Many times, people have made the annoying mistake of judging history through simplistic prisms just to flatten or downplay certain things that they are not proud of. A notable example of this is how Europe has attempted to destroy the narratives, which ensured the right questions were asked about their past deeds and actions.
Regardless of the desperate effort made to alter these narratives, one fact that can never be destroyed is that many centuries ago, European nations invaded Africa and mindlessly stole from her. This stealing was later institutionalised under colonial systems, and it went on unhindered for several years.
Many European nations, particularly Britain, for reasons best known to them have refused to sincerely reckon with their colonial past. They have remained aloof and have refused to sincerely acknowledge that they wronged people deeply. These wrongs are painful and real and cannot be dismissed by retelling stories.
Africans were brutally dehumanised. They endured the reality of watching a foreign army invade their land, colonise their people, wickedly stole their resources, and headed off to their countries. These invaders even went further to build statues and name the roads and monuments in Africa after themselves as a sorry replacement for their loot.
Centuries later, the descendants of these Africans have continuously made a case for the repatriation of their stolen artifacts and resources and a total restoration of their identities, and these pleas have only fallen on deaf ears.
Today, countries like Britain still retain their hold on stolen artifacts and resources while preaching peace and sound morals to the descendants of these dehumanised Africans on whose lacerated backs they rode when it mattered most.
It is no longer a matter for debate that a large chunk of the African artifacts in Britain’s heritage collections was not legally acquired or freely given to the European enslavers, rather they were acquired as part of a programme of conquest, plunder, and deception by British colonial administrations, and colonial collectors. No amount of denials or gaslighting can change this truth.
All over the world, sustaining the argument that stolen goods once found should not be returned to their rightful owners often comes out stupid and is largely baseless. However, in the case of Britain, the reverse seems to be the case. Despite the signing of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act of 2009 which gave national institutions, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, the legal power to return to their rightful owners the treasures they housed in their collections that had been stolen by the Nazis. No such consideration has ever been given to goods stolen by the British imperial forces in Africa.
It is long overdue for this injustice to end. The time has come for anyone who can prove ownership of resources and treasures in British museums and storehouses, such as the Oba of Benin and his descendants, to come forward and claim their properties. It is sad to know that treasures from the ancient kingdom of Egypt are on display in Britain and not in their rightful homes in the lands of the pyramids.
It is deeply insulting, to say the least, that anyone who has been robbed should have to go cap in hand to the people who now possess the stolen items — only to be refused. The whole situation is akin to viewing one’s property from the home of the burglar.
The truth remains that, with the way things have gone, returning the booty stolen by the British in their numerous conquests and having them tender unreserved apologies should and must be a priority for anyone who considers themselves an anti-imperialist.
Perhaps what Britain has failed to come to terms with is that the call for the return of these properties is not merely just a question of financial, property, or even aesthetic restitution. What is at stake is clearly about stolen dignity and memory, and the victims deserve and should get justice.
These looted treasures represent stolen memories, which are essentially the bedrock upon which one can go on to build for the future. It is important to note that these stolen treasures represent the memory of a nearly forgotten advanced African civilisation – they are not just some collection of incredible works of art and important religious artefacts. These treasures celebrate the culture and heritage of a proud people. They shouldn’t be locked up in a foreign country that imposed its will on a proud nation.
Recently, the government of the United Kingdom shocked everyone when it disclosed that Britain was ready to release some of the treasures it stole during the colonial era. It has, however, told the Nigerian government that it will only be offering some of these pieces that were stolen on loan to the African country. One can only imagine the effrontery and the audacity that prompted such an offer. The audacity to offer a loan agreement to the country that these items were actually stolen reeks of a colonial-master mindset! Perhaps Britain should be reminded that Nigeria gained her independence from them in 1960!
Regardless of how one chooses to look at it, Britain’s decision to hold onto these stolen treasures which they made away with not only from Nigeria but other countries that were colonized during the glory days of its empire is wicked, callous, and unjust. It is a desperate attempt to prove relevancy and perhaps remind everyone that at one point in world history, it was one of the greatest nations in the world that could invade people’s territories and steal from them without consequences.
It is universally accepted that colonialism is now an outdated phenomenon. However, Britain has not stopped acting as bullies, reminding nations it conquered who the master once was. As long as it continually insists on holding onto resources that it plundered from many nations, particularly in African, nothing has really changed in reality.
It is already 2023, and at least over six decades since colonialism became outdated, it is utterly reprehensible that a country should be holding onto a history that involves murder, bloodshed, and pillage. If Britain is not proud of the days when it had to deploy brutal force to turn independent and proud nations into their colonies, then it shouldn’t be needing any sort of compulsion to return those loot with heartfelt apologies to its former colonies who are now full-fledged counties today.
Africans must, as a matter of urgency, launch vigorous campaigns to demand an unconditional return of all stolen artifacts that were stolen from the continent. Anything less than that will be insulting to the sensibilities of Africans.
Britain must be clearly reminded that the days of the sun never setting on the British Empire are gone and finally over. We are in a new world era where everyone’s rights must be respected. The master and slave dynamic no longer exists, and it must be completely buried. Africans must be given back what was stolen from them with apologies and compensation. Anything other than that is neo-imperialism and primitive colonialism.
Every stolen item should be returned. Antiquities extracted wrongfully, such as ‘gifts’ made from intimidation or by deceit, should be subjected to the same treatment. It is morally wrong and psychologically denigrating to continue to keep them.
Amid the calls for the return of these treasures, Britain’s responses have been arguably less principled and, in some cases, simply derisory. The best they have done is to offer to ‘lend’ exhibits to nations that rightfully own them and tell upbeat stories about Britain’s museums being repositories of interconnected ‘world histories’ or guardians of beautiful things in an unsafe world. One would wonder, what if Germans were to use these same illogical tricks to hold on to looted Nazi art?
When it is confirmed that you are in possession of stolen property, you have to give it back.’ And say sorry and pay compensation where necessary. And tell the whole truth about what happened. As we head into an uncertain future, Britain must come to terms with the fact that refusing to do the needed restitution is unbearable and excruciating and leaves it to be nothing but an unjust country that seeks to re-glorify the imperial past without any dint of remorse.