Are Recovered Artifacts Enough to Preserve Cultural Heritage in Africa?

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The quest to retrieve Africa’s looted treasures from European collections continues, with artifacts scattered across the continent’s museums serving as poignant reminders of colonial-era plunder. While the return of these treasures signifies a huge step towards rectifying historical injustices, questions linger about whether the mere recovery of artifacts is enough to safeguard Africa’s rich cultural heritage.


Museums and institutions worldwide acknowledge the importance of returning looted or illegally acquired items to their rightful owners. Germany, for instance, holds Benin Bronzes, symbolic of this contentious issue. In December 2023, Switzerland returned a 2,000-year-old marble sculpture to Libya. The sculpture, a symbol of ancient Libyan heritage, had been looted from Cyrene and discovered in a Geneva warehouse a decade prior.


Nigeria and Germany finalized a deal for the return of hundreds of artifacts, including the renowned Benin Bronzes. This follows French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to repatriate 26 pieces known as the Abomey Treasures, originating from the 19th-century Dahomey kingdom in present-day Benin.


However, challenges persist as numerous artifacts remain unrecovered, and some countries exhibit reluctance to facilitate their return. One such artifact is an eight-legged seat from Uganda’s ancient kingdom, currently housed in a British museum. Despite efforts by Ugandan officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Apollo John Rwamparo, to secure its return, the artifact remains in the University of Oxford’s possession, which contends it was donated.


In November, Ugandan officials plan to engage with the University of Cambridge, which also holds African artifacts, following its recent return of a bronze cockerel to Nigeria. Negotiations with London’s British Museum, which houses a vast African collection protected by a 1963 law, have proven challenging, according to Rose Mwanja Nkaale, Uganda’s commissioner for museums and monuments.


The issue extends beyond Nigeria and Uganda, with Zimbabwe advocating for the return of approximately 3,000 artifacts from Britain, including weapons and the skulls of fighters. Despite discussions, no significant agreement has been reached. In a bold move, President Emmerson Mnangagwa proposed an exchange involving the remains of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, buried in Zimbabwe, in return for the fighters’ remains.


Similarly, Rwanda recently reached an agreement with Belgium, its former colonial occupier, to share digital copies of over 4,000 recordings. Yet, the whereabouts of one of Rwanda’s last kings, Yuhi Musinga, remains a contentious issue. Many Rwandans believe his body, which resisted Belgian colonization and died in Congo, was transferred to Belgium.


These developments show Africa’s determination to reclaim its cultural legacy, ravaged during colonial times. Yet, challenges persist as numerous artifacts remain abroad. Take, for instance, the Rosetta Stone, essential for deciphering ancient Egyptian texts, now housed in Britain after changing hands post-conflict.


Another glaring case is Cameroon’s ‘Queen Mother’ statue, held by Germany for over a century despite fervent calls for repatriation. This statue represents just one of an estimated 40,000 looted artifacts from Cameroon showcased in German museums, sparking ongoing advocacy efforts, notably by Sylvie Vernyuy Njobati.


The issue extends beyond historical colonialism, with recent events like the Arab Spring in 2011 fueling further looting. Although some artifacts have been returned, the practice persists, reflecting a modern form of exploitation.


African nations, buoyed by Nigeria’s proactive stance, are increasingly vocal in demanding the return of their cultural heritage. The African Union’s involvement underscores the importance of this cause, exemplified in the 2022 EU-AU Summit’s discussions.


However, meaningful action is essential to translate rhetoric into tangible outcomes. The display of Algerian resistance fighters’ remains in European museums serves as a stark reminder of ongoing injustices.


In response, African nations are intensifying calls for repatriation until all stolen artifacts are rightfully returned. This endeavor represents a reclamation of heritage and a restoration of justice and dignity for Africa. While the recovery of artifacts marks a significant milestone, it is only one piece of the puzzle in the broader quest to preserve Africa’s cultural heritage. 


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