British university to return looted bronze statue to Nigeria

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A bronze statue that was looted from what is now Nigeria more than a century ago will be returned, Cambridge University in Britain said, as Nigeria’s government announced a new campaign Thursday for the return of the West African nation’s looted and smuggled artifacts from around the world.

The cockerel was taken in 1897 from the Court of Benin and given to the university several years later. The statue was removed from public view in 2016 after students protested, saying it represented a colonial narrative.

Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, welcomed the return of the cockerel, especially the role of the students in bringing about the repatriation of the bronze statue.

However, he called the decision to return the statue a “drop in the ocean” considering that hundreds of Benin Bronze pieces were taken after Benin City was occupied by British imperial troops in 1897.

Mohammed said Nigeria would be coming for all those holding Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available.

“Those who looted our heritage resources, especially during the 19th-century wars, or those who smuggled them out of the country for pecuniary reasons, have simply encouraged the impoverishment of our heritage and stealing of our past,” he said.

The government also considers the artifacts critical components to leverage on the culture and tourism sector, he said.

Governments and institutions in the West are under growing pressure to return artifacts taken decades or centuries ago, especially from Africa. Some have begun assessing their collections and discussing the next steps to take.

Last year a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended that French museums give back works taken without consent if African countries request them.

The experts who presented the report estimated that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones, and manuscripts. Thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies.

Since the French report, Congo, Senegal and Ivory Coast have also requested the return of artifacts.

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