Governor Obaseki Draws Battle Line
OpenLife Nigeria reports that indications of what seems a battle line with the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, emerged on Thursday when the governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Obaseki launched plans for Benin City Cultural District.
Sketches of information from Oredo, the local government area that houses both the Palace and Government House, confirmed that Oba Ewuare II objected to the idea initiated by governor Obaseki to build City Cultural District, which will house the Edo Museum of West African Arts, EMOWAA.
Rather, the Oba, OpenLife gathered, has another Museum plan which he has long initiated.
But governor Obaseki was not disposed to anything short of his plans.
Arising from this, the Oba, in a narrative which was earlier published in OpenLife on June 17 said he has confided in the international community especially countries in possession of the stolen artifacts about his plan for a museum.
According to the story, a letter dated 10th March 2021 signed by Mr Dennis I. Osaretin, executive assistant to Oba Ewuare II on legal & corporate affairs, was directed to all foreign missions and embassies in Nigeria, the European Union Commission Office, the British Museum, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Information and Culture and the Director General, National Museum Commission.
In the letter, Oba Ewuare II claimed that he is “from time immemorial, the sole authority and custodian of Benin traditional law and custom” and for that reason “all Edo traditional and cultural rites, citizen interests and proprietary rights over collective intellectual property as well as landed, movable, non-moveable property within the premises of the Palace of the Oba” are vested in him.
Same with “dealings in any artifact of historical, ancestral, spiritual, cultural or native religious rites’ of significance and value, pertaining to the great Benin kingdom and her heritage,” also vested solely in him or persons or groups so delegated by him.
In addition, the Oba stated that he welcomes the interest and renewed commitment of Edo sons and daughters and other local and international stakeholders, including Governor Obaseki, in the bid to correct “a historical wrong on the royal family and people of Benin, by restoring their expropriated property to their rightful owner and location.
The Oba therefore, announced that the ‘Oba Ewuare II Foundation’ had already been established as a special purpose vehicle to “midwife the setting up, for national and international public good, of museums to hold and place on display, said artifacts, of which the Palace shall be lead custodian.”
The Royal father stressed further that he and the Board of Trustees of Oba Ewuare II Foundation, “have long before now, mooted the idea of building a classic museum to be known as ‘The Benin Royal Museums’ and to be located in the premises of the palace of the Oba of Benin, where they rightly belong.
According to him, the Royal Museum is to inherit, protect and manage all artifacts that are returned from the various museums across the world, in trust for the royal family as the heritage of Edo people, for the benefit of students and visitors from all around Nigeria and the world.”
In response, governor Obaseki, in a 14th May 2021 letter he personally signed and addressed to Oba Ewuare II, said there has been “ A body made up of curators of major European museums and representative of the palace of the Oba of Benin” that had been meeting for over a decade without much success until he became governor.
Upon interrogation, Obaseki said he discovered that three main problems were inhibiting progress in the effort to return the artifacts. The first, according to the governor, has to do with the lack of advanced museum storage and display infrastructure in Benin. “Having had these works in their custody for almost a century, the international museums argued that artifacts of this importance need to be stored in an environment that possess adequate climatic controls regulating the humidity, temperature and other conditions, as well as advanced security systems that operate on a 24/7 basis.
To preserve these artifacts, they argue that this infrastructure does not exist in Nigeria today, and are expensive to build and maintain.”
To respond to this challenge, governor Obaseki decided to launch the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) project which he said, “will provide a comprehensive, world-class set of infrastructure for the storage, research and display of objects not just for Benin artifacts, but for artifacts and art from all West Africa spanning the influence of Great Benin empire.”
However, this submission by governor Obaseki does not seem to be convincing enough to the Palace.
