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The return of human remains and looted artefacts

By Paul T. Shipale
A Namibian delegation, led by a Cabinet Minister accompanied by Senior Traditional Leaders, went to Germany to repatriate the first consignment of 20 skulls belonging to victims of the genocide that took place between 1904 and 1908 and that were taken to Germany purportedly for “scientific research” which was nothing else but racial experiments.

The repatriation of the mortal remains of our ancestors is indeed a momentous day in the history of our nation that remind us about the difficulties that our people have endured in their march towards nationhood as well as a symbolic closure to a tragic chapter as President Pohamba said at a memorial service held at the Heroes Acre to officially welcome with open hearts, the mortal remains of our people who lost their lives during the anti-colonial war of resistance and honour the fallen heroes and heroines. Apart from H.E. President Hifikepunye Pohamba, the solemn occasion was also attended by the Founding President and Father of the Nation, H.E. Dr Sam Nujoma as well as Senior Government Officials, dignitaries and Senior Traditional Authorities who went to pay tribute to the memory of the victims in the war of resistance who died between 1904 and 1908 by German Schutztruppe.

This sombre occasion reminded us, not only of their suffering, but also their bravery and gallantry in the face of immense difficulties, such as the brutally violation of their bodies, contrary to common decency and to our values as Africans, as the President stated. Our forefathers such as Chief Tjamuaha, Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi, Paramount Chief Kahimemua Nguvauva, the brave freedom fighter Jacob Marenga, Chief Samuel Maharero, King Mandume ya Ndemufayo and Nehale lya- Mpingana including King Iipumbu ja Tshilongo as well as the uncompromising freedom fighter Hompa Kandjimi Hawanga of the Vakwangali (1870-1923) and Chief Hosea Kutako, carried the spirit of freedom of our people and laid a strong foundation for us to build on and light the torch of freedom that led to our freedom and genuine Independence on March 21st of 1990, are also rejoicing to witness such an occasion. The solemn occasion also reminded us of the long journey that, we, the Namibian people have walked to the dawn of freedom and independence.

In order to honour their enduring legacy, we should therefore continue to promote National Reconciliation and to build our country as “One Namibia, One Nation”. We must continue to maintain peace and stability in our country and reject the vices of tribalism, ethnicity, racism, regionalism and sexism, the President urged the Nation. Indeed, the German fort at Namutoni was not build there for fun but to prevent Namibians in the north to help their brothers in the war of resistance against the Germans. The Name Caprivi in the far eastern region of the country is a clear testimony that German imperial powers were also in those areas with their reign of terror. Thus, this is a national issue that should unite all Namibians irrespective of tribal, racial, ethnic or social background.

As it was reported in last week Southern Times newspaper, the legal bases recognized at International law for the return of human remains and looted artefacts, is the Hague Convention of 1907 that forbade pillaging. This Convention was followed by another Hague Convention of 1954 on the protection of cultural property or heritage in the event of Armed Conflict. The 1955 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention of stolen or Illicitly Exported Cultural Objects also called for the return of these illegally exported cultural objects.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention against Illicit Export under the Cultural Property Implementation Act also allowed for stolen objects to be seized if there were documentation. Finally, there is the 1978 UNESCO Convention that came to strengthen existing provisions on the promotion of the return of Cultural properties to their countries of origin or their restitution in case illicit Appropriation was established.

For the reasons and legal bases stated above, the return of the first consignment of 20 skulls belonging to Namibian victims of the genocide between 1904 and 1908, is in line with those conventions as well as with the public apology for the genocide by the German Government in August 2004 through their then Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, even if she was later rebuked in the German parliament for having taken such a reconciliatory stance. The German Ambassador to Namibia, H.E. Egon Kochanke also reaffirmed his Government historic responsibility towards Namibia and pledged his Government willingness to cooperate with the Government of Namibia to help in the process of repatriating the remaining skulls who are still in Germany as well as to strengthen relations between the two countries. In this regard, the long awaited repatriation of the skulls belonging to Namibians organized by both the Namibian and German Governments is a welcomed historic move that will consolidate our two governments’ foundation of building bridges of peace.

