The man snatching Africa's 'stolen' treasures from the museums of Europe

By Allan Clarke and Lisa McGregor
Mwazulu Diyabanza snatches a funerary pole from an exhibit at Paris's quai Branly Museum. (Supplied)

The footage is shaky and grainy. A man dressed all in black is standing defiantly in front of a row of African artefacts on display at one of Paris's most prestigious museums, the Quai Branly. 

Suddenly, he steps onto the podium and begins to yank an African funerary pole with both hands, struggling to get it loose from its stand. A colleague rushes in to help him and together they pull harder, as another live-streams it all on Facebook. 

There's a "clack" as it's wrenched free. "Voila," the man says, before turning and marching through the museum brandishing the object. "I'm taking back to Africa all that was pillaged, all that was stolen, while African blood was being shed," he says. 

The man is Mwazulu Diyabanza, an agent provocateur dressed in an African tunic with a Black Panther-style beret atop his head, speaking Molière French in a Congolese baritone. 

Mwazulu Diyabanza is fighting for the return of Africa's cultural heritage from museums in France and across Europe. (Foreign Correspondent: Allan Clarke)

Like Arsène Lupin, the beloved fictional French cat burglar who steals jewellery from France's most famous establishments to help the needy, his targets are high profile. But instead of gems, Diyabanza is reclaiming cultural objects taken from Africa during colonisation. 

"When we walk into a museum, it's the symbol of having taken the object that matters to us," he tells Foreign Correspondent. "Because when we carry out this action, we want to tell the whole world the piece has been liberated." 

Diyabanza calls this "active diplomacy", although watching the videos it's hard to see the diplomacy. He says it's a form of political protest and that he doesn't intend to steal. Rather it's the museums, which Diyabanza has likened to a "mafia", which he says are in possession of "stolen objects". 

A trove of African treasures

Diyabanza's actions might seem radical, but they come from a deep frustration with the French state, which historically has exploited Africa's natural and cultural resources. 

A painting on linen by French artist Roméo Mivekannin copies a photograph of his family, who were once royalty in the African nation now known as Benin. Many of the kingdom's prized cultural objects were taken back to France. (Foreign Correspondent)

France once ruled large swathes of Africa, from Algeria in the north to the French Congo in the centre west, and during that time the French brought back tens of thousands of culturally significant objects. Today, those objects are on display in many of France's museums. 

For decades it was something of a taboo subject in France. But in 2017, the issue of cultural heritage became a national talking point when the newly-elected president Emmanuel Macron — the first president to be born after France's colonial period — dropped la politesse, or politeness, promising to improve Franco-African relationships by committing to restitution. 

"I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage from several African countries is in France," Macron told an audience of students in West Africa at the time. "African heritage can't only be in private collections and European museums. African heritage must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou." 

Macron commissioned a report, released in 2018, which found an astonishing 90 to 95 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's cultural heritage was held by museums outside of Africa. France alone has around 90,000 objects. 

Many of the objects from Germany's time as a colonial power still fill its museums, including some of the famous 'Benin Bronzes', like this one in Hamburg. (Foreign Correspondent: Jurgen Todt)

There was national rivalry at work, too, with Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris all competing to assemble the best and biggest collections of these fascinating and beautiful objects. 

But anyone hoping to see a steady stream of packed crates heading out of Charles de Gaulle airport headed for African shores would be disappointed. In the four years since, only two objects have been returned — a sabre to Senegal and a crown to Madagascar.

In November this year, 26 looted objects will head back to the West African country of Benin, but there are no plans for future restitutions just yet. 

"Macron's declaration for us is delaying tactics," says Diyabanza. "Like any smart politician, you tell people what they want to hear and that's what Emmanuel Macron has done." 

Fighting the French state

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Diyabanza was a teenage activist in his home country before being granted political asylum in Mali. He later came to France as a young man. 

