Several African activists want stolen African artefacts housed in French museums returned to their countries of origin. But France sees things a bit differently.
He came to liberate Africa’s stolen artwork from a French museum, but now Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza finds himself in front of a French court facing criminal charges.
The Congolese artist, along with four others, are on trial for ‘attempted theft’ after removing a 19th-century funeral pole from a Paris museum in order to highlight colonial-era plundering of African heritage.
Diyabanza’s accomplices are part of a pan-African movement known as Unity, Dignity and Courage. They filmed their daring protest and said they wanted to “recover what belongs to us...Thieves are not asked for permission to recover what has been stolen. These goods were stolen from us during colonisation.”
The object in question is the Chadian funerary post which the activists argued was originally stolen from Africa by French colonisers.
Diyabanza was stopped by museum guards earlier this year, and was then later arrested by police. In the video posted online by the group of activists, Diyabanza names African works held by European museums - who are making millions from visitor fees - that are in essence depriving impoverished African countries both of their heritage and potential tourism income.
France's approach to theft constitutes “an insult”, said Diyabanza, adding that “It is incredible that it is the liar and the thief who decides when and how he will return the works! We are in the recovery of what is ours, not in supplication. We are fully entitled to recover our heritage.”
“We want to erase the humiliation of colonisation, barbarism, by acts of dignity and courage,” said Diyabanza.
Debates around racism in France
The debates surrounding France's colonial past have been reignited in recent months, inspired by protests against racial injustice in the US. The murder in America of George Floyd by a white police officer resulted in widespread protests that continue to this day.
In France, there has also been a debate over whether the country should remove colonial-era statues that glorify figures that have perpetrated great suffering in colonial French territories. French President Emmanual Macron has explicitly ruled out such an option.
If charged with theft, Diyabanza and his fellow activists risk up to 10 years in jail and a fine of $176,000.
Diyabanza and other fellow activists have also called for a “crusade against the CFA Franc” and “driving out the French army for a free Mali.”
There are 14 African countries that are using the franc of the French Colonies of Africa (CFA) currency which has been described as controversial and a colonial-era holdover.
The currency was initially established in 1945 by France and requires all the countries to place 50 percent of their foreign currency reserves in France.
The French presence in Mali has also increasingly become controversial, with many demanding that French troops leave the country.
After several years of dragging its feet, France has so far agreed to return 26 items to Benin by 2021.