France has recovered 26 treasures stolen from Benin during the colonial period, fulfilling a promise by President Emmanuel Macron to restore a lost part of Africa’s heritage.
Benin President Patrice Talon and Minister of Culture Jean-Michel Abimbola traveled to Paris to bring back antiquities seized by French troops 130 years ago.
Talon said he felt “deeply moved” by returning the items seized during the Dahomey Kingdom south of modern-day Benin, including the throne.
‘This is our spirit’
Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the presidential palace in Paris, where France signed the archeology in Benin, Talon said the wealth was more than cultural – a term France uses to describe them.
“This is our spirit, President,” he said, followed by Macron.
The French leader praised the “symbolic, moving and historic moment” that Africans had long anticipated.
The return of the fragments taken from the Royal Palaces of Abomey, which also includes three totemic statues, comes as a call to Africa for European countries to return the colonial spoils that set up their archives.
In France, many are housed in the Quai Branly Museum, which has begun to re-evaluate its collection to identify works believed to have been obtained through violence or coercion.
French lawmakers last year issued a decree allowing Paris to repatriate archeology to Benin and Senegal, another former French province in West Africa.
Talon also made it clear that he saw Tuesday’s offer as a first step in a major overhaul, and asked “how do you expect my interest to be fulfilled” while France held on to other important issues.
But he added that he was “confident” that further repercussions would follow. “Beyond this, we will continue the work,” Macron promised.
Natacha Butler of Al Jazeera, from Paris, said what was happening at Elysee Palace was moving.
“The president of Benin said this was not just about restoring art in Benin. It was about Benin regaining his life … This ends a very long process that began a few years ago,” Butler said.
In Cotonou, the capital of Benin, people eagerly awaited the return of this literature.
“I am disappointed to look forward to seeing this royal treasure up close, especially the seats of our ancestors. It is not surprising,” Dah Adohouannon, party leader, told AFP.
“In 72 years, I could die peacefully if I just saw them,” he added.
The repatriation is part of Macron’s efforts to develop his country in Africa, especially among young people.
Before being transported on a long journey home the works were unveiled at Quai Branly for the last time in late October.
In Benin, they will be exhibited in various locations, including the former Portuguese castle in Ouidah, a former slave trade, as they await the completion of the Abomey Museum in which to live.
Experts estimate that 85 to 90 percent of Africa’s ancient artifacts were taken from the continent.
Some were captured by colonialists, soldiers or doctors and handed over to natives who had donated them to a European museum.
But some were given either as a gift to missionaries or to African art collectors in the early 20th century or to scientific discoveries.
An expert report submitted by Macron counted about 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them in Quai Branly alone.
Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have also received requests from African countries to recover lost property.
Nigeria said last month it had teamed up with Germany to return hundreds of Benin Bronzes – metal and sculptures of the 16th to 18th centuries that were stolen from the palace of ancient Benin in Nigeria today.
Belgium has announced that it intends returning several items stolen from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.