BY MULUGETA GUDETA
As Africa is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Organization of African Union (OAU) in 1963 which was renamed the African Union (AU) back in 2004, the gains as well as the setbacks in its cultural renaissance in particular should be put in context. This process has gone though two main stages. The first was to put the destiny of Africa’s cultural heritages back into the hands of Africans themselves. In other words, this was a legitimate struggle to take full control of Africa’s past and future cultural legacy. The second phase, still under way, is the struggle against neocolonial cultural domination the global level. The process of reclaiming the past and reshaping the future are two processes that are intertwined and interdependent.
Since its inception, the OAU was structured in commissions such as the education and cultural, Health, sanitation and Nutrition commission, Defense Commission, Scientific, Technical and Research Commission. Technical and Research Commission There are also what are known as the OAU specialized agencies like the Economic and Social Commission, the African Accounting Council, the African Bureau of of Educational Sciences, the African Civil Aviation Commission, the Pan-African News Agency and the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa. The OAU Cultural Commission was entrusted by the Charter to ‘harmonize and coordinate activities and policies across the continent in order to build further structure and opportunities for using culture for integration and African renaissance, cultural; development, promotion of cultural and creative industry.”
These commissions have been active in the last 60 years although their achievements and challenges are rarely reported by the African press. Opinions are often divided on this point. Some critic’s say that the specialized commissions have not lived up to the expectations of the people of Africa or have failed to implement the objectives of the continental organization in general and those of the specialized commissions in particular. On the other hand, supporters of the commissions’ achievements consider that they have so far done what they could under the difficult circumstances that prevailed in many African countries during the post-independence period. The truth may lie somewhere in the grey area between the two opposing views.
While the OAU or AU commissions had some achievements to their names, there were also setbacks due to unfavorable internal and external circumstances, the main one being financial ones as the continent’s budgets proved insufficient to Carry out all the tasks entrusted to it by the Charter. More radical Pan-African critics are particularly doubtful or severe when they accuse the passivity of the leadership of the organization and its affiliated agencies as well as the educated elites in Africa and the people they lead and for the absence of grassroots involvement in the process of energizing the these agencies.
Africa’s quest for the repatriation of its lost heritages to colonialism and now to neocolonialism is negatively affected by the above factors. The long history of the struggle by African countries to reclaim their lost cultural heritages following European colonial conquests and invasions is not yet over. The looted artifacts and artifacts of cultural and historical values are still dispersed in European museums and in the homes of private collectors who illegally acquired them through unlawful transactions by criminal gangs and clandestine networks of smugglers. The struggle is still underway by African governments, intellectuals and international organizations that are working for the preservation of historical and cultural artifacts.
There is no denying the fact that numerous historical and cultural relics have been looted from African countries at every step in the process of colonial rule as well as afterwards. The theft of these relics is still going apace because it has become part of the global black market or illegal transaction of these artifacts that belong first to the specific countries from where they have been looted and second they are the collective properties of all Africans as a united people with a shared past, present and future.
According to one definition, looting cultural heritages is “an illegal act breaking the global business law in dealing or trading with cultural heritage objects such as antiques, artifacts. Or any historical item Many African cultural heritage objects were looted from Nigeria for instance. “These objects entered the collections of natural history museums, art museums (both encyclopedic and specialist) and private collections in Europe and the United States. About 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be located in Europe, according to French art historians.”
According to a study conducted and published by Nigerian scholars in 2022, “Nigeria is a colorful combination of culture and landscapes, a place that fully embraces its African heritage and celebrates its diversity. Heritages are significant endowment emanating from one generation to another through conscious preservation and conservation. …The state of most cultural heritage in Nigeria must be said to be endangered. Looted antiquities move from poor nations where they are found to reach developed nations where buyers are. Looting and trafficking of antiquity can destroy the archeological context in which the objects are found, diminishing our capacity to correct knowledge about past civilization and also harm the objects themselves…”
According to Wikipedia, “Some African objects had been collected by Europeans for centuries and there had been industries producing some types, especially carvings in ivory, for European markets in some coastal regions. Between 1890 and 1918 the volume of objects greatly increased as Western colonial expansion in Africa led to the removal of many pieces of sub-Saharan African art that were subsequently brought to Europe and displayed.”
It was for instance reported as early as 2022 that centuries-old Ethiopian relics, including manuscripts and bibles were being advertised for sale on eBay. Most of the relics were stolen during the recently concluded war in the north of Ethiopia that had offered an opportunity for smugglers to sell these heritages through the international black markets or legally through ecommerce outlets like eBay. According to sources, a recent inquiry has made it clear that a total of some 1721 registered movable artifacts were lost or stolen from various museums in northern Ethiopia. According to the same sources, “Of these, 1155 were stolen or removed from various museums in the region. The number is probably higher as not
all the antiques are officially registered . In addition to those taken, 379 movable artifacts were destroyed, 73 were partially damaged and 91 were fully damaged. There are also many cultural and historical looted treasures that were returned to Ethiopia after 150 years. According to a September 10, 2021 report by Livia Gershen in the Smithsonian Magazine, “Artifacts, including a Bible and an imperial shield seized by British forces during the 1868 Battle of Maqdalla are returning to Ethiopia. As the Ethiopian News Agency reports, the Scheherazde Foundation, a private nonprofit group based in the United Kingdom, purchased the objects with the goal of returning them.”
Africa’s ongoing struggle to reclaim its past and stolen cultural heritage should also be conducted with more coordination with efforts by the international community and law-enforcement agencies. African heritage is also part and parcel of the human heritage and as such it is the business of not only African institutions but also global agencies, groups and communities to get involved in this fight. The African Union cultural commission should be leading the efforts with greater verve and imagination and do a better job in the next few decades before our heritages would not be transferred to illegal actors in the illegal markets and disappear altogether. As we observe the 60th anniversary of the founding of the OAU and AU, this must be not only our top priority but also our greatest commitment in our ongoing struggle to make Africa’s renaissance not only an article of faith but also a living reality.
Ethiopia has never been colonized by European powers but she had been a victim of theft and looting by the same powers following invasions and “explorations” by expeditionary forces that came to the country to impose a Pact Britannica on the continent.
THE ETHIOPIAN HERALD SATURDAY 3 JUNE 2023