Returning Africa’s Stolen Artifacts (I)

Consider a scenario where a burglar, armed robber or fraudster dispossesses you of several of your most prized belongings. A few years down the line, the long arm of the law catches up with the perpetrator. Upon searching his apartment, a sizeable amount of your properties are found intact and well preserved, having appreciated greatly in value.

Rather than plead guilty and hope for justice to be tempered with mercy, the thief, now a wealthy and influential member of society, drags you to court claiming that having cared for your properties during the time they were in his possession, he should be considered the rightful owner.

The corrupt justice system, where might is right, grants him ownership of those items, ruling that in your current financial state – having been pauperized by the theft – you would be unable to optimally maintain the properties.

The scenario described, absurd as it may seem, applies to the case of several artworks and precious cultural pieces forcefully taken or manipulatively procured from the continent of Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Evidence abound, dating back to ancient times, slavery era, colonialism and the present imperialistic era, and concurred by historians, anthropologists, and archeologists, of the massive looting of African artifacts by Europe and America. In 1899, for instance, the famed kingdom of Benin was burnt down by the British colonialists. Artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s currency were looted and shipped off to Europe where they continue to earn even more money in museums. Most of the artifacts in Africa today, such as the Igbo ukwu bronze pot, and the Nok culture, remain, only because they were unearthed towards the later part of the 20th century.  

The late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, though a misguided tyrant, was the first African to present a serious case to the international “community” about the state of African artworks scattered abroad. Stating in 1974 at the United Nations General Assembly, Sese Seko declared as ‘grave injustice to humanity and not just the people Africa’, the continued retention of these priceless works in museums, public offices and private collections all over the Western world.

This is in stark contrast to the Jewish artworks and property that were stolen by the Nazis during the holocaust. In the latter case, efforts have been made to return every single traceable artwork belonging to the families of Jewish holocaust victims to their surviving families or to the Government of Israel.

In the case of Africa, however, overseas museums claim that since the artifacts have been in their custody for years, and having invested much resources in their maintenance, it now rightfully belongs to them and to their countries. To legalize this stand, 18 international museums in 2004 signed a memorandum which read in part that “whether purchased or gift, the works acquired decades ago have become an essential part of the museums that cared for them and by extension part of the heritage of the nations that house them.”

First, it amounts to a distortion of fact and in effect, an affront on the intelligence of every person of African descent to label those artifacts as ‘purchases or gifts’. Those artworks are drenched in the blood of Africans – several of whom were shot to death while holding on to them for protection as their children were dragged away from their arms into slavery.

Majorly, those artworks were looted from shrines, cunningly exchanged for a piece of mirror or worthless cotton shirt or as in the days of colonialism, stolen in bright daylight, right before their owners, because Her Majesty, the Queen had need of it. The amount given out as actual gifts are, at best, marginal and not sufficient to be displayed in thousands of museums and public places in large quantities.

Further, the museums, countries and private interests that house these artifacts claim that they preserve them for humanity since African countries lack the capacity to ensure the safe keeping and adequate maintenance of such items, now of universal significance. The museums claim that they are better managers of these African treasures as Africans have never cared for those items and would not even know what to do with the items where they to be returned to the continent.

It must be noted that great care and resources were invested by Africans in the manufacture of these works of art; they were designed to last forever – from generation to generation. Inscribed on so many of them with ancient signs and writings such as the Nsibidi of Eastern Nigeria or Bassa scripts of Liberia were;  the history of families, clans and villages that owned them; stories of wars fought and won or lost; family trees tracing genealogy, and histories of events and outcomes that marked time. Essentially, these inscriptions fundamentally defined the communities who owned them.

The importance of these artifacts coming back to Africa is not aesthetic as that is the only use it is to Europeans and Americans. These artifacts form an integral part of the definition of the identity and personality of the African, battered by years of deliberate attempts to wipe out everything positive about the race. Africans, resident and in the Diaspora have no knowledge of who they really are. They do not know and therefore cannot reconnect with the pre-slavery and pre-colonial African psychology, where laziness is not tolerated, and a man is measured by the level of his integrity and not how much he has betrayed his community to amass wealth that would enable him acquire the Whiteman’s lifestyle.

For the most part, Africans have little evidence of their pre-colonial history to share with their children.  For the Africans in the Diaspora, the history of Africa began with slavery and in their subconscious; their forefathers were nothing but beasts of burden, used by Whitemen in their plantations, while their women were housemaids and sex objects. With such limited and depressing view of history, it will be almost impossible for the present generation to believe in themselves and set their minds towards a liberation of their era from the seemingly intractable shackles that keep them subjected to the rest of the world as underlings.

Having lost touch with their authentic selves, Africans continue to try to think, act and speak like their former enslavers and colonial masters. Contrast this scenario with India and China where indigenous knowledge and history of the countries are taught liberally to students. The teaching of authentic ancient history of a people builds deep rooted confidence and self-esteem among the citizens, and fosters loyalty to the state. On the contrary, the African’s loyalty still lies with his former colonial masters and not with his nation. The end result; socio-political and economic dependence, ostentatious acquisition and consumption, corruption, inter-ethnic rivalry, self-centeredness and inflated survival instincts.

In addressing deep-rooted mental health problems such as inferiority complex or self esteem issues, counselors would normally employ the ‘Cognitive Behavior Therapy’ (CBT), which teaches how certain thinking patterns are at the root cause of the symptoms being experienced.

In CBT, people undergoing therapy want to change something in their lives – whether it’s the way they feel, the way they act, or how other people treat them. In employing this treatment option, the patient’s life histories are scrutinized because most times, their current problems are closely tied to ‘unfinished emotional businesses’ from the past. The patient’s behavior prior to a certain traumatic experience is normally the real personality before some life incident distorted their psyche.

Applying the CBT to the African’s psyche, it is evident that for any change to come about in Africa, there is an urgent need for Africa’s history to be re-written. There is need to show that pre-colonial Africa was not barbaric, and lacking in organization and civility, as being peddled in mainstream, Euro-American and Asian discourses. Africans need the stolen artifacts in order to reconstruct the past, in order to explain the present and plan a future. African history must be distilled of biases, civilizational arrogance, racism and bigotry, in order to determine what characterized pre-colonial Africa. The real Africans in character, deed, values, politics, economics, science, religion, technology and other areas must be rigorously studied to be understood, not to be judged or denigrated or scorned.  To be able to do this, Africa needs her heritage, her identity, her artifacts.

6 thoughts on “Returning Africa’s Stolen Artifacts (I)

  1. You have said it all, but the problem that i see is that since then till now African have not been able to get their acts together, they are too corrupt, the countries are still where and what they are, remaining where the colonial masters left us. Most African leaders are busy seeking money from the west to line their pockets,caring less for the country or their societies talk less of thinking about our lost artifacts.The museums may be right in saying we can’t care for the precious artifacts because at the long run when they are brought to Africa they will be sold before you know it.

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