Nigeria and Germany sign agreement for the return of Benin Bronze artifacts

Germany and Nigeria have signed an agreement that starts the process for the return of Benin Bronze artifacts that were looted by Europeans more than 120 years ago.

Nigerian officials hope the accord will prompt other countries to follow suit and return all ancient artifacts removed from Africa.

In 1897, a British colonial expedition to the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwestern Nigeria, looted vast quantities of treasures from the royal palace, including numerous bas-reliefs and sculptures.

The artifacts ended up spread far and wide. Hundreds were sold to collections such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has one of the world’s largest groups of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, estimated to include about 530 items, including 440 bronzes. Many of them date from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Two pieces held by the Berlin museum – a commemorative head of a king and a relief slab depicting a king with four attendants – were handed over as German and Nigerian officials signed their “joint political declaration” at the German foreign ministry in Berlin.

Governments and museums in Europe and North America have increasingly sought to resolve ownership disputes over objects that were looted during colonial times.

In 2021, Germany announced its intention to return the Benin Bronzes that ended up in the country and officials did not give a timeline for the return of the remaining artefacts, but Berlin’s Ethnological Museum said an agreement on the rest of the bronzes it holds will follow later this year.

The agreement provides for museum cooperation between Germany and Nigeria. Germany is helping Nigeria set up a new museum in Benin City where bronzes will be displayed.

Nigeria’s Minister of Culture, Lai Mohammed, thanked Germany for having “taken the lead in correcting the wrongs of the past”, hailing “the dawn of a new era of cooperation”.