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France is refusing to return stolen African artwork

France is refusing to return stolen African artwork

More than one hundred years ago, French colonial forces looted prized artefacts from Benin and Senegal. In 1892, they stole hundreds of these artefacts from Abomey, capital of the former Dahomey kingdom located in the south of modern-day Benin. They hauled them back to Paris where they have been displayed in museums, earning millions for the French.

France, the self-proclaimed custodian of culture and heritage, stands accused on the world stage of daylight robbery. It's not a daring heist from a museum but a systematic, legalized theft of African art. This is a crime of cultural appropriation, a desecration of identity, and a betrayal of trust. France continues to protect this betrayal; this theft.

In April, a framework bill for facilitating restitution of thousands of African artefacts was due to be submitted to Parliament. However, this bill has been put off indefinitely, which will greatly undermine the return of stolen African products back to the continent. This is a great injustice because 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage was looted, mostly by European colonialists, during the colonial era.  

More than one hundred years ago, French colonial forces looted prized artefacts from Benin and Senegal. In 1892, they stole hundreds of these artefacts from Abomey, capital of the former Dahomey kingdom located in the south of modern-day Benin. They hauled them back to Paris where they have been displayed in museums, earning millions for the French. Among the artefacts is the throne of King Glele, the tenth King of Dahomey. It’s considered one of the crown jewel of the approximately 70,000 African artifacts housed at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris. Another priceless artefact, this one tucked away in the iconic Louvre museum, is Gou a Benin god of iron and war.

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron, with grand gestures and lofty promises, pledged the return of African cultural heritage within five years. Fast forward to today 2024, only 27 items have trickled back, a mere fraction of what's been looted and hoarded for centuries. This is not just negligence; it's a deliberate act of cultural erasure, perpetuated by a nation that claims to champion liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In 2018, Macron commissioned Senegalese academic and writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to produce a report about the present state of publicly owned French collections of African artworks – in other words, the artwork that France had stolen from Africa.

According to this Sarr-Savoy report, there are about 90,000 African works in French museums, most of them at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. This report was supposed to be a beacon of hope for Africa, a path to reclaiming stolen legacies. Instead, it's become a footnote in France's grand narrative of cultural supremacy. The recent laws allowing a token return of artifacts to Benin and Senegal are mere crumbs from the colonial banquet. They do little to heal the wounds of plundered cultures or restore stolen pride.

What makes this pillage even more egregious is France's double standards. While they rush to return stolen property and human remains from a certain Middle-Eastern country, they drag their feet when it comes to African treasures. This selective morality reeks of hypocrisy and reinforces the narrative of a colonial hangover that refuses to fade.

The postponement of the promised law, citing flimsy excuses of public interest and cultural cooperation, is an insult to the intelligence of the global community. It's a thinly veiled attempt to maintain control and dominance over narratives that don't belong to them. The French Council of State's criticisms are just lip service to appease the conscience, a feeble attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

Meanwhile, African nations prepare with bated breath to welcome back their stolen heritage. Museums are built, institutions strengthened, and hopes raised, only to be dashed by France's bureaucratic red tape and indifference.

The excuse that these artifacts are better preserved in French museums is a slap in the face of African ingenuity and capability. We don't need our culture babysat; we need it returned, unconditionally and without delay.

Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow's words from 1978 resonate louder than ever: “These men and women who have been deprived of their cultural heritage therefore ask for the return of at least the art treasures which best represent their culture.” France, heed these words, for history will judge your cultural piracy as a stain on humanity's conscience. It's time to stop the theft, return what's rightfully ours, and rebuild the broken trust between nations. Anything less is an affront to justice and a perpetuation of colonial arrogance.
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