Paris is filled with monuments to France's past glories. But debate is heating up over who owns many of the cultural objects inside its world-class museums. (Foreign Correspondent: Allan Clarke)

As he strolls across Paris's Pont Neuf, the murky brown Seine flowing below its arches, he says he's still an activist but now his fight is with the French state, the former colonisers of Africa. 

Diyabanza has recruited others to join his cause, leading an African socialist group called Unité Dignité Courage, with members from Europe and Africa. The group's aims are as broad as they are ambitious. It's fighting for recognition of the wrongs of colonisation, an end to France's military presence in Africa and the return of their cultural heritage. 

"The House of Culture was destroyed," he says. "The soul of the real Africa was stolen, so we have to repair this. And to rebuild, we'll start with bricks, the ones that were stolen, and those bricks are those very objects here — they're the remnants of our ancestors that are buried here." 

Mwazulu Diyabanza speaks with a supporter outside the world's most famous museum, the Louvre. (Foreign Correspondent: Allan Clarke)

Outside the Louvre Museum, an older woman rushes up to him. Originally from the Congo herself, she's seen his videos online and congratulates him for the work he's doing. 

"Our history was cut off and a part which was stolen is here," says Diyabanza, pointing at the Louvre's gleaming glass pyramid as security guards watch on nervously. "So if we want to become what we were — straight, upright — we have to reattach it. We have to get it back."

The guards have reason to be on edge. Diyabanza has gained notoriety for targeting museums across Europe, including the Louvre, with his trademark blend of theatrics and political activism. 

His first action at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum last June was perfectly calculated to get the French talking. Located in the heart of Paris, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the museum holds the country's biggest collection of non-European art and artefacts, including some 70,000 African objects, two-thirds of which were brought back to France during the colonial years. 

Mwazulu Diyabanza gets arrested in the Netherlands. (Supplied)

A month later, he struck again, this time in the south of France. At the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, Améridiens in Marseille, he took a ceremonial ivory spear and, clutching the intricately carved object in two hands, walked out into the courtyard to deliver a fiery monologue. 

In September, he left France for the Netherlands where he took a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum. Then in October, he marched into the Louvre, grabbing what turned out to be a sculpture from the island of Flores in Indonesia. 

For every one of his acts of "diplomacy", Diyabanza has been arrested and charged, even spending time in jail. But he's also using the legal hearings as a political stage. 

Turning up at court flanked by his followers and camera crews, Diyabanza and his legal team have argued that he never intended to steal and was making a political point. 

"I don't know any thief who turns up to a museum and says 'film me' and then, after having been filmed, puts the object back," says one of his lawyers, Olivia Betoe Bi Evie. 

In Marseille, Diyabanza was acquitted but the prosecutor appealed and won, convicting him of intending to steal. Not one to back down, Diyabanza is appealing the conviction in France's highest court. 

For the Quai Branly and Louvre actions, he was potentially facing jail time, but received only a fine at the lower end of the scale. In a country that prides itself on protest, the judge overseeing the Quai Branly charges recognised Diyabanza's political grievance, even if his actions were misguided.

A complicated history

A year after Diyabanza walked into the Quai Branly and snatched an exhibit, the museum's president, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, is cheerfully walking me through their sprawling African collection. 

Rows of moodily lit corridors flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass cases feature an astonishing array of artefacts from France's former African colonies. There's intricately carved jewellery glinting under small spotlights, terrifying voodoo masks with tufts of human hair woven into feathers and shells and long, ornate ceremonial spears. 

The Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac is one of the world's most prestigious ethnological museums, with around 300,000 cultural objects in its collection. (Foreign Correspondent: Allan Clarke)

Emmanuel Kasarhérou made history as the museum's first Indigenous director. As a Kanak man from New Caledonia, whose own people were colonised by the French, he understands the importance of cultural objects being returned to their traditional homes but says those who want wholesale restitution are being unrealistic. 

Born in New Caledonia, Emmanuel Kasarhérou is the first indigenous-born president of a major French museum. (Foreign Correspondent)

Nonetheless, the museum is doing research to try and understand where its objects come from and how they got there, he says. Many arrived without a proper account of their provenance, which is making the task difficult. 

