Ambassador Leonard’s Remarks for the Signing Event for the U.S. — Nigeria Cultural Property Agreement


Minister Mohammed, distinguished guests, it is with great pride and pleasure we celebrate today the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Governments of Nigeria and the United States for the protection of cultural property.

As Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” One might add to Garvey’s formulation, a people without possession of their past history as well. The tapestry of the Nigerian cultural heritage ranges from the unique Nok terracotta dating back to the fifth century B.C. to Yoruba traditions with the sacred Iroko tree, to the incomparable bronzes that once decorated the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin. Just in my time as Ambassador to Nigeria, I’ve watched advance a vigorous international discussion on the provenance of art, including discussion of museum collections in the United States. Among other things, today’s agreement is about learning from the past and about recording by this agreement our partnership to preserve, restore, and protect Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage.

The United States has established bilateral agreements like this one with other countries on the continent. The U.S. and Egypt signed an agreement on cultural property protection in 2016, and in 2021 the agreement was modified to expand protections to include additional categories of cultural objects from Egypt. In 2021, the U.S. and the Kingdom of Morocco signed a cultural property agreement to combat looting and trafficking and guarantee both a clean market and increased bilateral exchange opportunities.

I served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mali from 2011 to 2014 and saw firsthand the powerful effects of the twenty-year-old cultural property agreement that the U.S. government signed with Mali. Just last month, the U.S. returned over 900 illegally exported Malian antiquities seized by U.S. customs. In addition, my government facilitated their return and a future exhibition of the same at the National Museum of Mali pending their study by museum specialists.

In Nigeria, over the past decade the U.S Mission has partnered with the Nigerian government and state institutions to preserve cultural landmarks and sites through projects worth over one million dollars and funded by the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. Just last November, I signed a grant award to digitally survey the Busanyin Shrine located within the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove. That $125,000 grant will help document a series of shrines within the Grove and provide training to local professionals in digital tools and cultural heritage management.

Challenges persist. Nigeria’s cultural property continues to be subject to the threat of pillage, destruction, and loss due to excavation, criminal activity, natural disasters, and subsistence digging. Between 1969 and 1999, museums in Nigeria lost over four hundred heritage items, including Ife and Benin bronzes, and Nok and Owo terra cotta, wood and ivory sculptural pieces.

We recognize that supporting the preservation of cultural and heritage property through funding alone will not offer full protection for Nigeria’s unique cultural property. Today’s agreement will facilitate more robust collaboration of U.S. and Nigerian federal law enforcement and border control agencies whose mission is to identify, intercept, repatriate, and protect cultural property and related heritage works. Their efforts advance our shared interests in combatting transnational criminal networks and terrorist organizations that profit from the illicit trade of these sacred objects.

This agreement will promote further the exchange of archaeological materials for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes, including long-term loans of such materials with the aim of increasing public awareness of Nigeria’s cultural traditions. Returning to the example of Iroko tree, the Yoruba have a tradition that prohibits the cutting of the Iroko tree which today we better understand for its ability to conserve valuable topsoil and store carbon in the ground.

In closing, I would like to praise the efforts of our partners here who worked tirelessly on this agreement with the aim of preventing the importation of Nigerian artifacts and helping facilitate their recovery from the United States. In this regard, I commend the leadership of the Minister in making this a reality. I also would also like to acknowledge Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director General of the Nigerian Commission of Museums and Monuments for his tireless efforts. This agreement would not be possible without the expert staff and generous resources at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who support the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation among many other initiatives in the field of international cultural protection. Finally, I look forward to building our partnership on the basis of today’s historic signing.