Friday, February 14, 2014


Whereas Briton KC Murray lost his life over Nigerian artefacts, native museum officials abandon objects seized more than 4 months ago at Seme border

  By MAURICE ARCHIBONG (+2348056180050),
More than four months since 18 artefacts were seized from a suspected trafficker, the objects are still lying at Government Warehouse Seme because no official of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) would come forward to collect them.
Shockingly, it has also come to light that a curator of one of Nigeria’s National Museums actually said it was impossible to facilitate transfer of the artefacts as there was no money to procure fuel for the vehicle that would have been used for the journey!
One of the seized artefacts.

Interestingly, a distance of less than 100km separates Onikan, where Lagos Museum is located, and Seme Border. Initially, museum officers had blamed their inability to go for the objects on an industrial action by NCMM workers at the time.

Although Nigeria’s NCMM employees launched a nationwide strike last 20 November over allegations of corruption and ineptitude on the part of the government agency’s director general, National Museums had reopened since December.

Going by theme and style of execution, the seized brass sculptures, which include a pair of leopards, a huge python, a bare-breasted maiden on her knees bearing a present of kolanuts, a Portuguese soldier, and an intricately crafted gong; all hint at Bini (ancient Benin City) Art.

From a privileged preview by this writer last November, the averagely heavy (over 10kg) artefacts, appeared to be precious shrine/palace objects. If none of the 18 objects turns out to be some priceless antique pieces, then they must be excellent imitations.

Whereas this writer gave the phone numbers of two NCMM top-shots to the public relations officer of the local customs’ command, Mr. Ernest Ollotah, since October last year; a museum official finally turned up with a letter at Seme border on Thursday, 13 February; more than 130 days since the seizure was made by Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) personnel covering Seme area!

Mr. Ollotah, told us during a telephone conversation on Friday, 14 February; that: “They (NCMM) brought their response to a letter we sent to them on these objects to our office yesterday (13 February)”. The customs letter to NCMM was delivered weeks earlier.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014 marked 121 days since the artefacts were impounded, and during an earlier conversation, on that day, Ollotah had revealed: “On 4 February, I had, again, called head of Lagos Museum, Mrs. (Edith) Ekunke to find out when they were coming to pick the artefacts. The woman confirmed they had received our letter and added that the museum had sent a reply to us. Lagos Museum curator said their reply was basically a request to customs to inform museum of a date to come for the artefacts’ collection. However, we have not received their reply as we speak (7 February)”.

On 21 January, 111 days since the items were intercepted, we had returned to Seme Border; where the local custom’s chief, Comptroller Willie Egbudin, confirmed the items were still in the custody of his para-military agency. During a brief chat with this writer, who was led to Egbudin’s office by Ollotah; the area controller revealed: “I have just been briefed of the artefacts’ seizure only today (21 January, 2014)”.

Egbudin added that, after being informed, his command planned to send a letter to the NCMM to come for the objects’ collection. This comptroller further revealed that, from information given to him by subordinates, the suspect that was conveying the artefacts had been arraigned in court.

Although the identity of the male suspect was not revealed, Egbudin said he learnt the man was no longer in detention, having been granted bail when he was arraigned. By some uncanny coincidence, however, both then local customs controller and the officer-in-Charge of Government Warehouse Seme, Othman Saleh and A. Odediran respectively; were redeployed from Seme within a month after the monumental seizure was recorded.

Although handing-over and taking-over processes by the outgoing and incoming officials might have contributed to the months-long delay before the incumbent controller was briefed, Ollotah told his boss that NCMM chiefs, when he first contacted them in late October 2013, lamented they could do nothing as National Museums across Nigeria were on strike.

Following persistent calls, Ollotah said he was subsequently informed that the industrial action had been called off. But, when he asked when museum officers were coming to collect the artefacts; the local customs’ PRO claimed a management staff of Lagos Museum pleaded with him to convey the objects to Onikan because the museum had no money for fuel!

To worsen matters, discrepancy now shrouds the actual number of artefacts seized. Whereas this writer counted 18 objects during a 22 November, 2013 visit; the content of an official memo leaked to us claims; “Number of items seized: 10”.

Numerous attempts to speak with Nigeria’s Culture and Tourism Minister, Chief Edem Duke, regarding the perceived abandoned artefacts have thus far proven futile. Although the minister took one of our calls, meaningful conversation was made impossible due to network challenges.