"If they are acquired illegally or illegitimately, or there is a case put forward by some tribe or cultural group ... this is our duty to put the case to the head of state saying, 'We should look at this situation'," he says. 

But it's not ultimately up to the museum to return objects, Kasarhérou explains, because they don't own them. The State does. Restitution can only happen if Parliament passes a law allowing it. 

Three large royal statues from the Kingdom of Dahomey on display in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. (Reuters: Philippe Wojazer)
These objects were from the former Benin Kingdom, part of modern-day Nigeria, and now reside in the Quai Branly. (Reuters: Phillipe Wojazer)

One set of objects in the Quai Branly Museum is known to have been looted. They're artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, a tiny country in West Africa. 

The French army launched an offensive against King Béhanzin and his forces in 1892. As the soldiers approached, the king set the palace alight and fled. The soldiers then looted the objects, taking them back to France. 

Today the artefacts occupy pride of place in the museum — among them, an imposing set of carved wooden doors, three tall wooden statues evoking different kings, and a massive, intricately carved throne. 

"They were looted for sure but at the same time these objects wouldn't be there if the palace was destroyed by the fire," says Kasarhérou. "That's quite complicated." 

Responding to a request from the Beninese government and in keeping the President's pledge, the French government passed a law last November to send 26 objects back to Benin. 

Marie-Cecile Zinsou, whose family comes from both France and Benin, is a passionate advocate for returning African heritage. (Foreign Correspondent: Allan Clarke)

Marie-Cécile Zinsou, an art historian and curator who runs a gallery in Benin, welcomes their return but says it's too early to tell if this is a one-off, or the beginning of a new approach to African heritage. 

"If it's a first step, it's historical, it's very important. It's the most symbolical thing you can do," she says. "If it's the only step, well ... it's nothing." 

France's enormous cultural capital has long been used as a bargaining chip in its dealings with Africa and those who have been lobbying for meaningful restitution hope that Macron's intentions are genuine. 

"These objects are part of our history ... and explain who we were, so they are very, very important. They're symbolic," says Zinsou. 

France will return 26 objects to Benin this year, some of which are pictured here. (Foreign Correspondent)

"It's not really a question of money or importance, financial importance, because some of these objects are very precious, some of them not at all. But the thing is, is that they tell us who we are." 

Is the game up?

With COVID restrictions easing and Europe's museums opening up, Diyabanza heads to sunny Portugal where he wants to highlight a dark chapter in Africa's history. Portugal was an early European coloniser of Africa and a player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

Diyabanza's risky antics have built him a big media profile and he's met at the airport by an American TV team who are tracking his every move. The next day, cameras blazing, he marches into the National Museum of Ethnology. 

"Today we are here to begin our work to take our heritage from 1400 to 1890 back," he says sombrely in the dark museum corridors. 

Mwazulu Diyabanza's plans to remove items from museum stands in Lisbon, Portugal, were thwarted by his own growing profile as a restitution activist. (Foreign Correspondent: Josep Puig López)

Live streaming on Facebook, he holds forth about a collection of lids from Angola locked inside a glass cabinet. But no, they're 20th century objects, and he's not interested. Then he turns and picks up a wooden chameleon ... will he? But no, it's not old enough and he leaves the building empty-handed. 

Over the next couple of days, he tries again and again in another museum which has some 16th century objects but strangely, the reception staff tell him the exhibition is closed. He believes they recognised him. Wearing a bright yellow tunic, chunky necklaces and a black fez, and followed by three cameras, it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't have spotted him a mile off. 

Diyabanza seems to have lost the element of surprise and in Portugal, at least, his game is up. Perhaps, though, he's already succeeded in his mission: to get the world talking about the rights and wrongs of Africa's cultural heritage being held far from home in European museums. 

Watch Foreign Correspondent's 'Out Of Africa' on YouTube or iview.


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