Sam Bidwell is a Parliamentary Researcher, and Director of the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs.
“So, what do you think of the Benin Bronzes?”
The Bronzes, a group of several thousand metal sculptures which once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, have been at the centre of Britain’s debate about the repatriation of colonial artefacts.
Originally seized as part of the British Empire’s Benin Expedition of 1897, they are today spread across numerous private collections and museums, mostly in Europe and the Americas.
In November 2022, the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill signed its Bronzes back to Nigeria, while smaller collections from the University of Aberdeen and Jesus College, Cambridge were signed away the previous year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the British Museum boasts a considerable number, but has resisted the intensifying calls for restitution.
Whether the Bronzes will be adequately maintained in Nigeria remains an open question; twenty-three Bronzes returned by the German government in 2022 have since been absorbed into a private collection.
The question was asked sheepishly over the rim of my pint glass, at a riverside bar in Lagos. Endless conversations with left-wing university peers had conditioned me to expect a lecture on Britain’s fundamental wickedness.
What I found instead was level-headed pragmatism. The Nigerians that I spoke to recognised that the Bronzes would be at risk of severe degradation without the appropriate facilities and training.
There was even a wry acknowledgment that there might be more at play here than the righting of colonial wrongs. Many of the calls for restitution have come from the Oba of Benin, traditional ruler of the Edo people. In unrelated news, outgoing President Buhari recently decreed that any relocated Bronzes would become the personal property of the Oba.
I was struck by how rarely Britain’s domestic political debates are influenced by the perspectives of those directly upstream or directly downstream from decisions made here. Yet in such an interconnected world, is that really tenable?
In 1750, it took around two days to travel from Cambridge to London; today, it takes just six hours to travel from London to Nigeria. The modern world is terrifyingly small and terrifyingly complex, a tangled web of supply chains and self-interests. As globalisation marches on, undeterred by populist flare-ups, our failure to understand the international dimension of our local priorities becomes all the more problematic.
Take migration. It’s not just cuckoo birds making the springtime journey from West Africa to Europe anymore – it’s migrant labourers, students, and the families of West Africans already in this country.
However, it’s little understood that migrant-sceptics in Britain have much the same objective as the Nigerian government. What we identify as ‘brain drain’, they call ‘japa’, a Yoruba word meaning ‘to flee’ or ‘to escape’. Businesses, universities, and government officials were all deeply concerned by the outpouring of skilled and semi-skilled young people, ‘japa’-ing northwards for better economic prospects.
At independence in 1960, Nigeria was home to 45 million people; today, that figure stands at more than 210 million, with a total fertility rate of 5.3 children per woman. A fast-growing population needs jobs, education, and housing – increasingly, failure to develop those essentials domestically has led Nigerians to seek them abroad.
Yet this population exchange is a two-way street. Every new Nigerian doctor in the NHS is one fewer doctor for Nigeria’s own healthcare system. Loss of skilled professionals, who train at British universities and decide to stay past graduation, makes it harder to sustainably grow the economy, in turn producing even more out-migration.
A British government which recognised the benefits of a stable, prosperous Africa and offered incentives to skilled professionals to return home would find itself lauded on the continent.
Those in Britain who believe that we should have more control over our borders must recognise that migration owes as much to push factors as pull. They should also recognise that countries which produce emigration have an interest in stopping young people from leaving, lest the vicious cycle of underdevelopment continue.
It’s also a question of security. Islamist terrorism in the country’s north and instability in the Niger Delta have displaced millions and destroyed food security in much of the region; despite suffering the tail-end consequences of this, European efforts to support peacekeeping within the country are nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile China’s influence, much maligned by Alicia Kearns and co., is visible at Abuja’s new airport terminal, funded by a generous loan from the China-Exim Bank. Alignment with Beijing isn’t driven by sentimental fondness for the novels of Cao Xueqin or Sichuan cooking.
In fact, in the bars of Abuja it was English beer on tap and English football on the television. Africa’s drift towards China is motivated by pure pragmatism; ‘investment and development, by any means necessary’ is the mantra here.
If Britain cannot offer a compelling alternative to the vast capital reserves of the People’s Republic, it will continue to see its influence dwindle, making it even more challenging to make the case for our interests abroad. That will mean reduced access to critical minerals, and a less forgiving international environment.
Those interested in a neat way to drive development without loosening the purse-strings should look to the steps that UK Export Finance recently took to underwrite the financing for a new electric railway in Turkey, opening up new contract opportunities for UK suppliers.
And that’s not to mention the effect of Nigerian oil on energy prices, the growing role of African businesses in international commerce, or the impact of the continent’s emissions on global climate. Like it or not, the six million cars on the streets of Lagos are far more polluting than any Cumbrian coalmine.
It is not enough for Britain to look east to Asia; it must also look south to Africa. Not only is our international standing dependent on relationships there, but our domestic priorities are increasingly downstream from events south of the Sahara. Understanding which way the current is flowing will only make it easier to steer the ship.