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An interview with Prince Edun Akenzua of Benin

A Briton has promised to return a looted bronze artifact he inherited from his great-grandfather to Benin. Thousands of such bronzes are held illegally in a number of Western museums. They should be returned to their rightful owners.

We reproduce below an interview with Prince Edun Akenzua, younger brother of the Oba of Benin,published in the Nigerian Guardian.

The brother of the Oba makes it clear that the Benin Monarch never assented to the donation of looted Bronzes to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts nor did the King send any representation to Boston for the celebration="> of the acquisition of the looted artefacts. The group of Edos who pretended to represent the Oba of Benin had no permission from the Oba.

In the interview, Prince Edun outlines the function of the Benin Bronzes as records of the history of the Benin people. Thus those who hold the Bronzes are withholding evidence of Benin history and culture. How will a people write its history or record its culture when others have stolen the relevant evidence? It is true though that there are many in the British Museum and in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who believe it is their function to write the history of Benin. That the people themselves can and would write their own history has never occurred to the people in London and Boston,

An important fact. mentioned in the interview. is the decision of a British citizen, Mr Mark Walker to return Benin artefact. Walker inherited two Benin Bronzes from his great-great-grandfather who was one of the soldiers that invaded Benin in 1897 . He wants to return the object to Benin, convinced that this is the right thing to do since he considers it wrong for others to withhold the artefacts of another culture. He is taking the artefact himself to Benin City.

Will the people at the British Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts,, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin and World Museum, Vienna, take a lesson from Mr. Walker and examining their own consciences, determine whether, after all that has been written and said about the notorious invasion of Benin in 1897, it is correct for them to hold on to illegal artefacts, forcibly taken from a people who now seek their return.

Kwame Opoku

Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of some of the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. Many museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna, now World Museum, has closed since some 10 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to repair work which are not likely to be finished before 2017.

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, - Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo's Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde now World Museum 167


Over six months after the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, U.S. opened a Benin gallery for the donated controversial artefacts in its possession, Prince Edun Akenzua, a younger brother to the reigning Oba Erediauwa insists that the foreign museum used some Nigerians resident abroad to impersonate the Oba and got forged endorsement. Last year, the museum had received donation of 28 pieces of art in bronzes and six ivories from an American, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman. The donor is the heir to the vast collection of a famous banker, Phillip Lehman (1891-1969), who was one of the early collectors of Benin art. The collection is among the cultural objects looted when the British forces invaded old Benin Kingdom in 1897, which eventually led to sending Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1888 -1914) to exile in Calabar. An estimated 4, 000 cultural objects from the Benin palace were allegedly looted by the British military. But confusion set in when some chiefs who claimed to have got the nod of the Oba led a contingent of controversial representatives of the monarch to MFA, late last year in apparent endorsement of the donation. The alleged impersonators led by some chiefs came under the name, Coalition of Committed Benin Clubs in Boston. Akenzua disowns the group and the chiefs as well as their leaders. The Enogie of Obazuwa is the great-grandson of foremost Benin Monarch, Oba Ovonramwen N’ogbaisi who was banished to Calabar by British imperialists after the Benin invasion of 1897 and died in 1914. Akenzua spoke to Alemma-Ozioruva Aliu on the possible ways of re-possessing the looted artefacts. Excerpts:
Q: DO you think the agitation for the return of stolen Benin artefacts is still necessary today? What relevance do these items still have on Benin culture?

A: Number one, they belong to Benin which is very important, but the reason which most of them were made four hundred, five hundred years ago, no longer exist. At that time, they were all made as diaries for the people here. When there was anything relevant in the Benin Nation, the Oba ordered the iguehon to cast that event in bronze just like you will do today whenever you have any important thing that you want to do, you record it in your diary. In those days, the Benin people didn’t know how to write like the Egyptians who had the Hieroglyphics, so whenever there was any important thing, the Oba would instruct that it be cast in brass or bronze that is what they were doing then. About 75 per cent of those things carted away were done as record and diary for the Benin people. Others were done for the various alters. So today, they don’t need to cast things in bronze to record because we can now write, so I will say they would no longer be used as they were used in the past. But nevertheless, these things belong to Benin and now domiciled in other climes with other people who have now put them in their museums and they are making money out of them for themselves over there. If only for that reason, for that purpose, they have to be brought back to their owners. That is our argument.

Q: But will they ever yield to the agitation to return these artefacts?

A: They are quite reluctant, putting up various arguments for retaining the artefacts. Although those arguments are not valid because our own argument bothers on the moral grounds of the issues; these things belong to us, they were looted from us, and they should be returned. As a matter of fact, the institutions in Europe, and all those places are mainly the ones making the argument. I was in the UK last year and I was also doing the same campaign. Wherever I had the opportunity, I would tell them the need to return those things, not only to Benin. But all those cultural property that have been removed forcibly by the British or by anybody else should be returned to their owners. Most of them were being returned to the Europeans, to the Jews, to the Irish, Welsh to Ethiopia so why not to Benin? We are bringing that argument up and luckily, there are some individuals particularly in UK who listened to this kind of argument we are putting up, who believe that what the British did in those days taking other peoples’ property was wrong. And in fact, one of such people, a private British citizen, Mr. Mark Walker who is now the great grandson of one of the soldiers who fought in Benin, and has two of those bronzes has agreed to return them to the Oba of Benin. And I think he will come around April to come and make that presentation because he himself did not quite like the idea of one government going to another country, seizing things and taking them away. Apparently, he is not a soldier like his great-great-grandfather, but he was a policeman in the UK, in the royal security. He is a retiree, about 80 years old and I think he must have been seeing a number of all those things they were taking to the Queen of England from all over those areas called the British Empire, and didn’t like the idea. He has now offered to come to Nigeria and return the works in his possession to the Oba of Benin. He is personally coming to do that.

