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Slow return of Africa's looted artefacts

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, watches the 19th century royal statue of a half-man half-bird, left, of King Ghezo, at the Quai Branly museum Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021   -  
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Michel Euler/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


To cheers and a trumpet fanfare, a Cambridge University college on Wednesday handed a bronze statue looted in the 19th century back to Nigerian officials, in the first such move by a UK institution.

Sonita Alleyne, the head of Jesus College, gave the elaborately carved cockerel known as "Okukor" to a Nigerian delegation.

Okukor was among thousands of African artefacts stolen from the continent during British colonial rule.

It was looted along with hundreds of sacred sculptures and carvings known as the Benin Bronzes by a punitive British military expedition in the former kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria in 1897.

Jesus College is the first UK institution to hand back a Benin bronze, raising pressure on other establishments, including the British Museum, to follow suit.

"We are proud to be the first institution to simply act," said Alleyne, hailing a "really historic occasion" as she formally transferred the cockerel's ownership.

"We are delighted that it is now with its rightful owner," she added.

Jesus College was given the bronze in 1905 by the father of a student, and more recent students had been campaigning for its restitution.

The Benin Bronzes are held in collections of numerous British, European and US museums and institutions.

The British Museum, which has the largest collection, has not agreed to return its bronzes.

It has long argued that its vast trove of foreign artefacts, such as the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon in Athens, are best housed with explanatory notices in purpose-built premises.

Nigerian officials taking part in the ceremony included ambassador to the UK Sarafa Tunji Isola and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the brother of the historic kingdom's traditional ruler, the Oba of Benin.

At the end, they held the cockerel aloft to cheers, applause and a trumpet acclamation.

- 'A great example' -

"I thank you for this wonderful initiative. The people of Nigeria are grateful," the ambassador said, passing on the thanks of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.

Prince Aghatise Erediauwa said that "Jesus College is indeed challenging the erroneous arguments that stolen art cannot be returned because of the existence of different legal jurisdictions on the matter".

Jesus College used to display the cockerel in its dining hall, but removed it in 2016. British campuses in general have seen a recent wave of soul-searching spurred on by the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, hailed the college's act as "a great example for other institutions and other countries".

He urged the British Museum to change its stance on the bronzes in its collection, and noted that Nigeria has handed over a formal request for their repatriation.

Tijani insisted that the sculptures "are going to the right place and they will be looked after".

Several other Western institutions have said they too plan to hand looted African treasures back.

This week, the Quai Branly museum in Paris is exhibiting a trove of Benin Bronzes for a final time before they are handed back to the modern-day state of Benin.

The University of Aberdeen is to hand another Benin Bronze over to the same Nigerian delegation on Thursday.