We must stem the tide–Say workshop participants

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An oft-bandied argument by foreign institutions in possession of illegally acquired artefacts against returning such to Nigeria; is that the repatriated works would go missing, again; owing to inadequate security, lack of proper storage facility and rampant looting aided by perceived fifth column working in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

But, ponder this: A car owner had traced his missing vehicle to a thief; but instead of the robber handing over the automobile quietly, he insisted on being allowed to keep his loot because the owner lacked a proper garage to park the car.

This was the anecdotal analogy spun by Prince Edun Akenzua, a son of the immediate past Oba of Benin, regarding a view expressed by one foreign museum's authorities, when confronted with demands to return works illegally acquired from Nigeria.

The prince revealed that the Scottish Museum, in response to a probe by Oba of Benin, asked; if the Edo monarch will make an undertaking to build a befitting museum to house returned cultural properties. Since Nigeria does not have modern gadgets at its museums, won't the returned works soon find their ways back to Europe and the US?

These came to light at a one-day brainstorm, tagged “National sensitization workshop on illicit trafficking of cultural property” organized by the NCMM in Abuja on January 26, 2010. The much lauded exercise revealed the need to beef up laws backing the NCMM and the importance of regular sensitization programmes. The NCMM, it also came up, must through government and general support tackle lingering inadequate funding, which makes it difficult for the institution to effectively discharge its functions, and also strive for more collaboration among all stakeholders as well as arrest poor awareness.

Many issues
Two ministers, Senator Bello Jibrin Gada and Chief Ojo Maduekwe, of Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, and Foreign Affairs respectively, were expected to attend the event. Although Gada attended, the foreign minister sent a representative, and Senator Bako Gassol, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Culture, originally billed to chair the occasion; was also absent. Aside the workshop proper, the event also featured the formal return of two pieces of Ikom Monoliths, illegally exported to Europe but found in France and retrieved by the French authorities, and handed over to Nigeria.

Two traditional rulers, HRH Danladi Gyet Maude OON, paramount ruler of the Ham nation in Southern Kaduna and Prince Edun Akenzua of Benin, Edo State in Nigeria's South-South geopolitical zone, graced the workshop with their presence. The presence of these members of Nigeria's traditional institutions was symbolic, for Ham land is where Nok, home of the famous pieces of antiquity, which date back more than 2,000 years; is located. In the same vein, Benin Kingdom is where thousands of palace objects were looted after the punitive expedition of 1897. Painfully, cultural objects from both communities remain targets of traffickers in illegally acquired antiquities, to this day.

Speaking further, Prince Edun recalled that HRM Oba of Benin had written a letter to the Queen of England on the subject of recovery of looted palace objects. The Edo monarch had subsequently mandated the prince to speak with relevant authorities with a view to facilitating the return of stolen artefacts. The king's envoy subsequently lamented that after a five-year (1996-2001) struggle that took him to UK, where he made a presentation to the British House of Commons; the US and Portugal canvassing for return of the objects, the campaign later lost steam and got grounded because the Nigerian Government “killed, through financial starvation, the Africa Reparation Movement,” the body in the driving seat of that struggle.

There is no doubt the movement was deprived of funds because its founder, Bashorun MKO Abiola, later became government's enemy for fighting against invalidation of his election as president. Prince Edun, who believes the resurrection of that movement, would rekindle the struggle for recovery of stolen Nigerian cultural properties, remarked: “I urge the NCMM to push for the resuscitation of the African Reparation Movement”.

The Benin royal personage also urged that “Laws made for the protection of antiquities should be vigourously enforced, irrespective of whose ox was gored. He further reckoned that perhaps, serious efforts by Nigeria, even at The Hague, International Court of Justice, could compel those in possession of relevant objects to surrender them.

Prince Edun, who expressed delight that the NCMM could organize such a forum, observed; “The issue has been on the front burner of international discourse for very long. I am happy that the NCMM is making concerted effort to stem the tide (of cultural flight) by creating awareness.” He, however, called for an orchestrated and well coordinated approach: which, he intoned, presupposes that the battle “should not be limited to creating awareness against illegal trafficking in cultural objects alone” but also address the issue of repatriation of already trafficked ones.