The Benin community in London had arranged a meeting with Walker and the Nigerian High Commission. They agreed at that meeting, that Walker and his friends mentioned to the High Commissioner that they offered to come to Benin and return those things. I think with him doing this, there may be other people in the same school of thought like this man who may have some of those things and would want to come and present them. As a matter of fact, some years back, I went to UK to try and urge the British government to allow the British museum return Benin artefacts in their possession. I worked in collaboration with the late Benny Grant who was a member of parliament and one of the strategies we had was to appeal to individuals since it is easier to deal with individuals than institutions, to plead with individuals who have those things in their private collections to return them to Benin. One of such people we wanted to reach at that time was Mr. Ted Heath, unfortunately, Benny Grant died before we could reach Heath. Then, I had the opportunity to testify before the House of Commons Committee on these kinds of things.

Q: Last year, there was a ceremony on the donation of some of these artefacts to Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, US. What is the position of the palace on this development?

A: The event happened around September to October last year. I was in the UK at the time. I didn’t know such thing was going to happen. But I got an SMS from The Guardian, Nigeria, asking the very question you just asked now and of course, it was quite news to me, so I sent from London a message to the Oba and forwarded the query from The Guardian and from the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) to the Oba and asked to be guided. I got a reply from the palace that the Oba has directed the Secretary to the Benin Traditional Council (BTC) to inform me that the palace did not send any representation to that museum, the palace was not even aware of what was being done and of course after what I got, I now sent my reply to both The Guardian and the NCMM. I told them categorically that the palace did not send anybody there. It is quite clear; the Oba would not have done that. That is a private museum in Boston. The Oba is using all his might and influence, his resources to get all the people including his friends, friends of Benin, the government of Edo State, Federal Government, everybody to join in the demand for the return of those things to Benin because of that, it is just only clear that he could not have endorsed the donation of those things to any museum anywhere in the world. And if people are generous and they want to return those things they don’t have to donate them to another museum at this time in the 21st Century. If they are feeling generous, they are feeling magnanimous, if they want to return those things, they should send them down, donate them to the Oba of Benin who owns them any way. The least they can do is to donate them to these or federal government of Nigeria not to another foreign museum. What is the meaning of that? The Oba didn’t endorse it, he didn’t even know about it.

I heard later on when they have done it that the museum was going to set up within the Museum of Fine Arts what they call the gallery of Benin Arts. Why should the Gallery of Benin Arts be in Boston Museum and not in Nigeria Museum or Benin Museum? They had their own problem in Boston because the people contacted me after the show. There is a club called the Benin Unity Club in Massachusetts. They called me after the event to ask if it was true that the palace supported that kind of venture and I said no, the palace could not have supported it. They said they were angry too with the management of the museum because at the time they knew that they were going to do that event in that place, they told them to clear with the Benin palace, before anything at all. They promised to get permit but after a while they said they were not going to come to Benin they have been told no one could guarantee their safety in Benin because of kidnapping. The Benin Club of Massachusetts were angry, because at the time they were talking, Bill Clinton was even visiting Nigeria so they could not understand why they were talking about security issue.

The organizers paid some people to come and perform ugho dance on that day, did a few things and as a result of that, they put together quickly, what they called Coalition of Committed Benin Clubs in Boston. As far as we are concerned here, there is nothing of such, I don’t know anything of such, but I do know that the Benin Club of Massachusetts, years ago sent a letter to Oba of Benin appealing to him to allow them name the Oba as their patron and I do know the Oba accepted to be their patron. So, if there was an argument there, it will probably be between the Benin Club of Massachusetts or the so called Coalition of Benin Clubs in Boston.

Is there any possibility of using the instrument of the law to get these artefacts back?
I think maybe our legal experts can answer this better because as far as I can say, it is a little bit complex because those things were looted from palace of the Oba of Benin at the time there was no Nigeria, in 1897. If anybody wants to take action on this issue, we can only think of the International Court in the Hague, we can’t do it in the courts in Nigeria, courts of America, courts of England or anywhere, but I wonder if the International court will accept any brief from individuals. Will they listen to Nigeria government on that issue? We have very many brilliant lawyers that will be able to answer the legal question.

Q: Beyond the Briton that volunteered to return some of these things has there been any other museum that has returned any artefacts to the palace?

A: No one has done that. Incidentally, some years back, the late Ekpo Eyo, who was the curator of the National Museum in Lagos; through his instrumentality, (General Gowon was the Head of State then) he had to go and buy some of those artefacts back to Nigeria. Nigeria had to pay for them instead of the foreigners paying us royalty.

In 1977, when we wanted to use the Idia plaque for the FESTAC event, they did not even let us have it. At that time, we wanted to borrow if just for a symbol for the period of the festival. Perhaps they were suspicious that if they gave us we would not return it. At first, they asked us at that time to pay 2000 pounds insurance because it was very fragile. But you tell me, how can elephant tusk be fragile, is it is paper? They refused to let us have it, then my father called the Igbesamwan people here, those who made the original one to do the replica. At the end of the day nobody could differenciate the original from the replica, it was the replica that we used for the FESTAC.

One of the things the Benin Club of Massachusetts is quarrelling about now is that even If they are going to see the Benin Gallery at MFA in Boston, they have to pay money. If you are doing that, there has to be some royalty to the original owners



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