The Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, and Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, may head for a showdown over the custody of artefacts looted during the invasion of the Benin Kingdom in 1897 by the British led by Captain Philip.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki and the other top government officials are currently in Germany to facilitate the return of the stolen artefacts.
While the monarch favours the return of the artefacts to a museum to be built by the palace within its premises, or in the alternative, a museum to be built and managed by the federal and state governments, the palace believes the governor prefers a private trust to take custody of, and manage the ancient precious artworks.
At a press conference held on Friday at the palace, the Benin monarch said that there was no controversy over the issue as an agreement had been reached that the artefacts would be housed in the royal museum. He opined that since the artefacts were stolen from the Benin palace, it is expected that they be returned to the monarch when they are repatriated.
“I have called this meeting today (Friday) to intimate you of the matter of the Benin artefacts in Europe on the verge of being repatriated, which I am sure you have heard and read about in recent weeks. You may also have heard about the recent activities of a group of individuals who incorporated a company since January 2020 called Legacy Restoration Trust Limited.
It has become germane to note that the advocacy and demands for the return of the artefacts looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897 have been going on for decades before the emergence of the incumbent Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Obaseki. I must sincerely thank the governor for joining the struggle and showing commitment to retrieve our stolen cultural heritage from Europe.
While anticipating the return of the looted artefacts from Europe, I want to note that attempts to divert the destination or the right of custody of the artefacts is not in the interest of the people of Benin Kingdom, to whom the Palace of the Oba of Benin provides leadership. The looted artefacts awaiting repatriation from Europe are the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom created by our ancestors and forefathers within the traditional norms and rites of the kingdom.
They are not property of the state government or any private corporate entity that is not a creation of the Benin Kingdom.
The right and only legitimate destination for the artefacts to be repatriated as already pronounced by my father is under the aegis of the Benin Royal Museum that will be sited within the precincts of the Palace of the Oba of Benin, from where they were looted, and also, the proper traditional institution that is also the custodian of all the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom.
The palace, therefore, strongly advises that anyone, group, organisation, or government – national and international – that is dealing with any organisation or artificial group in the process of returning the looted artefacts from the Benin Kingdom would be doing so at their own risk and against the will of the people of the Benin Kingdom.”
Speaking further, Oba Ewuare II said “I informed him (Obaseki) that Oba Ewuare II Foundation had been registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission and had worked out a framework for not only receiving the artefacts but also building a modern structure, the Benin Royal Museum, within the precincts of the palace and that land has been secured for the building of the Benin Royal Museum under the supervision of the traditional institution.
But for reasons best known to him, the governor has gone against the understanding, given recent events. As a matter of fact, the people of Benin Kingdom and other stakeholders, especially the Benin Dialogue Group, had at different meetings endorsed the Benin Royal Museum to be built within the palace, as well as endorsing the Oba Ewuare II Foundation for fundraising and other requisite administration processes.
We wish to use this medium to call on the Federal Government to take custody of these artefacts on behalf of the palace until the Benin Royal Museum is ready for their collection. Under no circumstances should the custody of our age-old artefacts be handed to any privately contrived entity like Legacy Restoration Trust.”
However, Obaseki told THISDAY that he was working on a tripartite arrangement, involving the federal and state governments, the Oba of Benin and a private trust that would manage the artefacts on behalf of the palace and the people.
“I intend to work with the Oba of Benin in an arrangement that would be led by the federal government,” he told THISDAY, accusing a palace chief, Elemai Oseni, of misinforming the revered monarch about his plans.
He said he would straighten out things with the monarch on his return from Germany, where he and the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, are currently negotiating and insisting on unconditional repatriation of the artefacts.
A Benin chief named Obaseki, said to be the great-grandfather of the current governor, was apprehended by palace historians as one of those who betrayed Oba Ovonramwen and made the British expedition a success.
“The current standoff, therefore, has a touch of history,” a Benin chief told THISDAY last night, pointing out: “It is significant that another Obaseki is at play on this occasion.”
This position was well articulated in a statement by Benin Traditional Council dated 10th May 2021 and signed by the Secretary, Mr. Frank Irabor; and the Executive Assistant, Corporate and Legal Affairs, Mr. Denis Osaretin.
Disowning Legacy Restoration Trust and Legacy and Legal Restoration Trust that it said had been parading themselves as presumptive custodians of the incoming artefacts, it said: “For categorical clarification, these individuals and groups of persons are not known nor authorised by the Oba of Benin, who is the original owner of the looted artefacts and the custodian of Benin customs and tradition.
“For the avoidance of doubt, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpololokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Oba of Benin remains the custodia Legis of all insignia, symbols and such other artefacts depicting the rich cultural heritage of the Benin people.”
It said, the Oba of Benin or his duly authorised representative or body corporate, is, therefore, the only person that can have any dealings with any foreign donours or missions or any international institution over the artefacts.