By G9ija

Prince Edun Akenzua is a member of the Benin Royal Family and the Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa Dukedom.

In this interview, Akenzua speaks on his involvement in the campaign for the repatriation of looted Benin artworks by invading British troops in 1897, the return of two artworks by Dr Walker to Oba Erediuwa of blessed memory in 2014 and the recent move to return the Cockerel by the Jesuit College, Cambridge University, London, and the head of Oba (Benin King) removed from the ancestral shrine by the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

How did you get involved in the demand for the repatriation of the artefacts?

I congratulate Omo n’ Oba, Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II on his hosting of his guest on Monday, December 13, 2021. It is during his reign that the Federal Government made a pronouncement, for the first time, on the desirability of returning Nigeria’s artefacts that were looted from their makers and owners more than a hundred years ago.

The Oba spent energy and resources to ensure that the reception was successful. The Oba warmly thanked President Muhammadu Buhari for saying the artefacts will be sent to the Oba and those from other parts of Nigeria to be returned to their places of origin.

I join the Oba to thank the President. He is the first President to publicly speak in that tone. Military President Ibrahim Babagida set up Africa Reparation Movement and named the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola as Chairman. Although the movement’s mandate included the repatriation of Africa’s looted artworks, he did not go the whole hog or make public demands as President Buhari has now made. MKO worked doggedly to ensure that the looted artworks were returned.

He established the United Kingdom and European branch of the movement in London and named the late Bernie Grant, a member of the British Parliament, as Chairman.

I had the privilege of collaborating with Bernie Grant on the same cause for about five years. We were to jointly present a paper to the House of Commons. I know about the Cockerel. A journalist, Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph of London, came to interview me in 2016.

His article was published on October 8, 2016. While the students union of Jesuit College, Cambridge University, England protested that the Cockerel must be removed from where it was mounted, students of Oriel College, Oxford University also demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the college. Jesuit students said the Cockerel presence reminded them of British colonialism and its inhumanity to colonized people. The Cockerel, which had resided in Jesuit College since 1930, was removed from public view in March 2020. It is like tracking down a thief who has stolen your car, only for him to tell you that you can’t have it back because there is a risk it might get stolen again.

What was the agreement signed at the Benin palace on Monday, December 13 all about?

I have not seen the agreement signed. I was told five persons signed including Nigeria’s High Commissioner to London. I was told the High Commissioner said that was how they do it over there. I wonder why a person who is being given back his stolen property needs to sign an agreement or MOU? It is ludicrous that a person who’s stolen property is being returned is made to sign an agreement or an MOU before the stolen items are returned to the owner. It is a colonialism hang-over. For the Federal Government to fall for that ruse or scam make itself a neo-colonialist. A simple letter of acknowledgement would have sufficed. I cannot comment much on this because, as I said, I have not seen or read the agreement signed.

What are the relationship between Oba Erediauwa, the present Oba and your good self?

Oba Erediauwa was my brother. We were born of the same mother. Oba Ewuare II is his son and therefore my biological nephew. In our custom in Benin, Oba is the traditional father of every Benin person including uncles, aunties and cousins.

You talked about collaborating with MP Bernie Grant. How did you meet him?

Omo N’ Oba Erediauwa, my brother, set up a committee in 1986 which he named Benin Centenary Committee. The committee was to organize and execute the commemoration of the British invasion of Benin in 1897. The Oba named me as Chairman of the committee. In that capacity, I and some members of the committee travelled to the United Kingdom, Europe and places where the looted bronze and elephant tusk works were domiciled. It was then I met MP Bernie Grant with whom we carried on the campaign for the return of the looted cultural properties.

Which of the artefacts were brought during the time of Oba Akenzua II, and Oba Erediauwa?

A British medical doctor, Dr Walker, returned two bronze works, Ahiamwen Oro and a Gong, on June 20, 2014, to Oba Erediauwa. Dr Walker’s grandfather was an intelligence officer, a major in the British military that invaded Benin in 1897. Their commander allowed the officers to take any of the items that they fancied as a memento. Major Walker took the Bird and the Gong which he passed on to his daughter, Dr Walker’s mother, and then to his grandson. The story and return of the bronze works make interesting reading.

The doctor did not have pathological love for the items like his grandfather. Being a professional, he was also not money-driven. He saw how his grandfather worshipped the items. One day it just got into his mind that if his grandfather doted on the items that much, how much will the owners from whom they were looted dote on them? He made up his mind to return them to the owners. Then the drama began. He had heard of my campaigns for the Benin bronzes return.

He got in touch with someone who knew some Benin persons in London. They finally got in touch with me through my daughter, Vivian. I called Engineer Uwoghiren, who is the Odionwere of the Binis in the UK, and urged them to go to the Nigeria House and see the High Commissioner, Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, and that I will speak to him and request him to facilitate giving Dr Walker and his team Nigerian visa. Dr Tafida was very excited to hear that Dr Walker was bringing the items to the Oba for free, charging nothing. Dr Tafida then offered to give them tickets along with visas.

By coincidence, the Minister of Culture and then-Director General of Nigeria Council for Museum and Monuments, NCMM, visited London. The High Commissioner was at the airport to pick them up. Back in his office in Nigeria House and still excited by Dr Walker’s gesture, he told the Minister of what the English man planned to do and how he (Dr Dalhatu) offered to give them tickets to travel to Nigeria. The DG told the High Commissioner to route the trip to Abuja so that they would hand the items to the President.

They called me from London and told me about the development. Dr Walker said they would rather come to Benin because his grandfather got the items from Benin. What a sense of history? Surprisingly, the Minister told the High Commissioner that if Dr Walker will not go to Abuja, the High Commission should not issue the tickets. A few days before their flight, they were told the High Commission will no longer issue them flight tickets. I called then- Governor Oshiomhole promised to send first-class tickets to Dr Walker and three other members of his team to travel to Benin which he did.

You keep using the word ‘loot’ or ‘stolen’ in describing what the British did after the war of 1897. Did the British troops not simply take away the spoils of war?

Before the 1897 war, Capt. Philip, who was the Assistant British Consul in the so-called Protectorate of Benin, had written to the British Home Office, urging them to remove King Ovonramwen from the throne so that British companies in Benin will have access to trade. Their main interest was palm oil, which the British needed to prop up the industrial revolution. He told the British government that they did not have to worry about the cost of the war because they would find sufficient ivory and elephant tusk works whose value would compensate for the cost of the war. British troops fought with artillery guns, rocket and rocket launchers against Benin troops armed with only Dane guns, bows and arrows and charms.

The war lasted 12 days. When Benin fell, the British meticulously searched for bronzes and ivories which they carried away. They were about four thousand pieces. After that, they torched the city, including the palace. We have a copy of Capt. Philips letter. The second reason is this. When Dr Walker brought back the Ahianmwen Oro (Bird) and the Gong, they also brought a diary that his great grandfather kept during the war of 1897.

I told you earlier that his grandfather was a major in the army that fought in Benin. The diary was written by the major and contained photographs of Benin and the war in which he personally took part. Under two of the pictures, he wrote ‘loot’ and ‘more loot’. Those writings show that the British knew in 1897 that they were looting. He brought two replicas of the diary. He presented one to the Oba and gave one to me.