Africa urged to unite in push for return of stolen artefacts

Wednesday November 17 2021

Philip Balimunsi, a curator at the Uganda National Cultural Centre, speaks at the Kampala Geopolitics conference on November 12, 2021. PHOTO | COURTESY


A group of young African artistes, culturists and curators have suggested that the continent should consider coming together under one umbrella in its push to have artefacts stolen from it by western colonial powers during the colonial times returned.

Speaking Friday during the Kampala Geopolitics week held at Makerere University in Uganda, various actors in the arts field said that the ongoing divisions which have seen individual African countries negotiating with western governments and cultural institutions will only further delay the process. 

“This generation should be privileged to have a sense of collaboration. We should push for the return of these items not just as individual countries but as all Africa. There is need to have a single voice,” Mr Phillip Balimunsi, a curator at the Uganda National Cultural Centre said.

Currently, particular African countries, cultural institutions and art centres are negotiating with their European counterparts to have particular artefacts returned. 

 Mr Jim Chuchu, the co-founding Director of Nest collective, a multidisciplinary collective based in Kenya’s capital Nairobi said that African countries’ collaboration on the issue should also be because “we are facing the same issues and we are having the same anger.”

About 90% of Africa’s top objects and artefacts that date back 100 years on average are not on the continent. It is estimated that Belgium alone has more the 100,000 African pieces. 


France comes second with close to 90,000 African objects according to Balimunsi.

It is estimated that Kenya alone has 32,000 of its ancient objects outside of the country.

The talk of Africa getting back her artefacts has gained momentum in the past years with different lobby groups, art centres, museums and politicians in different countries pushing for their return. 

In 2017, the president of France Emmanuel Macron in a speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso made a commitment to gradually return stolen African artefacts from France, naming Senegal and Benin as the first recipients. 

Similarly, a growing number of European countries, as well as cultural institutions like UNESCO, are now moving towards launching similar restitution processes.

Some have made progress and signed agreements in principle even when the actual return is yet to materialise. For example, the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is preparing to return some items to the Uganda Museum in Kampala in 2022.

But Africans pushing for the restitution of these items believe there is a deliberate delay by the European countries under the guise of particular social and political reasons.

Among the reasons is the question of whether African countries have the capacity to transport, store and keep for ages these artefacts in case they are returned. Another is that a large number of Africans do not have an interest in the Artefacts.

But Mr Chuchu said the excuses were delaying tactics by the west to continue holding onto the African artefacts, whilst making money out of them before the pressure to return them escalates. 

“The question of capacity is a delaying tactic. If you have taken things, return them, stop asking about where they are going to be kept, or who is going to be in charge of them. We don’t have to prove that we are worthy of getting these things. They are ours,” he said.

He added that Africans should be intentional in demand for these items, most of which were taken violently. 

The restitution crusaders believe that with many of these artefacts back on the continent, the number of tourists looking for them will gradually increase, raising enough revenue to build state of the art facilities and train more curators and handlers.

There has arisen an issue on who to return the items to in some instances. Some of the items were taken from families, kingdoms, communities or individuals who had an attachment to them but after several years cannot be traced, raising the question of whom the items should be returned. 

“Many communities were finished by colonialism, kingdoms were broken apart and communities have intermarried to the point of no recognition of the original ones. Here, artefacts that belonged to them should be taken back to the national museums,” Chuchu said.

According to Ms Barbara Babweteera, the Executive Director of the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda, these artefacts should be returned to help the continent’s young people to reconnect with their past.

“They can learn from it and base on it to reconstruct and innovate for the future. A future that is purely about them and not about what they are told,” she said.

New efforts by Nigeria

In September this year, a guild of artists from the city of Benin in Nigeria said they would donate some contemporary artworks to the British Museum in London as a way to encourage it to return the priceless Benin Bronzes that were looted from the city’s royal court by the British around 1897.

The sculptures are among the continent's finest and they are culturally significant with European museums having them facing criticism over their status as loot and symbols of colonial greed. 

The guild said it wishes to change terms of engagement by giving the British museum new artworks which have no history of looting. 

The British Museum has since accepted a bronze plaque made by artist Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, which he said was also to demand acknowledgement of Benin City's modern-day art and culture.

But there still remains a dispute between Nigerian leaders which could further delay plans to have some of these artefacts returned to the country.

The artefacts were seized from then West African kingdom of Benin in what is present day Edo State in southern Nigeria.

While the state leadership wants them to be returned to an Edo Museum of Western African Art, the cultural leadership of Benin led by King Ewuare II, maintains that the right and legitimate destination for the artefacts is a Benin Royal Museum.