Uganda’s different approach of ‘negotiation’ to reclaim its artefacts

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Tuesday, 3 January 2023 14:19

Luzira head (Photo: British Museum)

Uganda will in 2023 receive dozens of artefacts from the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), which were taken in the early 20th century. However, unlike countries that have been forceful in calling out thieves – in reference to Western countries that stole their artefacts in the 19th and 20th century – Uganda has had to take a different approach to negotiations because many of its objects were bought - at bargain prices - rather than stolen.

Over two weeks ago, Nigeria received the first batch of its Benin bronzes from the German government, which admitted to theft, and an overly extended period for their return. “We ignored Nigeria’s plea to return them for a very long time. It was wrong to take them and it was wrong to keep them,” Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said in Abuja.

Derek Peterson of University of Michigan, who is leading the Uganda project, tells The Africa Report that in trying to figure out how to repatriate Uganda’s objects, they have had to develop a new approach. “In the Nigeria case, the Nigerians can go to Britain, Germany, etc and say bring back what you stole. In the Ugandan case, we can’t really say that, it has to be more of negotiation about the value of returning the objects to Uganda and what it means to Ugandans to have them back.”

Peterson says: “The Uganda objects were mostly paid for; that is, collectors paid the owners for the objects that they acquired. It was not a fair bargain, but nonetheless, many of the objects were purchased by collectors.”

Many of the objects were taken from Uganda and given to British museums by Reverend John Roscoe, an anthropologist and missionary from the UK. He acquired them with the assistance of Apollo Kaggwa, an influential prime minister of Buganda kingdom from 1890 t0 1926. Roscoe and Kaggwa were trying to build Buganda as a Christian kingdom.

The objects, which will be returned, include mayembe, traditional drums, spears among others. They were symbols of political and religious power. The mayembe, for instance, are still in use and thought to possess supernatural powers. Their owners can use them to dispense fortune and misfortune for others. Thus, in building a Christian society, Kaggwa and Roscoe were dispossessing Baganda of the instruments of the old religious system that were also used by political brokers.

Receptive

Peterson says Cambridge was receptive to the project when it was approached because it has had a long history with the Uganda Museum. In 1962, he says the museum agreed to return to the Uganda Museum the artefact of Buganda deity called Kibuuka, a god of war, who is said to have guided the kingdom, as it fought wars in the pre-colonial era. “It was the first time, as far as I know, that a British institution had agreed to repatriate a cultural or artistic object to an African museum,” he says.

This could be an opportunity, Peterson adds, for other museums in Britain to appreciate the value of returning artefacts from Uganda that they are still holding. For instance, the British Museum has the Luzira head, a sculpture thought to be more than 1000-years-old, dug from Luzira in 1929, on the outskirts of Kampala, which is the site of Uganda’s main prison during construction.

We want to return them to people who used them, who made them powerful and who regarded them as important to their own personal and religious lives.

It was briefly kept in the Uganda Museum and later sent to London in 1931 by E.J Wayland, director of the geological survey department in the colonial government, as a gift.

Resistance outside Uganda

Uganda has been claiming for the return of its objects for years with no success. “They have been resistant to any claim for repatriation to African institutions. Uganda’s government started claiming for repatriation of its important objects from the 1970s,” Peterson says.

Apollo Makubuya, a Buganda kingdom loyalist, argues in his book “Protection, Patronage or Plunder?” that as the British resist to return the sculpture, no question has been raised as to how Wayland acquired the proprietary rights of the Luzira head or whether he had the legal authority to bequeath it to the British Museum.

Peterson says if the ongoing project to return the objects from Cambridge is successful, “it will become easier for us to go to the British Museum and to other institutions in the UK to request return of important objects. We see this as the first step”.

Other objects, such as a king’s throne, taken from Bunyoro kingdom in the late 19th century, pots from Ankole kingdom, head dresses from Acholi are also kept in various museums.

…what its means for Uganda

Returning the objects to Uganda today, Peterson says, is one way of reviving ways of thinking about the world that Ugandans often see as closed. He adds that this will give Ugandans an opportunity to see and interact with history.

“We want to return them to people who used them, who made them powerful and who regarded them as important to their own personal and religious lives,” he says.

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