Looted Benin Artworks: Before the West Returns Them (II)

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
Benin Art

Other efforts at raising interest and awareness on the crucial need to repatriate these looted works of art have been perfunctory at best. In October 2019, the Edo state Government hosted the National Festival of Arts and Culture, NAFEST, in Benin City with a N500million budget. The government set about a renovation of major historical monuments in the city, together with a huge facelift of the museum and the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre, long abandoned and used as a motor park. The event was tagged a festival FOR arts instead of a festival OF arts and culture, highlighting the contradiction of comprehension of the import of the cultural festival. Even though the city wore a new look, the opportunity of using the National Festival of Arts to highlight the possibility of returning looted Benin artefacts was lost.

The Nigerian government instead focused on proposing two bills at the Federal Parliament – the Social Media and the Hate Speech Bills – quite unlike the Federal Parliament in 2002 which passed a resolution to compel President Olusegun Obasanjo to request the UK government to return looted Benin works of art. Those bills enjoyed the strong support of a Federal Minister, Lai Mohammed who supervises the Ministry of Information and Culture.

  • The CBN Creative Industries Financing Initiative, CIFI, 2019

Keen to be perceived as a supporter of the Arts, the Federal government of Nigeria created a fund – the Creative Industries Financing Initiative, CIFI, to provide access to long-term and low-interest financing for entrepreneurs in the creative industry, including fashion, music, movies and information technology. Applicants were supposed to be able to access N500million for a creative business with a ‘flexible’ repayment plan spread over 3 – 10 years. Part of its features included loans for software development, movie production and development. Seemingly a laudable scheme, applicants seeking these loans were required to be registered with the government, submit a comprehensive business proposal, come up with a credit bureau report with no unpaid obligations and a satisfactory CRMS report[1] of owners, sponsors and directors.

But the scheme ran into a ditch from the start. First, the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, announced the scheme to the general public without a proper system for participating commercial banks to run it alongside the Central Bank. It took several criticisms from NGOs[2] before the banks latched on, and yet when it eventually took off with the commercial banks, conditions for creative entrepreneurs (see list above) were not arts and culture friendly in spite of the ‘flexible’ outlook of the CIFI scheme.  One of the greatest criticisms of the CIFI scheme by the CBN was that it was programmed as a conduit for politicians and members of the middle class to siphon and mop up such ‘trapped’ funds created to give the appearance that government was actually interested in building the capacity of the creative industries in Nigeria through soft loans.

© Proposed sale of the National Arts Theatre.

Forty-three years ago, after the conclusion of FESTAC 77, there was controversy surrounding the sale or concession of the edifice for creative and cultural activities in Nigeria. As part of his privatization agenda, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo listed the national arts theater for sale in 2001, and again even though there was strong criticism[3] against the sale of the Theatre, it was eventually bid for and apparently won by a consortia.  Recent reports[4] have it that the Federal government of Nigeria is no longer interested in this plan to sell the building, but through its Creative Industries Financing Initiative, CIFI, and working with the Committee of Bankers wants to develop a ‘40-acre Creative Industries Park around the National Theatre’, as against the plan by the consortia to develop ‘a 55-acre Creative Industries Business Park with film and music studios as well as a Creative Industries Academy’[5].

In the light of these contexts and against a backdrop of dynamic global occurrences[6] there is concomitant shift in the way plundered and looted items from Africa and from other parts of the world is viewed.

Part of the decline of the art of the Benin Kingdom is ascribable to the looting of its art works, described[7] as representative of the ‘soul’ of the Benin. Therefore, even though a proposed return of those Benin art works can be seen in the light of the thinking behind the return of the large amounts of monies stolen by Nigerians and stashed in foreign banks, a mere return of those works does nothing to fill the cultural gaps that that singular act of plunder exacted on the ways of life of the Benin people and on the role that culture plays in national development. The distribution of the returned loot from Switzerland, to the poorest of the poor, was an activity coordinated by the Swiss and Nigerian governments with the World Bank, and other stakeholders and Civil Society Organisations oversight. Like the loot returned from Switzerland, a plan for the return of the looted  art works from Benin Kingdom should follow a coordinated process involving local people, local authorities and with international bodies like UNESCO and the World Bank. 

