In July, Germany signed a deal with Nigeria to return the estimated 1,100 bronzes held in its museums, which are among more than 5,000 pieces believed to have been stolen during the British campaign. “Officials from my country once bought the bronzes, although they knew that they had been stolen and looted.

Berlin (dpa) – Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth have flown to Nigeria to return looted Benin bronzes. “Today we are taking a step that was long overdue,” said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the beginning of the trip: “Together with the federal states, cities and museums, we are showing that Germany is serious about critically engaging with its dark colonial history.”

Baerbock and Roth are accompanied by several museum directors. On Tuesday, Baerbock and Roth plan to personally return 20 of the Benin bronzes. The valuable plaques and sculptures mostly originate from British looting in 1897 and had been sold to German museums, among others, at that time. Previously, more than 1,100 of the Benin bronzes from the palace of the former Kingdom of Benin had been held by around 20 German museums.

Even if this “will not heal all the wounds of the past”, critically engaging with colonial injustice nonetheless opens a new chapter of deepened cooperation, said Baerbock, adding that Germany was keen to cooperate even more closely with Africa’s most populous democracy, especially on curbing the climate crisis.

In 1897 a British military expedition attacked and destroyed Benin City, making off with thousands of metal and ivory sculptures.

Speaking at a ceremony with Nigerian officials, the German minister stressed the importance of this historical moment.

“We are not returning mere objects to you, to the Nigerian people today. We have learned from you within the last years, what we are returning is a part of your history, what we are returning is a part of who you are”, she said.

Germany’s initiative follows similar actions taken by former colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, France and Belgium.

“The British Museum and all those holding onto our artefacts must understand that repatriation is a course whose time has come. They must also understand that many of these cultural objects are not mere art to us but the true essence of our being”, declared Lai Mohammed, Nigeria minister for Information and Culture.

Earlier this year, Nigeria’s neighbour Benin inaugurated an exhibition of artworks and treasures returned by France after two years of negotiations.

Piers Potter

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