Mwazulu Diyabanza is the man on a mission. He is trying to facilitate the return of thousands of African artifacts from France to various African countries that he says were ‘pillaged’.
Diyabanza a Congolese activist and four others went on trial on theft charges for trying to remove a 19th-century African funeral pole from a Paris museum, as part of a protest campaign against colonial-era plundering. The charges stem from a June incident that Diyabanza streamed on Facebook, in which he dislodged the funeral pole from the Quai Branly Museum, saying it should be returned to Africa. The pole came from a region that crosses current-day Chad and Sudan.
Museum guards stopped them, and police detained the activists. In the video, Diyabanza – born in then-Zaire, once ruled by Belgium – lists works held in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris that came from former colonies in Africa. He accuses European museums of making millions on artworks taken from now-impoverished countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza has staged similar actions in museums in the Netherlands and the southern French city of Marseille in recent months, inspired by global protests against racial injustice and colonial-era wrongs unleashed by George Floyd’s death in the United States in May by the knee-on-neck hold of a white policeman.
In the Paris case, Diyabanza and the other activists have been charged with attempted group theft of a historical object, and if convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison and a 150,000 euros ($175,460) fine, according to his lawyer. But prosecutors on Wednesday asked for fines of €1,000 against Diyabanza and €500 against his accomplices.
It is important to understand the context behind this. France has been involved in Africa for a few hundred years, not to say that other European countries have not been as well. France was involved with everything from slavery, diamond mining, mineral mining, farming and many other exploits. Throughout this time, they took back many treasures from all over Africa.
France also exploited its African colonies during the World Wars, especially the Second World War where hundreds of thousands of African men fought against the Germans in Northern Africa and Europe. This has given France the opportunity to ‘steal’ or ‘pillage’ many thousands of treasures such as paintings, sculptures, ceremonial objects and other items, as Mr Diyabanza says.
“My mother used to tell me that when the Europeans arrived, they pillaged these artifacts, they pillaged our patrimony,” he told Reuters. “We’re in a fight to recover our (cultural) wealth.” A Congolese who has lived in France for 20 years, Diyabanza belongs to a pan-African movement that is pressing France to return those artifacts and make reparations for acts of slavery.
Diyabanza’s case has led to renewed scrutiny of France’s history in a year in which anti-racism protests have forced developed nations to re-examine how they remember their colonial pasts. Diyabanza, who faces a second theft charge for removing an artifact from a Marseille museum and taking it to a police station, considers his actions politically justified. “Who is the real thief in this story? The thief is he who takes something fraudulently. I’m the legitimate inheritor,” he said.
It is important to remember that a huge amount of African cultural heritage is on display in France and around the world especially in European museums. A huge part of Africa’s cultural heritage is on display in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds some 70,000 African objects, with London’s British Museum holding thousands more, French art historian Benedicte Savoy told Reuters in 2018.
That year, Savoy co-authored a report with Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recommending the widespread return of cultural artifacts removed from Africa, identifying 46,000 objects that would qualify at the Quai Branly Museum.
French officials condemned the stunt by Diyabanza, which followed president Emmanuel Macron pledge, shortly after his election in May 2017, to look at the restitution of African cultural treasures. France has since returned a ceremonial sword to Senegal and promised to return 26 dozen works to Benin – including a royal throne – that were seized by French troops in the late 19th century.
An expert report commissioned by Macron in 2018 counted some 90,000 African works in French museums but suggested a “circulation” of some works between museums rather than an outright return, saying not all were pillaged or stolen. So far, France is preparing to give back 26 works of African art, out of some 90,000 works believed held in French museums.
We are yet to see whether Diyabanza will be successful in his attempts to return African works to Africa from France with the world in the way that it is at the moment.