In April 2010, French Customs officials stumbled upon a suspicious shipment of statues headed for the JFK Airport, New York.
As they had no authority to seize the consignment they tipped off the United States Department of Homeland Security. Recently, the statues surfaced in the private gallery of a Manhattan-based collector and were confiscated by investigators.
A scientific inquiry confirmed they were genuine Nok Culture artefacts (ten statues and a carved tusk) dating back to 2,000 to 2,500 years ago.
They were first dug up in 1943 in Nigeria and placed in the National Museum. Over two years ago, they went missing, but their disappearance was not officially reported. When eventually this came to light, officials of the National Museum were put under investigation.
At the handing over ceremony of the artefacts back to Nigeria in New York recently, the Nigerian Consul General, Alhaji Habib Baba Habu, overjoyed, exclaimed: “(this) is the day that America has extended a gift of friendship that we will never forget”.
The significance of this repatriation is obvious. Artefacts like the returned Nok Culture statues bear enduring witness to the greatness of a dim past civilisation that thrived at a time when Europe and America were far behind us in terms of socio-cultural sophistication.
The dawn of western civilisation tended to sweep our glorious past under the carpet, even though it is also due to western civilisation that archaeological forays are able to dig up and properly date the accomplishments of ancient civilisation such as the Nok Culture.
Africa’s difficulty in adjusting to post-colonial society, has often led many to wonder whether the gene of the black person is responsible for all the chaos, wars, violence and difficulty in organising progressive socio-economic and political societies. These artefacts bespeak of the fact that gene has little to do with it.
The importance of having our improperly disposed artefacts to foreign lands returned to us cannot be over-emphasised. Where better should one go to admire these relics other than their places of origin? Egypt is a fine example of how well treasured archaeological relics can fetch a country not just a lot of foreign exchange but also international esteem due to influx of tourists.
In view of this, we join in the call for the repatriation of other stolen artefacts, particularly the thirty two relics looted after the Benin Massacre of 1897. They are right now in the Museum of Arts, Boston. The Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has shouted itself hoarse that it wants the artefacts back to no avail.
Let the kind gesture of US Department of Homeland Security be the beginning of more things to come.