Although we succeeded in speaking with Dr Musa Hambolu, NCMM Director of Planning, Research and Publications; and, Mrs. Edith Ekunke, Curator of National Museum Lagos; every effort to reach Mr. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, NCMM Director General drew blank as he would not take our call.

Nigerian museums’ British nexus

Many would be bewildered, that indigenous leaders of Nigerian museums could ignore 18 artefacts at a border post for more than 120 days, whereas a Briton, Mr. KC (Kenneth Crosthwaite) Murray practically lost his life in 1972 to efforts at preserving African art objects.

Born in England in 1902, Mr. Murray initially worked as art teacher in the British colonial service. Nigeria’s legendary artist Ben Enwuonwu was one of Murray’s pupils at some point. In 1943, Murray was appointed founding chief of Nigeria’s museum service and he subsequently retired in 1957, after the launch of Lagos Museum earlier that year. However, he was recalled and reappointed Director, Department of Antiquities, following the retirement of his successor, another Brit, Bernard Fagg.

From an article published in Nigerian Heritage and entiled Kenneth Murray, Father of Museum Movement in Nigeria, by Vicky James; we learnt that, long after retirement, Murray was still working for Nigeria. In fact, he died; at the age of 69 on Saturday, 22 April, 1972; while on his way to install exhibits for the new Benin Museum building.

Apparently fearing for the safety of some precious artefacts, he chose to ride in the Volkswagen bus conveying specimens of Benin Art from the national collection; and, reportedly died after a fatal collision due to an attempt by his driver to overtake a truck at a bend on the Ijebu-Benin road. The tragic accident, it could be recalled, occurred less than three weeks after Nigeria changed from Left to Right-hand drive.

In appreciation of Murray’s 40 years of dedication to Art and Education in Nigeria, he was honoured with a traditional funeral, apparently as he would have liked. In fact, during his lying-in-state at the Lagos Museum; an Egungun (masquerade) appeared at his coffin’s side.

Additionally, two groups of drummers as well as hundreds of Nigerians and Ghanaians accompanied his body to attend a Requiem Mass at the Saint Saviour’s Church. The way into the church was paved by members of various associations he had helped to found. Murray’s remains were eventually interred at Ikoyi Cemetery on 4 May, 1972.

Apart from KC Murray, as the late man was fondly called, many other deceased Britons must be turning in their graves over perceived crass negligence on the part of current NCMM fat-cats regarding these 18 artefacts. Nigeria’s National Museums, which is a unit of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), evolved principally from the efforts of British citizens.

In fact, two Britons, Messrs Murray and Bernard Fagg, an archaeologist, were the first two chiefs of the NCMM, after the institution was created in 1943. Collectively, Murray and Fagg steered the NCMM ship successfully for almost 25 years: from 1943 to 1967. Furthermore, today’s famed Igbo Ukwu Art owes largely to excavations carried out by a British anthropologist Thurstan Shaw.

Shaw was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Ibadan from 1963 to 1974. For his efforts, the native community in today’s Anambra State town of Igbo Ukwu conferred on British-born Shaw an Igbo chieftaincy title: Onu-nekulu-ora (World spokesman of Igbo Ukwu).

Aside from the fore-runner British citizens, which included and Mr. Frank Willet, whose work led to the emergence of Nigerian museums and the popularity of ancient Nigerian Art; latter-day arrivals like Keith Nicklin also left indelible marks. The late Mr. Nicklin, it is worth reminding, spearheaded the reconstruction of Oron Museum, which had been set ablaze after being looted during the Nigerian civil war: 1967-1970.

Britain and Benin Art

Benin Court Art includes a Memorial Head, Queen Mother Head, Oba’s Horn Blower and Leopard (usually made of brass or bronze). However, the Queen Idia plaque, a 16th century ivory sculpture depicting facial features of the mother of Oba Esigie, one of the kings of ancient Benin Kingdom; is arguably the most popular of Nigeria’s classical antiquity pieces.

Queen Idia plaque was adopted symbol of the second World Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), which took place in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. Interestingly, however, the original Queen Idia, believed to be one of the artefacts looted from Benin during the British invasion of 1897, can only be viewed in the UK, since it is now part of British Museum’s collection.

Are Nigerian museum objects safer abroad?

Are Nigerian antiquities safe at home or are they better-off overseas? This is a question many observers have difficulty coming up with a simple “yes” or “no” response to.

