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The moral battle for returning Africa’s looted icons has been won

The moral battle for returning Africa’s looted icons has been won
  • PublishedApril 16, 2020

The pressure to return looted African artefacts to the homeland is growing, but for Onyekachi Wambu the question remains, what is their true value to modern Africa?

The momentum for returning African icons looted by former colonial powers has dramatically increased since the publication of the Sarr-Savoy Report in 2018. Commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron, the report noted that over 80% of artefacts from African countries south of the Sahara are in European and American museums, galleries and private collections. 

The Musée du quai Branly in Paris, by itself, contains over 70,000 treasures, most originating from Chad, Madagascar, Benin and Mali. The report makes a number of recommendations: French museums should create thorough inventories to be shared with the relevant African countries; the inventories should be made publicly accessible and then from November 2022, France should return all the claimed artworks. 

The recommendations have met with some resistance, leading Macron to back-pedal on his early support. Resistance has flowed along a number of lines: a largely self-serving fear of emptying French and other Western museums; concerns raised over the protection/preservation of returned objects in African museums; and the biggest hurdle of all, modifying inalienability rules written over 500 years ago to protect the French Crown’s property.

Dealing with the last first, the Sarr-Savoy Report argued for various ways around this law, pointing out that its intentions were to protect national property, not looted property that was part of other peoples’ heritage. The authors also suggested using exceptional laws, passed by French legislators in 2010, to return 16 Maori heads to New Zealand. 

The arguments about how to get around such inalienability laws are in the end simply ones of sophistry and represent new work for lawyers and politicians. As Sarr-Savoy reaffirms, the moral and ethical arguments for keeping these objects have long been lost and the Western museums whose societies pontificate endlessly on moral and ethical issues know it. 

Delaying tactics

Also, as the QC Geoffrey Robertson has argued in his book Who Owns History?, there is no legal jurisdiction anywhere in the world that endorses a thief keeping hold of their stolen goods and then entering into arguments with the owner of the goods about their rights in the matter. 

Besides, what are the legal reasons for holding on to human remains, particularly human heads, which are being held simply as barbaric trophies?

It is clear that the emperor has no clothes, and in due course, these icons will be returned. What is currently underway are delaying tactics involving a number of approaches: including arguments about re-inventing Western museums as centres of world heritage.

This, they claim, will enable loaning exchanges as part of a conversation about global cultural patrimony. Other issues are whether African museums and cultural institutions have the competency to preserve returned objects or continue to exist in parts of the globe prone to instability. 

Critics point to the experience with Iraqi and Syrian treasures, Trump’s threats to attack Iranian heritage centres, and the sacking of Timbuktu by the Islamists, seeking to burn the precious book collection. 

There is serious merit in the last point, and it also goes to the heart of our own attitudes towards these artefacts and the reasons we want them back in the first place. These are big questions which touch on how we look after our cultural heritage, how much we invest in protecting this heritage, as well as how we use this heritage as an empowering tool for organisation and development. 

An African friend who has a nuanced position on these issues has made the point that these icons, which contained energy and agency when they were created and used in their cultural context, have been ‘decommissioned’ since their capture and imprisonment in Western museums. If we are now asking for them back, does that mean that we then are ‘recommissioning’ their energy and their agency, and, if so, what do we intend to do with such forces? 

One is reminded of the Nigerian politician who recently put down the country’s stagnation to the curse it supposedly incurred after Festac ’77 staged hundreds of energised and supposedly malevolent masks from all over Africa. Should this idiotic politician be seriously entrusted with precious artefacts which challenge his spiritual understanding? 

The return of the icons, both human and artistic, is inevitable. What we want from them is the big debate. 

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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