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“It is Yours, but I will Loan it to You” – Why the Looted Asante Artefacts MUST BE RETURNED!”

It is therefore imperative that all the looted artefacts are returned irrespective of any laws enacted to wrongfully keep them in the hands of those who looted them. You cannot loan what you do not own to those who originally owned them!

As the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II colourfully celebrated his 25 years reign on the Golden Stool on a backdrop of rich culture, an issue that was and still is agitating the minds of many people both within Ghana and abroad is the loaning to Ghana by the British Museum artefacts looted from the Asante people by the British imperial army during the colonial era.

The items include among others a 300-year-old Mponponsuo sword and several other items made of gold and silver of significant historical and cultural importance.

To the Asante people, as echoed by the Asantehene, the artefacts being given on loan for three years have immense cultural and spiritual significance; they are not ordinary beautiful items but rather the embodiment of the spirit and soul of the Asante people.

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Background:

On February 5, 1874, the Anglo-Saxon colonialist army led by Colonel Sir Garnet Wolseley, entered Kumasi in the evening with hordes of English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, West Indies, Hausas, Sierra Leonean, and Gold Coast soldiers.

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After a few days of wait and no Asante soldier in sight, the one-eyed colonel who believed that Asante imperialism badly needed a stern lesson in the folly of opposing British military might, and his soldiers ransacked Kumasi, particularly the Asantehene’s Palace, of anything valuable, set the town on fire and left.

Wolseley who had already decided in favour of destroying Asante power, not simply by defeating its army in a decisive battle, but by destroying Kumasi thereby leaving the British mark of victory stamped indelibly on that city, could not be satisfied with just his looting of the century!

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The man had a great aversion for the Africans but was not against stealing from the Africans particularly items of immense historical and cultural value.

One of the looted artefacts

Wolseley unashamedly demonstrated his prejudices against Africans in a letter to his wife which stated among other things:The Negroes are like so many monkeys; they are a lazy, good-for-nothing race. The African was an objectionable animal who was intended to be the white man’s servant”.

It is mostly these Wolseley-led looted artefacts that are in private and public houses in the UK that have become the subject of a fervent debate not only in Kumasi but Ghana as a whole.

The looted Asante artefacts include significant gold and silver regalia, notably, a 300-year-old Mponponso sword, a gold peace pipe, cast gold badges, and several other items of great historical and cultural importance.

The contention:

The Asantes want their looted artefacts back for good, while the British Museums Board says it cannot return them under British laws.

But why is the UK Museums not in favour of returning what is not theirs to the rightful owners? No matter the arguments they advance, the artefacts are not theirs; they looted them in their quest for lands to conquer.

Strange’ laws:

There are two laws on restitution in the United Kingdom that are against state cultural institutions giving back to countries where objects or artefacts were looted. However, to allow these objects to be enjoyed by other people, they have designed loan agreements.

The British Museum, a non-departmental public body (NDPB), operating at arm’s length from the government, but accountable to parliament, says the British Museum Act 1963 prohibits restitution and only allows for the disposal of collection items in limited circumstances.

Under the act, the British Museum’s Board of Trustees is barred from returning any object in the collection unless it is a duplicate, physically damaged or “unfit to be retained in the collection” and no longer of public interest, according to the museum’s deaccessioning policy.

Again, the Board says the National Heritage Act 1983 prevents the trustees of major UK museums, such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, from permanently handing back contested treasures in their collections.

Historical facts abound that in the past decades, the law has been used by museum trustees and government officials as a reason to deny any repatriation requests. Greece has asked for the return of its Parthenon Marbles since 1983, and in 2009 built the Acropolis Museum in Athens to house them.

“We operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” said the British Museum of the Parthenon Marbles in a press release.

As Tullio Scovazzi, Professor of International Law, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy, puts it, “As one of the most visible manifestations of a people’s unique identity, cultural artefacts have always been a source of wonder and curiosity, but have also often been intentionally targeted to punish, or sometimes to help eradicate, the community they belonged to”.

The agitations:

In spite of the media and political enthusiasm of recent years, why does the restitution of cultural artefacts continue to meet resistance?

”Skeptics and opponents rely on practical, logistical, economic, or even philosophical and nationalistic arguments to justify the conservation of these items in collections, public or private, far from their land of origin. In most cases, it is ultimately the law which proves the most successful instrument to deter, delay or prevent restitution. Despite a plethora of legal instruments devoted to cultural heritage, these indeed prove to be largely ineffective in ensuring the return of artefacts looted during the Colonial Era”, Prof Tullio Scovazzi says.

Records show that at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the European nations also demanded that France return the numerous archives and artworks seized by Napoleon’s armies, and most of the peace treaties concluded until the end of the century contained similar restitution clauses.

Those signed at the end of the First World War almost systematically contained provisions relating to the restitution of looted artefacts, or to compensation by items of equivalent value.

Again in 1943, faced with the scale of the looting perpetrated by the Nazis, 17 allied countries signed the London Declaration, by which they reserved the right to invalidate any transfer of property carried out in a territory occupied by Germany, whether it was the result of looting or a seemingly legal transaction.

Finally, the 1945 Paris Conference on Reparations provided that cultural artefacts looted by the German Army, if they could not be returned, should, as far as possible, be replaced by equivalent items.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols also prohibit the export of artefacts from occupied territory and explicitly require their return to the territory from which they have been taken.

These conventions and treaties establish a legal obligation to return stolen or looted property to their rightful places or places of origin.

“Many laws or conventions by UNESCO that support the return of stolen objects have not worked in the past because those powers that can make sure they do are the ones in possession of objects”, Dr Ivor Agyeman Duah of Museums and Monuments Board adds.

Doing the right thing:

Some European countries and museums have been returning stolen artefacts in recent years while some European governments have explicitly sought to tie the return of stolen artefacts to their remorse for historical colonization. For instance, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, formally apologized for the Netherlands’ occupation of Indonesia a month before two Dutch museums returned looted artefacts to Indonesia.

The earlier the United Kingdom joins the progressive countries and does the needful by returning the colonial period looted items, the better – for to loan what does not belong to you to the rightful owner is totally against natural justice. Hiding behind legality to keep things that make you immoral is a path not worth following.

There is always a way for those who want to do right. For instance, according to Artnet News, the Charities Act 2022 allows national museums to dispose of objects when there is a compelling moral obligation to do so. This act empowers trustees to deaccession items under specific circumstances and with appropriate approvals, providing a legal framework that could facilitate the restitution of cultural objects in certain cases.

“Behind every stolen work or fragment lies a piece of history, identity and humanity that has been wrenched from its custodians, rendered inaccessible to research, and now risks falling into oblivion,” said the UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay.

As the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, said during the commissioning of the exhibition of some returned artefacts at the Manhyia Palace, “The items that came back are virtually the soul of Asantes. The spirit is back here”.

It is therefore imperative that all the looted artefacts are returned irrespective of any laws enacted to wrongfully keep them in the hands of those who looted them. You cannot loan what you do not own to those who originally owned them!

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