Returning Africa’s Stolen Treasure At All Cost

By Pinky Khoabane

MWAZULU DIYABANZA has had enough of the waiting and the talking about how and when European museums will return Africa’s stolen artefacts which were looted during colonialism. He has made it his mission to expropriate the works by simply walking into a museum, having paid for the ticket of course, and removing the stolen pieces.

And that’s exactly what he did one afternoon in June. He and four of his associates visited the Quai Branly Museum that houses treasures from France’s former colonies. They wandered around the Paris museum’s African collections, reading the labels and admiring the treasures on show. Diyabanza began a demonstration denouncing Europe’s cultural theft, which his associates filmed before a scuffle broke out. He was able to remove a slender 19th-century wooden funerary post, from a region that is now in Chad or Sudan and dashed for the door. The museum guards stopped him before he could leave. 

The following month, according to the New York Times, Diyabanza visited “the southern French city of Marseille and seized an artefact from the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in another live-streamed protest, before being halted by security. And earlier this month, in a third action that was also broadcast on Facebook, he and other activists took a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands, before guards stopped him again”.

Those who originally stole the artefacts say he is the thief, for which he will stand trial in France at the end of September. He is the spokesman for a Pan-African movement that seeks reparations for colonialism, slavery and cultural expropriation. 

His case will not only put France’s colonial past and it’s plunder of African cultural artefacts on the spotlight but that of other European countries, including America, in whose museums reside thousands of Africa’s looted artworks. 

Under scrutiny will also be the shameful history of colonialism. Before looting Africa’s heritage, the colonialists would have staged a bloody and violent siege resulting in loss of life and destruction of property including royal palaces and empires. 

African countries want their cultural heritage back but Europeans are playing hardball. Major museums across Europe have agreed to loan the famous Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria.

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return thousands of African art – as many as 90000 pieces – which reside in France’s museums. He commissioned two academics to draw up a report on how to do it thousands of African art in its museums to be returned to the continent. The 2018 report, by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, said any artefacts removed from sub-Saharan Africa in colonial times should be permanently returned if they were “taken by force, or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions,” and if their countries of origin asked for them. Only 27 restitutions have been announced so far, and just one object has been returned. 

Diyabanza and his associates may not have been successful in removing the stolen goods as they are stopped by museum guards before they can exit but the point is made. As he put it in an interview: “The fact that I had to pay my own money to see what had been taken by force, this heritage that belonged back home where I come from — that’s when the decision was made to take action”.

Describing the Quai Branly as “a museum that contains stolen objects,” he added, “there is no ban on an owner taking back his property the moment he comes across it.”

However, the matter is a bit more complicated. These European countries have convenient legal barriers which have prevented communities and countries demanding their stolen assets from getting them back. France has laws which state that any public French art belongs to the state and cannot be given back. The British National Heritage Act 1983, prevents the trustees of museums from de-accessioning objects that are the property of the museum, unless they are exact replicas or damaged beyond repair.

The term restitution rather than recovery is used to acknowledge the legitimacy of the original property owner, the history of the objects and the fact that it ended up in Europe through theft. Countries claiming the return of their cultural heritage should not be hindered by legal barriers to claim what is theirs. 

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