Turning around fortunes : confronting forces of plunder of Africa’s cultural heritage

Dawson Munjeri


The centuries-old legacy of the plunder of Africa’s cultural heritage should no longer be considered as a fait accompli. Forces that have dictated the philosophy, norms and practices of this legacy need to be confronted with the legal means, ethics and other mechanism now available. In the final analysis, Africa must sing, NOT a swan song but a battle cry as first expounded by the UN General Assembly Resolution XXVIII 3189 which finds expression in Amadou Mahtar M’Bow’s ‘Plea for the return of irreplaceable cultural heritage to those who created it’. (1978 M’Bow the then DG of UNESCO)

The paper proposes reasons why now is the time to rally behind that call and build a global esprit de corps. During the last two decades Africa’s lethargic approach to the issues of return and restitution of cultural property to countries of origin, as evidenced by UNGA Resolutions A/61/L/Rev.1 of 2006, has immeasurably damaged Africa’s noble cause. That is the one dimension of the paper.

On the positive side case law e.g. in the matter Islamic Republic of Iran v Barrakat Galleries and US v Schultz is helping tilt the balance in favour of Africa’s cultural heritage. ‘Turning around the fortunes’, by using specific cases, is a call for Africa to reap dividends from these winds of change. ‘We see no reason why the property stolen from a sovereign State should be treated any different from property stolen in a foreign museum or a private home’. (US v Schultz).

Recent cases e.g. return of Makonde Mask form Switzerland to Tanzania and return of the Viranjo from USA to Kenya demonstrate the turnaround in fortunes.

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