Apollo John Rwamparo speaks despairingly of the eight-legged stool, a symbol of authority for his ancient kingdom in Uganda, which can now be seen through a glass barrier at a museum thousands of miles away in Britain.
The wooden stool is on permanent display at the University of Oxford, one of at least 279 objects stolen from the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom during the colonial period. Oxford has resisted attempts to bring the chair back, saying it was donated by a king from a breakaway kingdom.
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“It’s quite frustrating,” said Rwamparo, a deputy prime minister and the kingdom’s minister for tourism. “The best thing for them to do is swallow their pride, like the French and the Germans did, and return the artifacts.”
Restitution efforts by African countries, after long resistance from authorities in Europe, have now flourished with the return of valuable pieces that were once considered unobtainable.
Recently, Nigeria and Germany signed a treaty for the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes. The deal followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision last year to sign 26 pieces known as the Abomey Treasures, priceless works of art from the 19th-century Kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin.
African officials are looking for much more, from the exquisite to the macabre. Some are concerned that the UK government in particular has been evasive and has not offered any refund commitments.
In Uganda, which gained independence from Britain in 1962, antiquities officials are preparing for a November trip to Britain where they will negotiate with the University of Cambridge over an unknown number of artifacts there. Cambridge, which recently returned an elaborate bronze rooster to Nigeria, appears to be in the pipeline, said Rose Mwanja Nkaale, Uganda’s museums and monuments commissioner.
The British Museum in London is “hard to penetrate” by comparison, Nkaale said. “We can start with those who are willing to work together. There is no point in fighting these people.”
The British Museum, which has an extensive collection from across Africa, is protected by a 1963 law that prohibits trustees from returning items except in certain circumstances, including where an item is deemed unsuitable or useless. Some African officials believe the stance is becoming progressively weaker as other institutions in Europe respond more positively.
Nigeria is pressuring to change laws in the UK and elsewhere to allow for the repatriation of controversial collections, said Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. But he expressed concern that while some countries are starting to open up, in the UK that effort “hasn’t even started”.
Many of Africa’s coveted artifacts can’t even be traced, leading to an organization founded by the late Congolese art collector Sindika Dokolo offering to buy looted African art from collections abroad. By 2020, when Dokolo died in a diving accident in Dubai, his campaign had successfully recovered 15 items.
Restitution remains a struggle for African governments and the African Union has put the return of looted cultural property on its agenda. The continental body is aiming for a common policy on this issue.
Zimbabwe has pushed for the repatriation of some 3,000 artefacts from Britain. These include spears and walking sticks, as well as the skulls of fighters who resisted colonialism. They were beheaded and their heads shipped abroad as war trophies.
Talks between British and Zimbabwean authorities have yielded no breakthrough, but the matter is so important to the South African nation that President Emmerson Mnangagwa last year proposed an exchange: the remains of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who is buried in Zimbabwe, in exchange for the remains of the ancestors that means so much to his people.
Some Zimbabwean activists launched an online campaign called #bringbackourbones in protest outside the British High Commission in neighboring South Africa last year.
Items of funerary or ritual interest have no resonance outside of Africa, said Raphael Chikukwa, who directs the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.
“Why would we let these so-called museums, which are actually crime scenes and thieves’ homes, dictate that we have to prove that the items belong to us?” he told The Associated Press. “As much as we celebrate the return of former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s tooth (of Belgium), let’s not celebrate too much. Let us remember that the work has only just begun.”
Similar efforts are being made in South Africa, where the Ifa Lethu Foundation is attempting to repatriate a number of items often stolen from diplomats or private collectors during the apartheid era. The organization has repatriated more than 700 pieces, including valuable works by South African artist Gerard Sekoto, who died in Paris in 1993.
In Rwanda, recent collaborations with former colonial ruler Belgium involved sharing digital copies of over 4,000 songs and other recordings held at the Royal Museum for Central Africa outside Brussels.
Items, including royal regalia, remain at large, and since the digital sound archives related to the repatriation have not been shared, “it cannot be said that Belgium has already returned them,” said Andre Ntagwabira, a specialist in archaeological research at Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy.
“The heritage, both tangible and intangible, is the footprints of our ancestors and we should own them,” he said.
The whereabouts of the remains of one of Rwanda’s last monarchs, Yuhi Musinga, is a hot topic in the East African country. Many Rwandans believe that the body of Musinga, who resisted the Belgians, was deposed in 1931 and died in the Congo in 1944, was sent to Belgium.
In that case, there must be accountability, said Antoine Nyagahene, a history professor at Gitwe University in Rwanda. “We have been robbed of our cultural values, and as you know, a people without roots is a people without a soul,” he said.
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