There has been a lot of praise over the ceremony French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presided over to return an important artifact France seized when it usurped Senegal. This is a significant step towards a crucial opportunity to allow Senegal and other African countries the ability to take title of their own culture and allow them to build the necessary bridges to their own history, which was heavily influenced by other countries and regions during colonial rule. Given the timeline of French involvement in the development of modern Senegal, the process of relinquishing control of major artifacts is part of an incredible feat to help restore the cultures of African countries through the preservation of art, artifacts and other important symbols of the past.
It was only last year that it was decided that France should make an effort to return artifacts seized from African countries during the era of colonialism. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, created a committee of experts for this exact reason — to make recommendations on the best appropriate steps forward to create a course of action to the “restitution of African heritage held in French museums.” The result ended in the recommendation of returning the artifacts back to the countries of origin.
To understand just how important this decision is, in the video exert below, the Museum of Black Civilization’s Fatima Sy discusses the importance of preserving art in safeguarding the culture of Africa’s history. As this becomes a prevalent theme, nations like France, who have seized and taken ownership of African cultural artifacts and important symbols have realized that their possession of these items is no longer acceptable, at least not in this modern era.
Colonial countries like France have begun to start the processes necessary to return these items back to their appropriate countries, as these nations have now put in place their own museums and art galleries that can house and safeguard the items themselves. Although the process has started, the colonial countries have been slow to relinquish complete ownership. Instead, they have loaned items to the countries of origins and resided over the past as a sort of historic landlord. They retain control and have not permanently returned the artifacts. This is even true regarding the praised ceremony that the French Prime Minister officiated. Although, at first glance, it looks as though the Senegalese sword has been returned, France has not permanently relinquished their proprietary role. Alternatively, they have put in place another period of perceived Senegalese ownership until France votes to permanently gift the artifacts back to Senegal. Until that happens, it is a glorified loan program that can be extended. Pending an official vote, we will not have final say on whether or not Senegal will own their own artifacts outright.
To give credit where credit has been earned, it is important to recognize that France did officially start the procedures necessary to return treasured artifacts. The artifact that was returned to Senegal (for a period of five years) belonged to El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall, who was a historical leader who ruled over territories in Senegal and led an uprising against French colonial rule, which resulted in a peace treaty between the two oppositions. Unfortunately, his son, who succeeded him succumbed to French rule and ended the independence of the Senegalese territory at that time. During that usurpation period, the sword of El Hadi Omar Saidou Tall was seized. In a ceremony that occurred on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Dakar, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe formally returned the sword to the President of Senegal Macky Sall. Of course this ceremony only represents a period of five years in which the Senegal will retain physical ownership until an official vote is conducted to determine whether or not this artifact and some 40,000 others will be permanently returned to African countries and territories across the continent.