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Should Nigeria’s Art Treasures Belong to the Nation or the Royal Oba?

The dispersal of the Benin bronzes around the world did much to cement their historical and aesthetic reputation as some of the finest artworks ever made in Africa. But views about how they were acquired have changed. The destruction of Benin City has come to be seen as one of the low points of British imperialism, the looting of its sculptures as indefensible. The case for their return is so morally clear that it has been widely taken up by those arguing for the restitution of artworks seized during the colonial period. A concerted campaign by artists, activists and curators has begun to yield results. In the past two years museums in America, Britain, France and Germany, as well as at least three universities, have all signed pledges to return their Benin bronzes to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Those efforts are now being turned upside down—by the Nigerian government. President Muhammadu Buhari, who leaves office this month, recently announced that returned bronzes will not be handed to the NCMM, but to the current Oba, Ewuare II, “as the original owner and custodian of the culture, heritage and tradition of the people of Benin Kingdom”.