By: Ifeanyi Izeze
The ongoing controversy over the moves by the Edo state governor, Godwin Obaseki to appropriate the anticipated Benin artefacts and monuments is unnecessary and reprehensible. The Benin people are more organized and more honourable than the state government’s perceived show of shame on this matter.
As said in a statement by the Secretary to Edo State Government (SSG), Osarodion Ogie Esq., “the publicity being given the issues creates a wrong impression of conflict between the government and the Oba of Benin, His Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II.
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“The Government of Edo State and the Governor have always acted transparently and in consonance with existing Federal and State laws in all matters relating to the proposed return of the artefacts and monuments.
“The actions of the government thus far on this issue have been driven by selfless and patriotic considerations in the best interest of Edo State and Edo people.”
Truth be told, whether the Edo State Government wants to acknowledge it or not, there is already a declared serious conflict between it and the Palace of the Oba of Benin. It is a conflict of interest or rather an outright mischief by some people in government who seem to have some selfish agenda as concerns the ownership/warehousing of the artefacts when ultimately repatriated from Europe.
Whether the claims by the Governor that his actions “on this issue have been driven by selfless, patriotic considerations and in the best interest of Edo State and Edo people” are true, body language matters a lot. It’s even more important dealings with people especially in this circumstance where there is already a mutual suspicion from both sides. Your actions must match your words if you want anybody to believe you or rather take you by your words.
The Oba of Benin has come out to allege that he has never been aware of or been a part of the governor’s plans for the process of the repatriation of the artefacts. Is this supposed to be so? How can you be planning such historic, religious and, emotional event without the very institution at the centre of the story? These are some of the government’s actions that actually gave rise to the current distrust between it and the Palace.
Why is it difficult for the governor who is a full-blooded Benin son to appreciate and commit to returning the artifacts to the Benin traditional institution headquartered in the Palace of the Oba from where they were taken? And why is the governor not directing his energy and resources at building the proposed museum within or around the palace grounds as suggested by the head of the very institution at the centre of it all?
If the government claims it has been liaising with the Benin traditional institutions on this matter, why was the supposed holding vehicle for the project, the Legacy Restoration Trust Limited, which was incorporated since January 2020, never brought to the attention of the Palace until mid-2021 when people started querying the governor’s ideas of the project?
It has been alleged that the ownership of the company is suspect and the Edo state government has not said anything concerning that. This ought not to be so! Who owns the company that seems to be the project promoter because the names being dangled are people who could best be described as shadowy or rather mere fronts?
It can never be overemphasized that the artefacts and monuments are the collective heirloom of Edo people of the old Benin Empire. They were looted and carted away from the Palace’s traditional museum in 1897. Those in possession of the artifacts are not in doubt about their actual ownership.
As being widely said in Benin it smacks of ingratitude for Governor Obaseki’s government to be seen publicly and in the media in altercation with the Palace of the Oba of Benin.
Politics aside, there are critical issues in this matter. First, does the Edo State Government have the powers (unilateral) to exhibit or attempt to display any proprietary rights or interest over the proposed repatriated artefacts? The answer is No!
Straightforwardly, since the governor and his government lack such rights or interest over these “property”, they also lack the powers to dictate how, when and where these artefacts are preserved or displayed upon their return.
Even when viewed under legal lights, “the doctrine of vested rights” should be one of the strongest arguments in support of the right of the Benin Kingdom and the Benin Traditional Council to insist on their right to the ownership of these artefacts and the corollaries of the control and management of the returned artefacts.
As explained by Dr Washington Osa Osifo, “the doctrine of vested rights is a common law doctrine. It is legally defined as a right that belongs to a person unconditionally to a property and which cannot be impaired or taken away without the consent of the owner, especially through retroactive legislations. In other words, the doctrine preserves the pre-existing and established rights of individuals and/or institutions, even in the face of subsequent laws or statutes that purport or attempt to take away such rights. By this concept, the Courts are enjoined to regard such rights as firmly established and inalienable by any subsequent legislation, especially by a body or authority that did not exist at the time the rights inured to the affected individual or institution.”
Extrapolating this doctrine and applying same to the issue at stake, it can be argued that since the ancient Benin Kingdom and the artifacts in question pre-existed before the sovereign entity–Nigeria—was birthed in 1914 and before the sub-national entity-Edo State–was created in 1991, it is legally impossible for both entities to take away the vested rights of the Benin Kingdom, Benin Palace and the Benin Royal Family over these artefacts.
Therefore, since it is incontrovertible that these artefacts existed as far back as 1897 when they were looted and taken away from Benin Kingdom, any entity like Edo State that came into existence long after that date, cannot validly evolve a policy or make a law that attempts or purports to take away this right. This is the law as interpreted by the experts.
On this matter, the Edo state governor is expected to tread with caution so as not to create unnecessary tension and suspicion of intentions. But this were not to be as being displayed by the government. And the earlier he takes caution, the better for the harmonious and cordial relationship between his government and the Benin traditional institution. This is a word of advice.
- Izeze is Public Analyst and Socio-cultural and Political commentator