The purloining of Benin’s magnificent treasures may have begun with the long ago British so-called punitive expedition, which resulted in the looting of the palace of King Ovonramwen. But it didn’t end there. It continues still. So I am here to confess to my own culpability.
Twenty years ago, I stole away your most beautiful modern treasure, my beloved wife, Arese. What a great honour it is to be with her here today in the city of her royal ancestors. It is also a great honour that she and I have been asked to jointly inaugurate The Eminent Lecture Series of the University of Benin, or UNIBEN, as it is affectionately known around the world. I am sure that Arese’s great, great grandfather, King Ovonramwen, would be proud of this premier university and of her role, this day, in it.
There was a time when Europeans marvelled at what they referred to as Great Benin. Travellers returned home, each out doing his predecessor, with tales of an African Kingdom the equal of their own royal courts in organisation and administration. Its treasures and artistic masterpieces were widely envied.
Then, in 1897, came what the pages of the London Times proclaimed as the “Benin Disaster”, leading to the sending out of that punitive expedition to avenge the deaths of members of a British delegation allegedly on the orders of local officials.
It resulted in the overthrow and exile of the Oba and the looting of his palace. While intricately carved Benin ivories had been known to Europeans for three centuries, the hitherto carefully guarded bronzes, became, at the dawn of the colonial scramble for Africa, stolen booty, spoils of war triumphantly displayed for the first time on foreign shores.
That the “dark continent” could have produced such great art, in the words of a BBC documentary, “changed European understanding of African history.” But many who should have known better were discombobulated. The curator of British Museum, at the time, declared, “It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art, we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.”
“Barbarous!” that is what they thought all black people to be. And so it has ever been. Whether discussing African art or ancient ruins like Great Zimbabwe, they fantasised that they must have been copied or inspired by artisans of lighter hue (meaning their fellow Europeans) or even aliens from another planet. Anybody but black people!
It was greatly satisfying to me when a friend of mine, the African art expert, Warren Robbins, opened an exhibition in Washington, a few years ago, demonstrating that several modern art masters such as Picasso were in fact heavily influenced by (or even copied) the traditional art of many African societies.
When I was a young boy growing up in the United States, I knew nothing about the bronzes of Benin or of any other art and cultural achievements of the people of the continent of my ancestors. Indeed, I had no idea of how little I knew. Before taking up my post as Ambassador to Nigeria in 1993, I had been deeply involved in the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States. I wrote and spoke often about South Africa, as I would later do about Nigeria.
By the time I arrived here, Nelson Mandela had been freed and five months later, elected as the first President of a democratic South Africa. At the same time, there was much discussion about the expansion of the United Nations Security Council to include one permanent member from sub-Saharan Africa. I received criticism from the Abacha government and its supporters for suggesting that, unless Nigeria got its act together, that seat would not go, as many expected, to the militaryruled Nigeria, but instead to the newly democratic South Africa.
A similar outlook for Nigeria is predicted by the HSBC 2050 report. Its economic growth will be fast while South Africa’s will remain stable. With such a rosy outlook for the future, why is Nigeria still such an underperformer on the world stage? Why is it that when the G-8 group of highly industrialised countries or other gatherings of the world’s most powerful nations occur, it is more often to Johannesburg that they call than to Abuja on those all too rare times when they seek an African perspective at all?
Maybe there is a bit of the old “boy who cried wolf” legend involved. In that story, the boy falsely cried so often that a wolf was coming that when, at last, his warning was true, nobody believed him. So it seems to be with Nigeria. For how long has it been proclaimed that its vast potential was about to be realised only to have those hopes dashed time after disappointing time? Nigeria has always been portrayed as the country of the future but that future, sadly, never seems to arrive.
The oil boom, which once lubricated a growing economy turned from a blessing to a curse. Most of the great wealth it provided was embezzled by government officials and their cronies. While the citizens of other oil producing countries prospered, Nigeria became the only member of OPEC to be listed among the world’s poorest companies. Nigeria is confronting one of the most confounding contradictions in development economics – growth without development.
From 2006 to 2015, the country’s overall unemployment rate rose from 6.4 per cent to 24.20 per cent, which was about half of the rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 34. At the same time, many were celebrating Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product growth rate.
That Nigeria has had one of the strongest growth rates in Africa is encouraging. However, its sustainability is in doubt because of the near collapse, worldwide, in oil prices. The country must do what so many OPEC members are doing – diversify its economy to lessen the dependence on petroleum, which provides an outsized portion of the national budget.
An abridged version of a paper delivered by Carrington, former US Ambassador to Nigeria, at the First Eminent Lecture Series of the University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State