France has returned 26 royal treasures and works of art looted from its former colony of Benin, in part fulfilling a promise by President Emmanuel Macron four years ago to forge a new relationship with Africa.
During a ceremony at the Elysee Palace on Tuesday, Roselyne Bachelot and Jean-Michel Abimbola, ministers of Culture of the two countries, signed an agreement to transfer the ownership of a royal throne, statues of kings and other objects in Benin after 130 years in France.
France, like the other colonial powers like Great Britain, has struggled for decades with the questions of whether and how to return the spoils of war to the places from which they were taken.
Patrice Talon, President of Benin, was in Paris to attend the handover and expressed his country’s gratitude to Macron, but he also said that returning the 26 artifacts was “just the first step”.
He added, “How can you expect my enthusiasm to be complete when works like the [image of the] The god Gou and the divination tablet Fâ are still held here in France, to the detriment of their real owners?
Macron called the ceremony a “symbolic, moving and historic moment, so long awaited and unexpected”.
Six months after his election in 2017, Macron delivered a speech at the University of Ouagadougou, in the West African state of Burkina Faso, in which he said the end of “Françafrique”, the old French strategy of exerting military, political and commercial influence over its former colonies.
French troops today remain mired in anti-Islamist operations in the Sahel, but France has now taken a first step in implementing Macron’s commitment to cultural heritage.
Among other promises, Macron told Ouagadougou that he wanted “the conditions to be met in five years for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa”. . .[It]could be exhibited in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou, that will be one of my priorities.
Among the objects from the kingdom of Abomey from the 18th and 19th centuries, known at the time in Europe as Dahomey, which will be repatriated on Wednesday for display in Benin are the throne of King Ghezo and a totem statue of King Béhanzin in half-man, half-fish, looted by French colonial troops when the royal palace was sacked in 1892. They were exhibited at the Quai Branly Jacques Chirac museum in Paris.
Emmanuel Kasarhérou, president of the museum, said in a interview with the newspaper Liberation that he was a little nostalgic to lose artefacts which had been almost constantly on display since their reception by the Trocadéro ethnographic museum in 1895.
But he added: “It is no longer acceptable in an institution like ours to present to the public objects acquired in a context of violence.