The West must return Africa’s stolen assets and artifacts

The author is President of Nigeria

Nigerians were thrilled with the news this summer that 72 artefacts known as the Benin bronzes, held by London’s Horniman Museum, are returning home 125 years after they were looted by British forces. The call for the return of looted treasure becomes irresistible.

There was once a similar call for the return of Africa’s stolen assets, and I see both as part of the same fight to bring back to Nigeria what is rightfully ours. Skimmed off the continent by corrupt former leaders, untold billions remain hidden in western bank accounts. Although Nigeria has been arguably the most successful of African nations in securing the return of stolen money, it has recovered only a fraction of what is left in the West.

Earlier this year Nigeria was forced to take legal action against Britain’s National Crime Agency after repeated delays in returning funds brought out of the country by former dictator General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. The trial, however, reveals the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead. Abacha is said to have siphoned off up to $5 billion to the West. This case only involved £150million.

Given the level of corruption across Africa, there will be concerns as to whether the funds returned will be used appropriately. But we should not forget that the money was primarily laundered through Western jurisdictions. Not trusting Africans to spend their own money wisely reflects the argument that we cannot be trusted to look after our own cultural heritage.

When it comes to both looted cultural heritage and stolen assets, Western museums and authorities seem to largely agree that the loot should always be returned. However, the formalities of repatriation leave much room for maintaining the status quo.

Museums say treasures should be returned if it can be proven they have been looted. Of course, they argue, it is different when artifacts are acquired through purchases and other legitimate means. But it is the same museums that are responsible for assessing the provenance of artifacts. You have a vested interest in keeping them, leading to a lax approach and murky criteria.

A new museum will open in 2025 to showcase the treasures of the Kingdom of Benin. Designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the Edo Museum of West African Art will be based in Benin City, the former capital of the Edo Kingdom. But without the return of more bronzes stored in the west, we might have trouble filling the museum.

Nigeria also needs to fill an infrastructure gap – as highlighted by the World Bank and other international development institutions. Although my administration has implemented the largest infrastructure program since our country’s independence, the delay in recovering stolen assets in the West will make it harder to fund new projects that help alleviate poverty.

In 2017, Switzerland returned $321 million to Nigeria’s social investment program to fund the national social safety net. The money, monitored by the World Bank, has now been disbursed through conditional cash transfers to 1.9 million of Nigeria’s most vulnerable citizens.

Three years later, the United States and the British Channel Island of Jersey transferred $311 million to the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund, managed by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority. The first projects financed by the fund, highways and bridges, are expected to be completed later this year.

When it comes to stolen assets, the precise means by which institutions return such funds — whether delivering them to the state, a government, an ad hoc fund, or some other entity — prompts endless debate rather than action. We know corruption persists across Africa and around the world. But we cannot afford to wait for indefinite “progress” before that money is released. The West must return Africa’s stolen assets and artifacts

Adam Bradshaw

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