But, does the word “trafficking” put in proper perspective the scourge plaguing the nation's cultural properties for over a century? It would seem that trafficking is euphemistic, for in the view of Prince Edun, who is “Enoge” of Benin; “looting” is a more appropriate terminology for what the Benin, Ife, Nok and other ancient art forms of Nigeria have suffered.

The worries over illegal flight of Nigeria's cultural properties and the sometimes emotive exchanges between those calling for the objects' repatriation and those reluctant to hand their booty over, notwithstanding; the workshop threw up not only anecdotal analogies but insightful analyses from the participants, which included a large number of paramilitary personnel.

The Nigeria Police, Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) put up a strong presence. The State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria Intelligence Agency (NIA), National Planning Commission, United Nations' Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Federal Ministry of Finance were also represented.

Ambassador of Argentine Republic, Maria Susana Pataro, who is also a Member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM); Cultural Attaché of French Embassy, Mr. Marc Fenoli, Cultural Counsellor, Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Mr. Shan Baoxiang as well as Ms. Jiang Ping Ping of the same mission, and several other members of the diplomatic community were also visible during the workshop. Aside an overwhelming number of NCMM headquarters staff, at least 10 Curators of various National Museums also attended. The visiting curators included Messrs Sunday Adaka (Calabar), Oluwasola Adeoye (Oron), Uzoma Nwosu (Benin), Sambo Fori (Maiduguri), Ronke Ashaye (Lagos), Mrs. Ireti Kola-George (Ibadan), Abdul Aliu (Kano), Mrs. Hannah Dunkrah (Katsina) and Mr. Raphael Laya Fadamijo (Port Harcourt) as well as Artist/Art Historian, Dr. Peju Olayiwola.

Hopes, questions and answers
In his welcome address, NCMM Director General, Mr. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, said the workshop became necessary to stem the tide of illegal trade in cultural objects. Hear the NCMM DG: “Unauthorized and illicit movement of cultural objects has raised so much concern”. The issue, which enjoys prime of place in international discourse, has forced many countries to devise various control mechanisms “to stem the tide of the vicious practice,” as the museums' helmsman put it. “Nigeria, just like other countries”, he continued, “has suffered greatly from unlawful pillaging of her cultural property”.

However, while various measures and legislation as well as international conventions have been deployed to contain the menace, the scourge, which “undermines a country's tourism potentialities and impoverishes the art and culture sectors”, as Usman rightly observed, continues to thrive.

Apparently, the problem persists because “political will is lacking”, as could be gleaned from Nigeria's experience, vis-à-vis the Africa Reparation Movement.

The workshop, Mr. Usman explained, was therefore arranged principally to develop an action plan. “We want to leave this venue with an action plan, it should not just be another talk shop”, he had declared; adding: “To guarantee more efficiency and effectiveness of legislations, the NCMM is set to stem the tide of the ugly practice through an integrated, realistic and well coordinated approach by creating the needed awareness and sensitization among all collaborating agencies that can assist in arresting this ugly trend”.

The NCMM Director of Museums, Mr. Nath Mayo Adediran was host of the event, which took place at Reiz Continental Hotel, Abuja. The well-attended workshop featured Professor Folarin Shyllon of the Faculty of Law, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, as Keynote Speaker. Prof Shyllon's paper, titled “Towards a strategy for curbing illicit trafficking and the return of cultural property”, elicited tremendous interest, going by the many reactions that trailed it. Similarly, “Workshop on the illicit trafficking in cultural property and the return of objects” by Mr. Adediran shed further light on the situation as well as corrected a few inaccuracies or wrong notions concerning the state of affairs.

For example, anyone mounting an exhibition celebrating Nigeria abroad could get an export permit, without paying the compulsory 10 percent of the cost of the artwork, to take contemporary (non-antiquity) artefacts out of the country; provided such objects shall be returned to Nigeria. Another presentation that aroused much interest was “Towards a strategy for curbing illicit trafficking of our cultural property through our international borders” by Inspector General of Police Ogbonna Onovo, read on his behalf by Mr. Nwodibo Ekechukwu, a Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Interpol. However, participants found it curious that the very rich paper and illuminating presentation proved deficient in the area of “Stolen Cultural Properties Statistics” with regard to Nigeria, whereas 46 other countries across five continents were listed.

