Red alert in Nigeria
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
On 12 May ICOM (International Council of Museums) released its Red List which catalogues African antiquities under imminent threat of looting or theft. The list was drawn up at the AFRICOM-sponsored Workshop on the Protection of the African Cultural Heritage held in Amsterdam in October 1997 and contains eight categories of material, three of which are exclusively Nigerian, and one partly so. That nearly 50 per cent of the Red List is comprised of Nigerian material is a timely reminder of the depredations which that country continues to suffer.
In recent times, the illicit trade in antiquities first began to worry Nigerians during the 1970s and as a result in 1972 Nigeria ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 1977 the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) was established to implement the National Commission for Museums and Monuments Decree no. 77 which, among other things, forbids any person unauthorized by the NCMM to buy or sell antiquities (jegede 1996, 128-31). During the 1980s, however, the looting continued and museums were increasingly targeted. In 1987 nine objects were stolen from the National Museum at Jos. Things deteriorated still further during the 1990s when it is estimated that 429 objects were stolen from 33 museums or institutions nationwide (Adeseri 1999b). The Red List reveals that between April 1993 and November 1994, for instance, 40 objects were stolen from the Ife museum while a few years later staff at the Owe Museum were viciously attacked and one was killed. 13 statues were removed from the National Museum of Esie in 1993 and a further 21 in 1995.
It seems that museum staff have been involved in some of these thefts (jegede 1996, 137; Willett 2000), but that is perhaps excusable when one considers the economic blight that has afflicted West Africa in general over the past couple of decades. Salaries are low and often in arrears and during the 1990s Museum and University staff were forced to strike because of chronic low pay. As Patrick Darling emphasizes in his article The rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities, the theft and looting of antiquities cannot been seen in isolation, but must be viewed as one part of a larger problem which is at root economic. Indeed, it is a tribute to the professionalism of Nigerian archaeologists that initiatives can still be carried through in the face of Government indifference and economic dislocation.
Corruption at the top is harder to excuse although this now looks set to end as in 1999 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism launched a probe into the NCMM and the Director-General was accused of financial impropriety (Adeseri 1999a,b).
Further information about the ICOM Red List is available at http://www.icom.org/redlist/. Its three Nigerian categories are:
The first edition of the earlier ICOM publication Looting in Africa led to the seizure by French police of three Ife terracotta heads which were returned to Nigeria in 1996 and already the Red List is having an effect. First under the spotlight was the Louvre with two newly purchased Nok terracottas. The Louvre claimed that France had agreed with the Nigerian Government to keep the terracottas in exchange for educational help, but the Secretary-General of ICOM remains unconvinced and several Nigerian curators have complained (Henley 2000). This was followed in May by protests from the Governments of Niger and Nigeria that led to the withdrawal of seventeen terracottas from a scheduled sale at the Hôtel Drouot.
These are positive signals but all is still not well. European and North American institutions continue to collect listed material. In a February press release for instance the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts proudly announced its acquisition of a Sokoto terracotta, and included an appreciation of the piece by curator Richard Woodward, but no mention of the theft and destruction. The Nigerian High Commission in London has also complained to Bonhams about its continuing auctions of unprovenanced material from Africa.
Adeseri, A., 1999a. National Museum boss in N30m scandal. Guardian on Sunday (Nigeria), 14 November.
Adeseri, A., 1999b. Minister moves to check theft of antiquities. Guardian on Sunday (Nigeria), 28 November.
Henley, J., 2000. Louvre hit by looted art row. The Observer, 23 April.
jegede, d., 1996. Nigerian art as endangered species, in Plundering Africa's Past, eds. P.R. Schmidt & R.J McIntosh. London: James Currey, 125-42.
Willett, F., 2000. Restitution or re-circulation: Benin, Ife and Nok. Journal of Museum Ethnography 12, 125-32
First posted September 2000; Page design updated September 2006