just this once

Benin and Senegal: French MPs move closer to returning looted artifacts

By Jeune Afrique

Posted on October 9, 2020 20:25

african art
Two Heads of a royal ancestor (Uhunmwun Elao), from the former Benin Kingdom, a part of modern-day Nigeria, 18th century (R) and 19th century (L) are displayed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France, November 23, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

French deputies have unanimously approved a bill restoring cultural property to Benin and Senegal brought to France during the colonial era as “spoils of war”.

The transfer to Benin includes 26 pieces – statues, royal seat, doors worked in particular – of the “Treasure of Behanzin” from the looting of the palace of Abomey in 1892. They are now in the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron had announced their “immediate restitution” during his trip to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, but the process of transferring ownership stalled afterwards.

READ MORE Why France is dragging its feet to repatriate looted African artworks

For its part, Senegal wants to recover a sword and its scabbard attributed to El Hadj Omar Tall, a great West African military and religious figure of the 19th century, confiscated by General Archinard during the colonial conquest of West Africa by France.

Held by the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum) in Paris, these objects had been symbolically handed over – in the form of a five-year loan – by France to Senegal’s President Macky Sall during a visit to Dakar of then Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in November 2019.

They are now on display in the Senegalese capital.

Ad hoc” refunds

The bill was passed by 49 votes for and none against in the National Assembly on 6 October, and is now to be considered by the Senate. The restitution of these “spoils of war” is part of a “strengthened willingness to cooperate” with Benin and Senegal, said the French Minister of Foreign Trade, Franck Riester, who came to defend the text in place of the Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, who was in isolation following a “contact case” of COVID-19.

READ MORE African artefacts: Repatriation activists on trial for attempted theft at Paris museum

Although the French minister insisted on the punctual nature of these restitutions, the case is being treated as a particular one, in response to fears that they would open the way to an increased number of claims and the loss of a large number of works held by French museums.

READ MORE Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes: ‘It’s not the place of the British to decide their fate’

The project “applies only to these specific cases” and “in no way derogates from the general principle” on the inalienable character of French public collections, he said.

Benin is the first African country to have asked France, in 2016, to return its heritage. “Voting a specific law to restore 26 works is a strict minimum, said President Patrice Talon in September, in an interview with The Africa Report/Jeune Afrique.

“What we want is a general law that authorises the executive to negotiate with us a global restitution based on a precise inventory. Then, in a win-win spirit, to discuss what goes to each other, joint exhibitions, originals and copies, etc., in a spirit of mutual respect. This cooperative dynamic is preferable to legal action.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.