It is possible that non-report of thefts at museums to the police and inadequate interaction among various security agencies engendered this; a development, which buttressed Adediran's view that “There should be more dialogue among us, and also between us and those in custody of our works”.

The NCS' representative, Mr. N. F. Opene, an Assistant Comptroller of Customs, presented a paper titled “Towards a strategy for curbing illicit trafficking of our cultural property through our international borders”. The customs officer's address, which shed light on the “The role of Nigeria Customs Service”, “Laws” backing the service as well as its “Enforcement” efforts was roundly hailed for its candour, when the officer confessed, en passant, that “The general public, including the Customs, most of us do not know what Cultural Properties are. Therefore, there should be more enlightenment in this area”.

Sequel to Comptroller Opene's address, Mr. Abdul Aliu, Mrs. Ireti Kola-George and Ronke Ashaye, Curator of National Museum Kano, National Museum Ibadan and National Museum Lagos respectively suggested the inclusion of Cultural Studies in the training programmes for relevant security agencies' personnel as well as creation of a department in the NCMM to handle Cultural Property Protection and Repatriation.

Hear Aliu; “Is it possible to establish a specialized culture unit in the Police, Customs et cetera to accommodate museum professionals at the airport, seaport and land borders and so on”? After deliberating on these submissions, it was agreed that the establishment of a Desk at the NCMM for regular update on Cultural Property Matters as well as more collaboration with security agencies would be useful. “We need to update NCS, Interpol, etc to let them know changes in museum statutes. Therefore, at every given time, there should be a line of communication and exchange of information”, Adediran responded.

A staff of the National Planning Commission, Mr. Ayo Fadile, while also commending the NCMM for the workshop, rued; “It is sad that Nigeria does not appreciate the role of culture in development. We have to take the issue of culture very, very, seriously”, he advised.

Mr. Fadile added that he was baffled by Prof Shyllon's revelation that Nigeria has never made any formal request for the return of stolen cultural objects, even with the brouhaha over the FESTAC symbol.

However, the issue of whether or not Nigeria ever made a formal request for the return of cultural objects was clarified by Mr. Adediran; who said, “There have been (at least) two occasions, when Nigeria asked for the return of illegally acquired works.” Expatiating, the Director of Museums added; in 1974, after Decree 9 came into effect; Dr. Ekpo Eyo, the Director of the then Federal Department of Antiquities, wrote letters to all embassies in Nigeria, then located in Lagos requesting the return of all Nigerian cultural property in their custody”.

However, it would seem that while efforts were being made to recover exported works, new loopholes had been created to facilitate the flight of more objects; going by the contribution of Mr. Adaka, which drew attention to a serious lapse at Nigerian airports, where art/craft shops are located beyond screening points. “Who gave permission for art shops inside airports beyond checkpoints”, he asked. Given their strategic advantage, the proprietors of such marts could easily sell antique objects or aid a trafficker since there is no other hurdle to scale before boarding an aircraft with a cultural property. Everyone shared Adaka's fears that there was a serious flaw in this arrangement.

Although UNESCO charges member nations to enlighten their nationals on museum activities, inadequate funding and poor management over the years meant that Nigeria's NCMM all too often left citizens in the dark. “I do not remember the last time we came together like this; sitting with so many different agencies and individuals to discuss this all-important issue”. This remark by Mr. Adediran, who has worked in the NCMM for over 20 years, brings to the fore the extent to which UNESCO's directive has been complied with or flouted in these climes.

Despite the many challenges staring the NCMM in the face, Adediran however, is still optimistic. Hear him: “We've started taking inventory of all our objects”. The NCCM is going digital; and if things go according to plan, it is possible that at the mere click of a mouse, an object/artefact would be identified at various museums, airports, seaports as well as land border and in the offices of relevant security agencies in the near future.

This director of museums further revealed: “Export Permit issuance will also be digitalized”, and “the NCMM is also subscribing to regional and global bodies' conventions” to strengthen the fight against flight of cultural property. To be candid, the NCMM-organized exercise achieved quite a lot, going by the thought-provoking deliberations propagated to the large audience inside a jam-packed hall.