Africa’s Cultural Dilemma: Will Restitution Heal Old Wounds?
Matteo Fraschini Koffi 23 September 2020

DAKAR, Senegal – “We don’t want it to be a nostalgia museum. We want a museum that knows how to enhance the self-esteem of each actor connected to the African world through a perspective of openness and dialogue”. Hamady Bocoum is the director of the Museum of Black Civilizations (MCN) in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. With recent episodes of racism in the West and the increasingly intense debate about the possible return of African artifacts from Europe, his role has grown in responsibility. “We know for sure what this museum will not be” continues Bocoum “it will not be an ethnographic museum. Ethnography has had its day. We have seen that this issue does not interest Africans. We will not even deal with anthropology as we think it’s just a way of categorizing ourselves with respect to a certain date in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Today even if we talk about anthropology we have to talk about it in a dynamic way. We will not be a facade museum, nor a museum that copies other museums. With the African diasporas and experts from different nationalities we want to produce a discourse linked to dynamism”.

Bocoum, a Senegalese researcher archaeologist by training, wants the the objects that were looted or unfairly procured during colonization to be returned to Africa. He is not the only one. Moreover, the current cases of severe racism against Black people only exacerbate that debate. Objects such as the sword of El Hadj Oumar Saidou Tall (1794-1864), head of the Toucouleur Empire which included today’s Guinea, Mali and Senegal. The sword is made of iron, wood, brass, copper and leather. Along with many other artifacts and precious mineral stones, it was confiscated by French soldiers from his son, Ahmadu Tall, in April 1893 in Bandiagara, central Mali. For years it has been kept in the Army Museum in Paris. This extremely valuable artifact was finally repatriated last year and handed over by former French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe to the Senegalese president, Macky Sall. Also present during an emotional ceremony were the descendants of its old bearer, members of the Sufi Islamic brotherhood of the Tijaniyyah. “It is a form of humiliation”  said the director of the MCN while the negotiations for its restitution were underway; “this Senegalese sword is in Paris and they have lent it to us twice. Each time the procedure costs us very dearly. Now it’s time to take it back”.

But it’s too early to celebrate. The sword remains on loan. Despite it now being in the MCN, the French have requested five years in order to draft legislation that facilitates the process of repatriating African cultural and aritisctic heritage. However, there are at least 90,000 African artifacts in French public collections, so the road is still long. But for most Africans, experts and non-experts, repatriation is highly overdue, and for many Europeans as well. “Already in 2006 the former French president, Jacques Chirac, expressed the desire that African artifacts in the Quai Branly museum should return to Africa and to their countries of origin”, explains Marie-Cecile Zinsou, French-Beninese, director of the Zinsou Foundation, daughter and granddaughter respectively of former Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou and former president of what used to be known as Dahomey, Émile Derlin Zinsou. “On the occasion of the centenary of the death of King Behanzin, for three months our museum hosted objects of the Dahomey kingdom normally preserved in France. Thrones, weapons, jewels and many other court artifacts have been seen here in Cotonou by around 275,000 people. For this reason” Zinsou says, “when the time had come to send all of it back to France, it seemed ridiculous to let go these objects of great value that had originated just 100 kilometers from Cotonou”.

In the Savoy-Sarr report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, 26 artifacts were indicated as objects that should return to Benin because it is absolutely certain that they had been stolen by the French army. Among the best-known military commanders of the time was Colonel Alfred Dodds who donated many items to the Quai Branly museum. Among them, the throne of King Behanzin, a wooden and metal structure confiscated around 1892 during the French military offensive in the region. One of the major concerns with these artifacts is about museum conservation policy in Africa. A debate that sharply divides public opinion and experts from both continents. “I really have nothing to answer to people who ask these questions about the conservation of African works in African museums”, comments with bitterness Zinsou, who grew up in France but settled permanently in Cotonou in 2003. “The question is not whether Africa knows how to keep its works, but whether France has the right to keep objects looted during colonization in its museums. Of course, Africa must do much more to finance art and its conservation, but it is a matter that only concerns Africans, not foreigners.” On the streets of Cotonou, many think that the African heritage must have a future in Africa. Anyone who thinks that the objects can degrade, be stolen or resold, promotes a racist discourse. But that debate isn’t so cut-and-dried. Another Beninese, the well-known artist Romuald Hazoumé, has a different opinion, “I am against restitution. I have no desire to take the responsibility and risk of eventually losing these treasures a second time. Mine is above all a political evaluation” continues the artist, a native of the capital, Porto Novo. “The current president, Patrice Talon, could also have the skills and the desire to preserve these works well, but the next administration may not be so interested in conserving this immense heritage.”

In the Togolese city of Sokodé, an historical crossroads of cultures, religions and trade between countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana and Benin, no one wants to speak publicly about the restitution of African works. The subject is too delicate. From governmental and traditional authorities, to personalities linked to the historical and cultural sector, everyone prefers this debate to be discussed in the capital, Lomé. But it is here that for decades the invaders, first German and then French, plundered the thousands of objects, works of art and textiles that are now found in Paris and Berlin. “In these parts, donating certain artifacts to the foreign power of the moment was also a way of ingratiating themselves in the hope of avoiding conflicts” – explains Tairu, an elderly tour guide of the region “Even before that, the local population was forced to destroy various traditional objects that the Islamic invaders did not allow to be kept. This area of Togo has never seen particular violence because it was forced to buy peace with these artifacts.” The impossibility for millions of Africans to easily fly to Paris, London, Brussels or Berlin to visit their own cultural heritage still causes great anger. And although, for many, such restitution should start as soon as possible, some artists in Lomé still remain very cautious. “Returning something to someone you stole it from is a very beautiful concept that also suggests a desire for forgiveness”, says Kikoko, a plastic artist who divides himself between Togo, his homeland, and Italy, his adopted country. “However, it is important that the person is able to receive any object and, in my opinion, here in Togo we are not yet ready. It is not just about conservation” explains Kikoko “but about risks linked to possible conflicts of interest that would break out between the various African countries and populations from which the artifacts originated.” Yesterday’s Dahomey populations may not be those of today’s Benin, therefore, according to the Togolese artist, the restitution could also cause real wars for power to exploit the artifacts’ economic value, which in some cases reach several million Euro. Emmanuel Sogbaji, one of the most important contemporary artists in Togo and disciple of the school of Paul Ahyi, an artist of the former regime, also believes that the African continent is not yet ready. According to him, the preparation to be able to preserve the African heritage “will last for years”. In Lomé there are even those who do not accept the term “restitution” to define this controversial link between Europe and Africa. “I don’t think there is a need to talk about restitution because a work of art is universal”, comments Tété Camille Azankpo, a visual artist whose work is acquired by European and African museums alike; “even here in Africa we could have French, German or Swiss works of art. The important thing is that this process is done by mutual agreement so that the whole world can benefit from it.”


Cover Photo: Prosper Dagnitche / AFP

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to share and interact with our contents.

If you like our stories, videos and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month). 



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)