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Nigeria, US Sign Pact To Preserve Cultural Heritage

(AFRICAN EXAMINER) – Nigeria and United States Government have signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at protecting the cultural heritage of the West African nation.

In Nigeria, cultural property continues to be subject to the threat of pillage, destruction, and loss due to excavation, criminal activity, natural disasters, and subsistence digging. Between 1969 and 1999, museums in Nigeria lost over four hundred heritage items, including Ife and Benin bronzes, and Nok and Owo terra cotta, wood and ivory sculptural pieces.

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard signed the Cultural Property Agreement between both nations at a ceremony attended by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama and US Embassy representatives on Thursday in Abuja.

The agreement will facilitate continued cooperation with Nigerian law enforcement agencies and support efforts to identify, intercept, repatriate, and protect cultural property and related heritage, adding that their efforts advance the shared interests in combating transnational criminal networks and terrorist organizations that profit from the illicit trade of these sacred objects.

In addition, the agreement will promote further the exchange of archaeological materials for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes, including long-term loans of such materials with the aim of increasing public awareness of Nigeria’s cultural traditions.

US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard said the agreement will enhance the already strong cooperation to preserve and maintain Nigerian cultural landmarks and sites through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).

Over the past decade,  according to her,  the United States has partnered with the Nigerian government and state institutions to fund projects totaling over a million dollars including the $125,000 AFCP grant awarded in November 2021 to digitally survey and document the Busanyin Shrine located within the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove.

“Another major investment consists of the $400,000 AFCP grant for the conservation of the late 14th-Century Sungbo’s Eredo monument, which will use three-dimensional laser scanning technology to generate a precise topographic map covering a thousand square kilometers of the area occupied by the monument.

“Today’s agreement is about learning from the past and about recording through it our partnership to preserve, restore, and protect Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage.  It is with great pride and pleasure we celebrate today the signing of the MoU between the Governments of Nigeria and the United States for the protection of cultural property”, she said.

She also noted that the tapestry of the Nigerian cultural heritage ranges from the unique Nok terracotta dating back to the fifth century B.C. to Yoruba traditions with the sacred Iroko tree, to the incomparable bronzes that once decorated the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin.

Just in my time as Ambassador to Nigeria, I’ve watched advance a vigorous international discussion on the provenance of art, including discussion of museum collections in the United States.  Among other things, today’s agreement is about learning from the past and about recording by this agreement our partnership to preserve, restore, and protect Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage”, she added.

The envoy lauded the efforts of the partners who worked tirelessly on the agreement with the aim of preventing the importation of Nigerian artifacts and helping facilitate their recovery from the United States.

“I commend the leadership of the Minister in making this a reality.  I also would also like to acknowledge Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director General of the Nigerian Commission of Museums and Monuments for his tireless efforts.  

“This agreement would not be possible without the expert staff and generous resources at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who support the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation among many other initiatives in the field of international cultural protection.  Finally, I look forward to building our partnership on the basis of today’s historic signing”, she stressed.

Notably, Cultural Property Agreements are administered worldwide by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in partnership with other governments desiring enhanced cooperation in that field.

These bilateral agreements support US government efforts across different agencies and organizations to protect and preserve cultural heritage in host countries. This includes denying critical financing to organizations that engage in illicit trade of artifacts and other cultural objects of value. The U.S. has signed Cultural Property Agreements with several countries in Africa including Egypt, Libya, Mali, and Morocco.

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