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In Nigeria, Benin City rediscovers its looted treasures and dreams of being the cultural capital of West Africa

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The ocher city wall borders a dusty, anonymous street in the heart of a popular neighborhood in Benin City, the capital of Edo State in southeastern Nigeria. Only a trained eye would guess that a high-ranking traditional ruler lives here. “This is indicated by the three white stripes that adorn the wall of my house. But few people still know how to decipher this symbol! », smiled Chief Osayomwanbo Osemwegie Ero. The 90-year-old man has donned the immaculate habit reserved for dignitaries of the royal palace and wears a long necklace of coral beads around his neck.

The old scholar is inexhaustible on the history of the former kingdom of Benin – with no historical link with the Republic of Benin – and its capital Edo, which became Benin City. Chief Osayomwanbo Osemwegie Ero notably attended in 1979 the coronation of Oba Erediauwa, the father of the current monarch. “Even today, our Oba bestows titles, dispenses justice or sends messages to the population… We adore him, pray to him and serve him”, he says proudly.

A sculpture installed in front of a parliament building just outside the National Museum in Benin City, Nigeria, September 26, 2022.

Described as a prosperous and powerful city by the Europeans who went there from the very end of the 15the century, the city of Edo was once distinguished by a very extensive network of fortifications. Sheltered by these walls, renowned artists worked in metal, notably bronze and brass, but also in wood or ivory. “More than sixty guilds were established in the city, each with its specialty”, says Chief Ero. While maintaining complete independence for a long time, the kings of Benin forged commercial ties with the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British, which were based in particular on the slave trade.

Massacre and sacking

But relations with the British eventually soured, and in 1897 officers who insisted on meeting the sovereign during a sacred festival are dismissed, then killed. On February 18 of the same year, the city of Edo was stormed and sacked by a contingent of more than 1,500 heavily armed men. The expedition ends in a massacre, followed by the looting of the treasures of the royal palace. These are scattered throughout the western world, some sold to collectors, others given to prestigious museums.

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