In 2018, the Swiss government returned $322.5million being part of the over one billion dollars that the late Sanni Abacha stole from Nigeria and stashed in several banks in Europe. Part of the reason the Swiss returned such monies stashed in its banks arose from the currency of views held by experts that countries holding such monies are accessories to colonial criminal activity and therefore sustain much of the illicit financial flows coming out of Africa[8], and thereby contributing to the underdevelopment of Africa.

There is strong evidence[9] that the first tranche of the Abacha loot returned to the Nigerian government in 2005 was re-looted by government. Support for this evidence is in the fact that there were no projects on ground to justify government claim that the returned monies were put in the budget for use in building infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals in Nigeria.

Therefore in 2018 when the Swiss government mooted the idea to return the second and last tranche of the Abacha loot to Nigeria, it did it in three ways. One, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, with the Nigerian government with a strong proviso and commitment that the Nigerian government put the monies to use ‘for the benefit of the Nigerian people’. This MoU was signed by representatives of the Nigerian, Swiss and US governments at the maiden edition of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery, GFAR, in December in Washington DC, and with former US Justice Minister Jeff Sessions in attendance.  Second, the Swiss paid interest on the loot stashed in their country and third, the Swiss made sure to get Civil Society input and oversight in the distribution of the returned Abacha loot to the poorest of the poor in Nigeria.

Even though modalities for the selection of recipients for the distribution of the returned loot remain in contention, available data seem to indicate that the returned loot reached the poor, thereby helping to discard other campaigns[10] associated with an accountable and transparent disbursement and distribution of the returned loot to Nigerians. 

Recommendations for returning looted Nigerian Art works.

The overall plan for the return and utilization of the Abacha loot to Nigeria by the Swiss Government achieved more than average success. It was a coordinated effort involving local and international players – the World Bank, the Nigerian Government, the Swiss, Civil Society Organisations and international donor organisations like the DfID and UKAID.

Therefore, in considering a workable template for the return of looted art works from Benin, CERLSI proposes the following.

  • Adoption of the Savoy-Sarr
  • That government steer debate around the return of looted assets by setting up a think tank to study the Savoy-Sarr Report. Responsibility for this should be the Ministry of Information and Culture, liaising with all ministries of culture nationwide to look into making contact with relevant stakeholders like religious and traditional institutions, policy makers at the three levels of government.
  • Part of the recommendation of the Savoy-Sarr Report stated that there should an international cultural cooperation with access to research, archives & documentation for people in Africa or in the Diaspora which can bridge the wide gaps between Africa & the West relating & wider preservation of African culture[11]. To do this government can fund literary activities within and around the museums in Nigeria and promote them in primary and secondary schools through radio and television discussion programmes.


  • Scrap the CBN Creative Industries Financing Initiative, CIFI, 2019

To promote the arts and creativity in Europe and the Americas, governments set up residences and literary villages. Established and up-and-coming writers, sculptors, poets and artists who meet the conditions for these residencies often take advantage of them to produce artistic works that meet requirements set out by the management of the residency or cultural centre. These residencies are mostly free-to-attend and cater to specific programmes and projects linked to cultural development. They do not give payable loans based on an interest like the CBN-CIFI. A good example of how the Nigerian government can take advantage of its huge human capital, especially of its blooming young population, will be with the work of the Goethe Institute Nigeria. In 2019 alone, it organized several cultural programmes for Nigerians. These include the ABC of Project Management (a year-long project), a children and Youth Theatre Workshop, a Storymakers workshop,  an exhibition of ‘Games and Politics’ accompanied by a supporting Virtual Reality, VR,  workshop for journalists,  a residency programme for artists and curators and has provided very strong support for local musicians, cultural bugs, African filmmakers. In an interview with Bob MajiriOghene Communications[12],   When asked what the motivation was for providing a platform for Nigerians free of charge, current director, Friederike Moschel simply said, ‘It’s the people…people working in the cultural scene in Nigeria…there’s so much human energy here[13]’.

You may also like

Leave a Comment