Benin’s pragmatic approach to the restitution of its stolen treasures has yielded significant results. Angelo Dan reports
On Thursday 16 July 2020, the French government introduced a draft law in parliament around the restitution of cultural assets to Benin and Senegal, in line with moves taken by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 following the release of the Sarr-Savoy report.
This draft law could lead to the restitution to Benin of 26 artefacts from the royal treasure of Abomey taken by the French army during its conquest of the kingdom of Danxomè (Dahomey) in 1892 and currently held in the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
This is a decisive step forward. It comes nearly four years after the official request by Benin to the French government, in a letter from its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aurélien Agbenonci, which his French counterpart at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, at first refused to accept.
Negotiations between the two sides resumed after President Macron’s speech in Ouagadougou in November 2017. Since then, Benin has favoured a pragmatic approach which has so far yielded significant results.
By specifically targeting the royal treasure of Abomey in its request in 2016, the government of Benin has been very precise from the start. Benin’s strategy favours negotiation, cooperation and ongoing political dialogue with France at all relevant levels of decision-making, policy and technical, to secure the restitution of cultural property it has long claimed.
Between 2016 and 2020, three meetings between the Heads of State of the two countries took place in Paris. It was during the meeting between President Patrice Talon and President Macron in March 2018 that the formal review entrusted to Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr on the restitution of African heritage was announced.
And it was after the submission of this report to President Macron that the intention to return 26 artefacts to the Beninese authorities was declared. Since then, there have been several ministerial and technical exchanges between the two countries to define a joint roadmap for their restitution.
Progress at each step has been consolidated by joint official actions: particularly the General Framework Agreement signed in Paris in March 2018 and the Joint Working Programme signed in Cotonou in December 2019 during the visit to Benin by then French Culture Minister Franck Riester.
Finally, in line with the Sarr-Savoy recommendations, both countries have agreed to support restitution with an ambitious approach to cooperation in the heritage and museum sectors, which includes specific measures for scientific and cultural cooperation, capacity-building of heritage professionals through training and exchanges of expertise, and support for Benin’s heritage and museum policy development.
President Talon’s government places a particular emphasis on promoting culture and tourism. His ambition is to make the tourism sector a source of economic development, creating wealth and jobs in Benin.
Heir to a great African civilisation
At the heart of this lies a determination to show the exceptional cultural, historical, and tourist heritage of Benin, which is the heir to one of the greatest African kingdoms in history, the Kingdom of Danxomè (Dahomey).
There is a strong link between heritage and tourism policy in Benin, which President Talon clearly indicated at the UNESCO conference on the circulation of cultural assets and shared heritage held in Paris in June 2018.
He said: “Benin intends, with the restitution of its cultural assets, to rehabilitate and offer to the world the legacy of its kings and its Amazon warriors … as well as the richness of its arts and cultures and its Voodoo heritage.” He added it was about “revealing to the world, in a new light, the contribution of Benin to the world’s evolution”.
This continuity between heritage and tourism policy is embodied in the establishment of Benin’s tourism agency (l’Agence nationale de promotion des patrimoines et de développement du tourisme or ANPT) in 2016.
For Benin, the restitution of cultural property has implications not only for attracting tourists, but also for cultural diplomacy and development more broadly.
Angelo Dan is Political Advisor, Embassy of Benin in France.
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.