Activist Mwazulu Diyabanza fined and jailed for removing pillaged African artefacts from European museums

Elizabeth Meade reports on Mwazulu Diyabanza, an activist with a plan.

Elizabeth Meade
16th February 2021
It's now common knowledge that many pieces of art in the British Museum, the Louvre and other large European history museums were not acquired ethically. Many were stolen from other countries, often during the violent processes of colonization, slavery, war and occupation of their lands of origin. Naturally, many nations and cultures want their art and treasures back, and they are not without support from activists worldwide.

Enter 42-year-old Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese activist whose goal is to recover all African art that Europeans have looted and return it to its rightful owners. Calling his method "active diplomacy," Diyabanza has faced many legal consequences for his attempts at artefact repatriation but has not given up. Diyabanza has already visited the Quai Branly museum in Paris, the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art in Marseille, the Louvre and the Afrika Museum at Berg en Dal. He has expressed that he plans to visit the British Museum and locations in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium and the Vatican once lockdown allows them to reopen.

Diyabanza has received a mixed reception. When retrieving a 19th-century funeral post belonging to the Bari people of Chad from the Quai Branly museum, he was held in custody for three days and fined 1000 euros--while both he and the activists working alongside him initially faced up to 10 years in prison alongside fines of 150,000 euros, which were eventually reduced. However, he was let off in court when attempting to remove a spear from the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art. In the case of the Afrika Museum, the judge regarded what he did as a political act despite the prosecutor's desire to convict him for removing a Congolese statue, so he was fined 250 euros, given a suspended sentence and offered a tentative opportunity to discuss the matter with museum authorities.

Alongside his work in returning pillaged artefacts, Diyabanza heads a pan-Africanist group called Yanka Nku and the Multicultural Front Against Pillaging and works to end the use of the CFA franc in Africa. Born in Kinshasa, he claims that his mother's family were Congolese royalty and currently spends most of his time working in France and Togo.

While French President Macron and others have discussed the repatriation of museum artefacts, little has been done in this direction thus far. Most notably, the British Museum continues to display 900 items from the Kingdom of Benin that were pillaged in the late 1890s while the British military burned down the Royal Palace. Diyabanza not only aims to move this process along, but has greater plans for the future as well: “For the moment, we are concentrating on museums. We are optimistic governments will eventually cooperate. Then we will ask people who have objects in private collections to act with goodwill and return the things that have been stolen from us. But, eventually, it’s not just our artefacts but our land and our riches: the minerals, diamonds and gold; the animals, flora and fauna. And reparations – but that is another campaign.”

Featured Image: Andrew Stawarz flickr

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

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