In 1985, I spent about a month visiting the British Museums, including London’s Museum of Natural History. Wherever we found Nigerian antiquity, the object was well looked after. Apart from excellent display or storage of the artefacts under controlled ambience, various alarms and other security devices as well as insurance also protected each object.

In September 2000, spent two days in the company of Dr. Hans Joachim Koloss, then Director of the Africa Section of Germany’s Ethnographic Museum located in the Dahlem Dorf neighbourhood of Berlin.

My visit coincided with a long-running exhibition, which brought on view hundreds of antique objects from Nigeria as well as other African countries. Reflecting Germany’s deep interest in Africa, that Ausstellung of principally Cameroon (Kamerun) artefacts, opened in this ethnographic museum, launched in 1873, as far back as 1926.

During my tour, with the privilege of having Dr Koloss as guide, when I discovered that numerous antiquities of Nigerian origin formed part of the major exhibits; I had turned, somewhat reflexively, on Dr. Koloss, for explanation as to why these antiquities, which included many bronze and terra cotta sculptures from Benin, Ife and Nok; had not been returned to Nigeria.

In response, Koloss, who was installed an African chief by Oku Community in Cameroon, where he once lived and worked for decades, simply asked for my candid opinion as to the wisdom or otherwise of returning the works to Nigeria.

Holding my ground, apparently for patriotic reasons, I reminded this curator of various international bodies’ position, which is that illegally acquired artefacts should be returned to their native lands.

But, Koloss, who probably knew that I was aware of the curious exchange of two Nok terra cotta pieces between a former Nigerian president and an ex-French leader, tactfully dropped the debate. Aware that the man was also abreast of reports of brazen theft of antiquities plaguing Nigerian museums, I decided to not discuss the issue of return of antiquities to Nigeria any further.

If these items hadn’t been taken to what now appeared safe havens, would they not have been sold or mishandled by people supposed to preserve them? This was the muse that rankled in my mind.

Nigeria is worst-hit

Nigeria is the hardest-hit country as far as antiquity looting and trafficking are concerned, going by an expose on Nigeria’s antiquity flight, published in the African Art News, co-written by Simon Robinson and Aisha Labi. “Over the past two decades, museums (in Nigeria) have been robbed of hundreds of their most valuable items”, according to these authors.

The duo recalled an infamous burglary, in 1994, (actually one of three within 12 months); when thieves in collusion with a museum guard drugged the other guards and went on to smash the glass of 11 unsecured, and uninsured, display cases at the National Museum in Ile-Ife.

“Their haul, which included some of the best-known examples of 12th and 13th century Ife terra-cotta and brass heads, was worth an estimated $200million (roughly N30billion)”, the same article revealed.

Although some seizures are recorded by various agencies at different ports, from time to time, speculation is rife that countless pieces of antique objects are still slipping through Nigeria’s borders.


Nigerian law forbids selling, buying or export of any antique object. However, the penalty for breaching law could be described as laughable. Section 21 of Decree 77 (1979), which deals with Nigeria’s Antiquity Law, bans the buying or selling of antique object; has it that any person deemed to have contravened this statute would be liable, on conviction, to a fine of N2,000 (less than £10).

Observers believe mild penalty prescribed by law is one of the reasons antiquity traffickers persist. Smugglers and collectors of antiquity also do not see much to deter them, moreso as efforts to prosecute an offender is often cumbersome and protracted.

In one instance, it took museum authorities six years to get an Abeokuta Court in Ogun State, south-western Nigeria, to grant the NCMM custody of some antique items seized from a smuggler at Idiroko, another south-western Nigerian border town next to Igolo in Benin Republic.

Smugglers are also probably unperturbed by the provision of the law, which states that the culprit would pay a fine, five times the value of the antiquities. In one legal tussle, the items the smuggler was going to take out were worth N9million. On conviction, he should have paid a fine of N45 million; but, how many of these vermin, who were driven into smuggling by poverty in the first place, could cough out such staggering sum? The thinking is that the culprit would simply have gone in to serve his term, and return to antiquity trafficking, a more vicious and hardened character, after being released from jail.

Perceived administrative flaws on the part of NCMM management complement smugglers’ nuisance regarding antiquity flight. To get to the point of preserving and displaying objects for public education and entertainment, a museum must collect such.

To curb the flight of Nigerian heritage objects, NCMM used to collect objects from registered agents, dubbed artefact rescuers. However, the NCMM has been owing 40 of these rescuers about N190million (barely £800,000) since 2009.

