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  • Benin government officials requested the repatriation of these, as a study by French historians pointed out that they were never intended for long-term loan.

    Benin government officials requested the repatriation of these, as a study by French historians pointed out that they were never intended for long-term loan. | Photo: Reuters

Published 16 July 2019

A loan of US$22.5 million from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47 hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site more attractive for visitors.

Benin is expecting the return of 26 artefacts from former colonial power France and the construction of a new museum to hold them at the royal palaces in Benin's southern town of Abomey.

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"These objects are a chance for the survival of the site," local tourism chief Gabin Djimasse told AFP as he toured the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom.

"They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable."

While Benin has welcomed France's decision to return the objects, it has cautioned against doing so too quickly.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants the artworks returned "without delay" but the museum in Abomey is only set to be opened in 2021 and Benin's heritage agency says the country needs time to be "truly ready."

Djimasse said plans for the museum to showcase its history and heritage have already gone through several changes.

Building the physical infrastructure is one part of the challenge. Djimasse said the other major priority is finding people to work as guides and develop the expertise to properly care for and restore the artworks.

"Four years ago the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration," he said. "We looked everywhere for scientists but we couldn't find any - and in the end we sent a history student."

At the School for African Heritage in Benin's capital Porto-Novo a dozen students aged from 23 to 53 are diligently working to be part of the project.

This is the "first batch" of a new training programme aimed at cultivating the various skills required, said their teacher Richard Sagan.

"At a museum there is more than just the curator," said Sagan, a specialist at Benin's heritage agency. "There is a whole chain of trades, from skilled technicians and craftsmen."

Those in the class have already been working in the cultural field and insisted they felt the return of the artworks from France could be a big boost.

"It is a great opportunity for young people," said Messie Boko, a 28-year-old student and guide at a museum in the city. "It is our duty to know how to spread this heritage."

Alain Godonou is called "Mr Benin heritage" by his colleagues at the national agency.

He may have studied in France but he has never gained access to the roughly 5,000 artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey held by the country.

A former UNESCO official, Godonou told AFP preparing for the return of the objects has been a "goal" of his life.

But he insisted that Benin still needs to pass a comprehensive legal framework to protect heritage.

As for the 26 objects - they should just be a start of a broader process.

Godonou said Benin wanted to "reclaim its property rights" over all the artworks held abroad - even if that doesn't mean returning them home permanently. "We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy," he said. "In the end they are part of world heritage."

In November Macron took the decision to return the artworks - including a royal throne - taken by French troops over a century ago and housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

The move has piled pressure on other former colonial powers to hand back looted artefacts to their countries of origin - and fired up dreams of a lifeline in Abomey.

The Kingdom of Dahomey reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and became a major source of slaves for European traders before conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule.

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