people be educated to appreciate the value of their cultural heritage so they can work toward institutionalising same. To aid the preservation of artifacts and monuments, he says the NCMM has concluded plans to develop a souvenir industry that will allow people to set up cottage industries around the museums. ‘’Once certain aspects of the museum have been commercialised, it will be difficult for the people to steal or sell these objects at ridiculous prices when they can gain more from them,’’ he says. What other challenges do these cultural objects face? Acholonu identifies communal clashes as the major threat to the country’s artifacts, particularly the monoliths. ‘’During such clashes, some of the monoliths are defaced, broken, vandalised or are even stolen,’’ she says. She calls for full awareness and a partnership between local and international stakeholders on ways the artifacts can be preserved. Many stakeholders, while calling for an expansion of the museums to international standards, have also called for improved security around them. They say that such measures will boost the potential for increased tourism and help earn more foreign exchange, while safeguarding the historical icons.

Essien writes for NAN.