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Germany returns 20 Nigerian bronzes, pointing to their ‘dark past’

It is estimated that more than 5,000 ancient artifacts were looted from Nigeria by England when it colonized the country.

Germany has returned 20 historic bronze sculptures to Nigeria as part of efforts to address its “dark colonial past,” its foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, returned the prized cultural artifacts to Nigerian officials at a ceremony in the capital, Abuja. The sculptures, known as Benin bronzes, were looted from the West African country by British troops when it was under colonial rule.

“It was wrong to steal these bronzes. It was a mistake to keep these bronzes and these bronzes are long overdue to be returned to their home,” he said at the event.

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Cast in brass and bronze with ancient designs, the sculptures were used in rituals to honor the ancestors and rulers of the people of Benin.

More than 5,000 ancient artifacts are estimated to have been stolen from Nigeria by England, when it was the country’s colonizer, Nigerian authorities said.

Most of the treasures were stolen from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, now part of southern Nigeria, with some ending up in the custody of other foreign governments, including Germany.

In recent years, the Nigerian authorities have intensified efforts to get looted artifacts returned. Earlier this year, Germany pledged to repatriate more than 1,000 of them in the coming years.

Nigeria is Germany’s second largest trading partner in Africa and by returning the items it hopes to start a new chapter for future bilateral relations, Baerbock said.

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“We see this as a first step. Many bronzes have been looted and stolen, many will return,” Baerbock said.

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“This step is also important for us because we are dealing with our dark colonial past,” he said.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said the nation felt “deep gratitude” to Germany for returning the artifacts. Beyond their aesthetic value, they have cultural and spiritual importance to the Nigerian people, he said. He asked England and other countries in possession of other artifacts to return them on moral grounds.

Activists say there needs to be more accountability that goes beyond the return of items, such as compensation for losses suffered by African countries over years of looting.

“We are only focusing on the physical objects. What about the digital properties of these works? Who owns those properties? And what comes with these works? said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and advocate for repair efforts.

“What other restitutions and payments do they have to make for having these works for a long time and making money from them?” he said.

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