Nigeria has received a Benin bronze artefact from the University of Cambridge, more than a hundred years after it was taken from the country.
At a ceremony on Wednesday in the UK, the university handed over the artefact to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, in a move it earlier described as the “first institutional return of its kind.”
Jesus College is the first UK institution to hand back a Benin bronze, raising pressure on other establishments, including the British Museum, to follow suit.
The Nigerian delegation was led by the head of the agency, Professor Abba Tijani, to receive the elaborately carved cockerel, known as “Okukor”.
“We’re excited, very happy to see that this artefact, which has been away from Nigeria for decades, is in good shape,” he said.
Tijani, who spoke during the ceremony to hand over the treasure, stated that it was the first time a UK institution would give back a Benin bronze.
He hailed the college’s act as “a great example for other institutions and other countries” and urged the British Museum to change its stance on the bronzes in its collection.
Noting that Nigeria has handed over a formal request for their repatriation, Tijani insisted that the sculptures “are going to the right place and they will be looked after”.
The bronze was taken from the kingdom of Benin — now part of Nigeria — in 1897 when Britain had a foothold on the African continent.
Cambridge’s Jesus College removed the cockerel from public display in 2016 after a campaign by students arguing it was a symbol of Britain’s colonial past.
Several other western institutions have said they also plan to hand looted African treasures back.
But the British Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of Benin bronzes, has not done so.
Many are facing mounting pressure to give back colonial-era treasures, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nigerian government officials taking part in the ceremony included the Ambassador to the UK, Sarafa Isola, and the brother of the Oba of Benin, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa.
“I thank you for this wonderful initiative. The people of Nigeria are grateful,” said Isola while passing on the thanks of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Prince Erediauwa, on his part, said, “Jesus College is indeed challenging the erroneous arguments that stolen art cannot be returned because of the existence of different legal jurisdictions on the matter.”
Earlier, the head of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, handed the elaborately carved cockerel to the Nigerian delegation amid cheers and a trumpet fanfare.
“We are proud to be the first institution to simply act,” said Alleyne, hailing a “really historic occasion” as she formally transferred the cockerel’s ownership. “We are delighted that it is now with its rightful owner.”
This week, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris is exhibiting a trove of Benin treasures for a final time before they are handed back to Nigeria.
Tijani is expected to travel to Scotland to receive another Benin bronze from the University of Aberdeen on Thursday.