One thing for sure is that the repatriation of these mortal remains would no longer be able to contain the floodgates and stave off demands or deflect efforts demanding the return of priceless artefacts looted by the imperial powers during the slave trade and colonialism in Africa in general and Namibia in particular. In this regard, several African countries are pursuing the repatriation of looted artefacts scattered in museums all over Europe. Artefacts such as the Rosetta stone in the British Museum, the Nefertiti bust in the German Museum in Berlin, and those artefacts in the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée du Quai Branly and others Museums in France including the Benin bronzes that were sold by the British to the Germans, including those in the Ethnology Museum in Vienna, Austria, as the recently returned artefacts to Ethiopia as it was reported in last week Southern Times newspaper.

There are still many other cultural artefacts belonging to the Namibian people that are in Europe, for this reason, President Pohamba called upon Namibian and German researchers to identify items of Namibian origin that are still in Germany, and which hold historical and cultural significance so that they can be returned to Namibia. Indeed, according to the book “Nakambale” written by Matti Peltola, in February 1886, Dr Schinz, a young Swiss botanist of 26 years old who was doing research in the fields of natural history and ethnology but also collecting materials, wrote a detailed description about the “Oshilongo Stein” or ‘the stone of the kingdom’ from the quartzite stone he and Martin Rautanen found at the site of late King Nembumgu’s court, which was to the east of Olukonda, at an enclosure where amulets that were used in making rain were also found.

When Dr Schinz left Olukonda to Upingtonia ( Oshaanda shongwe, now Grootfontein) he and Martin Rautanen collected hundred ethnological articles including real curios under the authority of the King such as a stick made from the horn of a rhinoceros which had religious connotations as well as magic charms and amulets belonging to the Owambos who were converted to Christianity. Some of these artefacts are in the National Museum in Finland, while some others are in Germany and the Städtisches Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig when they were taken there between 1904 and 1908. In total, Martin Rautanen collected close to 500 ethnological objects from the Ovawambos which were, in 1983, published in a guide to Martin Rautanen’s collection in the National Museum by the National Board of Antiquities and Historical Monuments.

This is the time for zealous missionaries of Afrocentrism to fan out throughout Pan-Africa the flames to unite all our people in order to reaffirm our identity and regain our dignity as Africans.

This is also a time for a symbolic closure of a tragic chapter that will allow us to continue to work with the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and to strengthen the ties of bilateral cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit of our two peoples as President Pohamba stated.

One may ask, what about reparation as the Chief of the !Aman at Bethanie, David Fredericks, expressed the hope that the Namibian Government will engage with its German counterpart to negotiate reparations, as it was reported in the media. According to a paper titled; Reparations and a New global Order; a Comparative overview, by Professor Chinweizu which was read at the second Plenary Session of the First Pan-African Conference on Reparations, Abuja, Nigeria, 27 April 1993, Black people are not the only one in the world who are seeking, or who have sought, reparations because the Mapuche people of Southern Chile are pressing for the return of their lands taken since 1540, The Inuit of Arctic Canada, more commonly known as the Eskimo, were offered restitution of some 850,000 sq. miles of their ancestral lands. The US Government is attempting to give some 400,000 acres of grazing land to the Indian Navahos, if it didn’t do so already. Following WW II, by May 1949, Japan paid $39 million in reparations, mostly to the Asian countries it had occupied while North Korea was also asking for $5 billion in reparations for damages sustained during 35 years of Japanese colonisation. After WW II, the victors demanded reparations from Germany for all damages to civilians and their dependants, and for losses caused by the maltreatment of prisoners of war, as well as for all non-military property that was destroyed in the war.

Perhaps the most famous case of reparations was that paid by Germany for crimes against Jews in territories controlled by Hitler’s Germany, and to individuals to indemnify them for persecution. Even in 1992, the World Jewish Congress in New York announced that the newly unified Germany would pay compensation, totalling $63 million to 50,000 Jews who suffered Nazi persecution but had not been paid reparations because they lived in East Germany. Nevertheless, we must take a more comprehensive view of what this must mean for us as a country geared towards nation building and reconciliation.

As Chinweizu said “our own search for reparations must, of necessity, be tailored to our peculiar condition, to our peculiar experience” and as the President concluded “We are consoled that while the mortal remains were removed from the country amidst the ruins of war, they have returned to an independent, peaceful, and stable Namibia” and as we strengthen the ties of cooperation with others, let development reach all corners of the country and benefit all our people and let this occasion unite and not divide the nation. As the Founding President always said; “A people united and striving to achieve a common good for all the members of society, will always emerge victorious”.

Disclaimer: These views do not necessarily represent the views of my employer nor am I paid to write them


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