African cultural restitution matters

Thursday December 05 2019

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe talks to the press at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 at the Feria de Madrid exhibition centre in Madrid on December 2, 2019. He has helped repatriate looted African heritage. PHOTO | CRISTINA QUICLER | AFP


French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently presented an antique sabre to Senegalese President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar.

But it was not a gift; the sabre was coming home, more than a century after it had been stolen.

The repatriation of an item with deep historical, spiritual, and cultural significance might seem like a mere gesture of colonial redress.

But this ceremony was about much more than a single physical object. It was a watershed moment in the West’s recognition of the cultural damage inflicted by colonialism.

The sabre belonged to El Hajj Umar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, which once extended from present-day Senegal into Mali and Guinea.

Tall was a respected religious leader and anti-colonial resistance fighter.


His weapon, along with tens of thousands of other pieces of looted African heritage, had been in French hands since the 1890s.


Exhibited in French museums, the sabre ceased to symbolise the military prowess of a once-powerful dynasty and instead told the tale of an African empire’s decimation, legitimising the racism and prejudice of the colonial period.

Tall’s family had been campaigning for the sabre’s return since 1944, and they finally won their fight last month.

The sabre will remain in Senegal for five years while the French parliament determines whether it — and other objects — will be permanently restituted.

This would have been unimaginable a few years ago. European governments, museums and universities have long refused to recognise the immorality of the circumstances in which Africa’s cultural patrimony was removed from the continent.

The handover was thus highly symbolic, auguring a shift in power dynamics and a renewed respect for Africa’s vibrant history.

It also attests to the persistence of Africans in demanding that leaders of former colonial powers right historical wrongs.

Colonialism rested on the disavowal of African art, music and architecture.


Brutal leaders such as Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1960s and 1970s, legitimised horrific abuse and injustices by undermining the culture of African people, thereby erasing their humanity.

Africa’s youth, particularly, have been demanding control over their destinies, recently ushering in sweeping change in Ethiopia and Sudan.

They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage and have been campaigning for the return of African artefacts.

Having realised that young people are a critical force on a continent where the population is expected to grow by more than a billion to 2.5 billion by 2050, many former colonial powers have begun to listen.

In a 2017 speech to a full auditorium at a university in Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to prioritise the return of African artefacts.

“African cultural heritage,” he argued, “can no longer be held captive in European museums.”


The groundbreaking Sarr-Savoy Report, commissioned by the French government, launched a global conversation about the return of such items.

The authors, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr, recommended the immediate unconditional return of cultural objects gained through theft, plunder, pillage, despoiling, or unequal exchange during colonial times.

Since the report was released in November last year, the global movement for art restitution has strengthened considerably.

Official claims have been filed for the restitution of historical artefacts and human remains to Ethiopia, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria.

But a lot of work remains to turn hopes of cultural restitution into reality.

The number of artefacts missing from Africa is staggering. The Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Belgium, holds 180,000 pieces of sub-Saharan African heritage.

The British Museum, in London, and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, each hold about 70,000 African artefacts.


This is in stark contrast to the size of the holdings of museums in Africa.

Alain Godonou, a historian and curator from Benin, estimates that the inventories of most national museums in Africa do not surpass 3,000 objects.

Restitution is about more than confronting the violent legacy of colonialism, which continues to affect power dynamics around the world.

It is about supporting the work young Africans are doing to transform the dated racist narratives about their diverse cultural heritage and rich history.

It is about giving current generations the means to shape a better future for themselves. It is, at its core, about restituting agency to a continent defining its path forward.

Mr Gaspard, a former US ambassador to South Africa, is president of the Open Society Foundations. (Project Syndicate, 2019: