Left to Right: Ore Ogunbiyi, Prince George Akenzua, Dr. Yusuf Abdallah Usman and Amatey DokuOre Ogunbiyi

Prince Gregory Akenzua of Benin has renewed calls for Jesus College to return a controversial bronze cockerel to Nigeria.

The prince made the remarks whilst visiting Cambridge as part of a delegation from Nigeria, during which he also praised the works of students campaigning for the repatriation of the Okukor, the name given to the statue.

Prince Akenzua, along with independent academics and representatives from Nigerian museums, was attending a conference at the University’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, which has its own collection of ‘Benin Bronzes’. The conference, hosted by the EU-funded project ‘SWICH’, addressed issues surrounding museum collections obtained during the colonial period.

The Okukor was one of almost 1000 bronzes looted from Benin City, now in present-day Nigeria, during a punitive expedition undertaken by the British in 1897. It was then bequeathed to Jesus College by Captain George William Neville, a former British Army Officer whose son had been a student there.

Jesus College had displayed the Okukor in its dining hall before it was “permanently removed” last year after Jesus College Student Union (JCSU) passed a motion in favour of repatriating the statue. However, the Okukor has not left Jesus, the college so far only promising to work with museum authorities “to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

The Okukor in Jesus College dining hall

During their visit Prince Akenzua, brother of the former Oba of Benin, and Dr. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director-General of the National Council of Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, met with CUSU President Amatey Doku, who is a former President of JCSU, and former JCSU Racial Equalities Officer Ore Ogunbiyi. Both have been leading figures in the student campaign for the Okukor’s repatriation.

The Prince used the opportunity to renew his appeal for the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes and thanked all of the students who have been involved in the campaign. As a gesture of thanks Doku was presented with a wooden bust as a gift from the Royal Court of Benin, which he accepted on behalf of all those involved in the efforts.

In an interview conducted for Varsity, Dr. Usman said: “We are very, very appreciative to you [the students] and we hope that you continue in these endeavours which are promoting goodwill and justice… you are a standard bearer for education and good character.”

In response to the praise, Doku told Varsity: “We are humbled that at the very highest levels of government, and the highest levels in the Benin Royal Family, our work has been recognised and commended. It gives us confidence that we are doing the right thing and we’ve made it clear to them that we will continue to push.”

Similarly Ogunbiyi said that she felt “honoured to meet the delegation” but criticised the small scale of the reception that the Nigerians received. “I couldn’t help but feel that for a group of such reputable people, and for a decision so important, that they deserved a much greater, more public welcome than what they received.”

The wooden bust presented to DokuAmatey Doku

Dr. Usman also revealed that since the student campaign began last year figures from the University, including Pro-Vice Chancellor Ellis Ferran, have been meeting with representatives from Nigeria to discuss the repatriation of the Okukor: “we have had interaction with the highest levels of authority within the University. It is a sign that they are willing to toe the lines you [the students] have set out and we are looking forward to receiving the Okukor”.

The campaign for the Okukor’s return has so far produced a flurry of media attention in the national and international press, with commentators both praising and criticising the actions of the students and college.

Nor was criticism limited to the press. Jesus alumnus Francis Bown disinherited the college from his will until the Okukor “returns to its place in the hall in which [he] used to dine”. He criticised institutions like Jesus College and Oxford’s Oriel College, which was embroiled in the #RhodesMustFall controversy at the time, of adopting a “policy of supine appeasement” towards “silly” undergraduates.

However, Doku, incumbent CUSU President, remains adamant that the Okukor should be returned to Nigeria: “The Royal Palace of Benin have been officially calling for all Benin Bronzes since the 1930s… to disregard their wishes sends a worrying message to the alumni, current students and prospective students from the black community.”

Ogunbiyi, an HSPS undergraduate at Jesus, also made the case for repatriating the statue: “The university is in a position, as an institution, to not only demonstrate that they recognise how extremely inappropriate it is to hold on to these stolen works, but also that they deem the continuous calls of the court of Benin and the Nigerian government, valid.”

“[Repatriation] would also go some way to counter a wider Eurocentric narrative in which African voices in these spaces are very often considered inadequate and unworthy. Repatriation becomes more than just physical, but also very symbolic for the wider black community at Cambridge.”

For the moment, the Okukor remains in storage and Jesus have not yet made any indication as to whether it will be returned to Nigeria.

Varsity has contacted the University for comment