“Proposal to Repatriate Benin Bronze” to Nigeria: Who do the students of Cambridge’s Jesus College truly care about?

The results of the vote conducted by students of the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College last week are in and the consensus is that “‘Okukor’”, the bronze cockerel statue that has occupied the school hall since the 1930’s, while serving as the school’s mascot, should be repatriated to Benin, Nigeria. The Benin Bronze Association Committee (BBAC) made the proposal to return the artifact to Nigeria and suggested that the handover process be completed with a repatriation ceremony, featuring representatives from either the Benin Royal Palace or the Nigerian Federal Government.

An 11-page document was drafted to this end as concerned students outlined the reasons for their demand. The document was titled “Proposal to Repatriate Benin Bronze” and it placed the issues surrounding colonialism and social justice at the forefront of the students’ demand, while also pointing out the benefit for the school in doing what is morally just. According to the proposal, the gesture offers the institution the perfect opportunity to further its global agenda.

Okukor was part of the valuable loot carted off from the Benin Royal Palace in 1897 after the British carried out a ‘punitive expedition’ against the Benin Kingdom, conquering and destroying it, to avenge an incident were nine of their government officials died at the hands of Bini warriors in an ambush. Returning the statue would serve as a means to remove hints and traces of colonial legacies in the University.

Although the repatriation proposal currently carries a unanimous vote, a section of students in the institution expressed their discomfort with some of the provisions made in the document to encourage the college’s authorities to carry out the repatriation. In particular, the language and implications of the proposal made it difficult for this set of [black] students to see the good in the proposed action as concerns Nigerians and Nigeria.

In their opinion, the documented proposal appeared to have an ultimately selfish interest for the university in mind, while bearing features of neocolonialism with statements that could imply that the university will reap ‘benefits’ from returning the artifact. This, therefore, calls the morality that the Jesus College will be displaying into question. Additionally, the proposal was deemed disrespectful to Nigerian culture because it failed to refer to the statue by its traditional name – Okukor –  and is a mockery of the 1897 destruction of lives and property in Benin.

Ore Ogunbiyi, the Racial Equalities Officer for the Jesus College Student Union and one of those highly enthusiastic about the proposal and its hopeful consequences, maintain that the current proposal is merely a draft. According to her, all necessary adjustments will be made in the redraft. However, some students are concerned that a motion which states that only the Benin Bronze Committee is allowed to work on the final draft of the proposal exhibits an attempt to “silence black voices”.

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