The second problem, according to the governor, centred around the multiple claims of owners/relevance in the negotiation process. Obaseki said that to return such priceless objects, “many institutions and governments who have custody of these works abroad want to be certain that they are dealing with relevant counterparties in Nigeria. One argument raised to forestall the return of artifacts is the question of who the works should be returned to. They argue that there was no country called Nigeria or state government when many of the works were taken to Europe. However, under Nigeria Law, these artifacts of national important come under the purview of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments.” So, according to Obaseki, “a Trust that is independent of all three parties but where each party as an interest allows these issues to be dealt with once and for all,” became imperative, hence he acted accordingly. “The trust does NOT own the object and can only hold an object with the implicit authorization of each party, which means that all relevant parties continue to maintain any and all ownership claims it has – the trust simply acts as a common agent for the federal government, state government and royal palace. It allows the artifacts to be returned to Nigeria and then we can resolve the ownership and display issues on our soil without the involvement of foreign parties,” Obaseki stated.
In response, Oba Ewuare II went down memory lane and explained the trajectory of his efforts at retrieving the stolen treasures during his days as Nigerian Ambassador to many countries.
Having gone to such lengths, Oba Ewuare II said he could not understand why Governor Obaseki would be establishing a museum to house such artifacts outside the palace and without prior consultation with him.
He recalled the day in 2014 when a retired medical consultant, Dr Mark Walker, whose grandfather was one of the soldiers involved in the 1897 British raid, visited Benin to personally hand over two statues to his late father, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, at a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries. “So, there were already discussions which my father started on the possible site for the museum within the precincts of the palace. I had held a discussion with the governor on this before.
“He is aware of the place we have in mind. But now, all these ideas have been jettisoned,” Oba Ewuare lamented.
The monarch believes that if the governor really meant to carry critical stakeholders along, the composition of his ‘Legacy Restoration Trust’ should not have been done without due consultation and input from his Palace.
The legal framework under which the Trust was established, the funding requirements, accounting mechanism and the identity of the ‘seasoned financier’ who would be chairman remain shrouded in secrecy, according to Oba Ewuare.
These and many other issues make the whole arrangement suspicious to him.
Besides, he takes the issue very personal. “Return of the looted Benin artifacts to the palace is a sacred mandate given me by my father. It was something he started and would want me to see to reality.
“I will not agree to any deal that takes the artifacts to any other place but the palace of the Oba of Benin from where they were looted,” Oba Ewuare II vowed.
But despite the position of the Oba, governor Obaseki has unveiled plans for the Benin City Cultural District, which will house the Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA).
Obaseki disclosed this at the 2021 National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) Retreat for management staff and curators held in Benin City, the Edo State capital.
The governor said an international town planning group is in the state undertaking Urban and Regional planning of Edo, which will redesign Benin City.
“In this plan, we have included the carving out of a large area as a Cultural District and the Museum will be located in the Cultural District. If we host 5,000 visitors every year as a result of the attraction to the Museum, the state will benefit from it.
We are already working on this and have put up an Urban renewal plan for this purpose,” he said.
He continued: “EMOWAA will be part of the national museum complex and the home for the comprehensive display of the Benin Art collection across the world. The artworks are global works and represent Africa, Nigeria and Edo globally; we should not lose them. We insist on the return of these artifacts to their original home, Benin City.
“We should build something that is iconic and represents the extent of the prowess of the Benin empire. EMOWAA must be a research institution as there is a lot more to research and find out about the Benin Empire. There will be several important buildings in the museum complex and the museum will be a complex that will deal with the different aspects of the cultural life of Edo people.”
Obaseki said culture is one of the viable platforms to leapfrog the state’s development moving into the future, noting, “Culture is a plank for the regeneration of our people.
“The state government in collaboration with the Federal Government and the Royal Palace are in conversation on the return of the Benin artifacts sited in museums and collections across the world.”
Obaseki thanked the British Government and the British Museum for alerting that there might be more works to be retrieved and also for the grant provided to undertake archaeological surveys and research to find the works that currently exist in Edo State.
“The Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA), which is a complex and will be made up of several pieces will include the pavilion, the National Museum, Royal collections, Urhokpota Hall, restoration of a part of the Benin Moat, all of which will make visitors have the full experience of the Benin culture that span for more than six to seven centuries.
“This is a training point for us as a state as we build a museum where the world will come and see original pieces which used to adorn European museums. This is a great project, which we look forward to.”
At the moment, this disagreement has set the stage for what analysts consider a battle between the Palace and Edo Government