During chats with this writer, some of these agents averred that, failure by the NCMM to pay them for almost five years has probably encouraged those who stumbled on antique pieces to look to foreign buyers.

Vanishing treasures

In 1997, during an International Council of Museums (ICOM)-organised “Workshop on the Protection of the African Heritage Working Documents”, the then Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Dr. Yaro T. Gella, raised due alarm over the spate of looting of the Esie steatite (soapstone) sculptures in a paper titled “Thefts in Museums: A Report on the Nigerian Situation 1993-1997”.

In that paper, Dr. Gella revealed that Esie Museum had “become a target for looters”. According to Dr. Gella, “On 25 March 1993, 13 statues were stolen after the museum’s main door was forced open and the guards beaten into submission. On 13 May 1995, the same museum was once again broken into and the security staff again attacked. On this occasion, 21 statuettes disappeared”.

Sadly, the disappearance of Nigerian museum objects had been taking place at least 100 years before 1997. Apart from the looting of Benin palace artefacts during the 1897 punitive expedition instigated by Consul James R. Phillips, a 1938 report written by E. H. Duckworth, an Inspector of Education in the then colonial Nigerian government; had revealed: “A few years ago, one of the shrines outside the town (Ife) possessed a collection of over 40 terracotta heads. Now, they have all been stolen or broken”.

In deed, a critical loss was recorded in 1910 during the sojourn of Leo Frobenius in Nigeria. Frobenius, a German-born anthropologist, ethnologist and explorer had visited Ife in the course of his exploration in Nigeria between 1910 and 1912. In Ife, Frobenius had unearthed some spectacular finds, one of which was “Ori Olokun” (“Ori” means head, while “Olokun” is the Yoruba water deity). On his way back from Ife, Frobenius had been accosted by then colonial Resident in Ibadan, Mr. Charles Partridge, who compelled the German explorer to surrender most of his haul. Curiously, however, 100 years after that encounter; the whereabouts and what happened to the original object Frobenius was made to hand over remains a mystery. 

To date, the illegal trade in cultural property thrives, going by statistics which indicate that antiquity trafficking is not about to abate. Some 84 years after Frobenius’ interception at Ibadan, in November 1994 to be precise; “The French police seized three terracotta heads stolen from the National Museum Gallery, Ile-Ife, Nigeria”. “Looting in Africa”, the second volume in the series, "One Hundred Missing Objects", published in 1994; led to the recovery or locating of some missing antiquity including the three terracotta heads found by the “Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (OCBC)”, according to ICOM (International Council of Museums). The items were returned to Nigerian on 31 May, 1996.

Another seizure, on 15 October, 1996; featured a trove consisting of terracotta and bronze sculptures, traditional spears, woodcarvings and other archaeological pieces. The items, whose collective value was put at above N100million, were to be flown to Belgium, when they were impounded. Only six days before that incident, 33 ritual mortars worth N3million were intercepted as they were being taken abroad illegally.

On 16 October, 1996 Nigeria recorded one of the most disturbing seizures. It involved 77 objects, stuffed in nine cartons. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments’ authorities put the value of these antiquities at over N1billion. The antique pieces, destined for Germany, were impounded at the cargo section of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos.

Similarly, a dozen artefacts with an estimated worth of N335,000 were seized at the Kamba border post in Kebbi State on 12 March, 1997. In his statement to security agents, the suspected smuggler, a 24-year old Nigerian, claimed he was travelling to Lome, Togo to apply for visas to visit Europe. He said it was his search for presents for prospective hosts in Europe that led to his removal of 12 antique pieces from a technical college in Andoka, Benue State. The objects were consequently impounded, since the young man had no clearance papers covering their exportation.

Although, many seizures were recorded from January to April 1997, the interceptions peaked in the first month of the second quarter where, within one week (17-24 April), five seizures were recorded at Nigeria’s extreme south-western frontier, called Seme Border. One of these seizures (on 21 April), involved a 42-year-old Gambian, from whom 12 items of antiquity were recovered. Barely three weeks later, on 12 May, two bronze bangles were seized from a US-bound passenger, who turned up at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos with clearance papers for a pair of bronze manilas measuring 10 by 10 inches but attempted to take out two 12 by 31 inches and 12 by 32 inches pieces, instead.

For more, order your copy of Museums in Nigeria and Other Lands, now!

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