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CULTURE-NIGER: Archaeological Treasures May Soon Become a Thing of the Past

Ousseini Issa

NIAMEY, Feb 9 2005 (IPS) - There’s no doubting that authorities in Niger have a host of problems to grapple with. United Nations estimates put the number of people living beneath the poverty line in this country in the region of 60 percent – while life expectancy stands at about 46 years.

But, as pressing as the need to improve living standards is, some fear it is preventing government from tackling another important matter: the looting of archaeological treasures.

“The country’s authorities are confronted daily with many other development problems such as basic education and public health which prevent them from getting too involved with the protection of art objects,” says a sociologist in Niger who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The threat which archaeological theft poses to Niger’s heritage was thrown into sharp relief last month, when customs officials at Roissy Airport in Paris intercepted the illegal shipment of about 850 artifacts from Niger.

French officials have promised to return the items, which include rare dinosaur bone specimens, as soon as they have been assessed.

An additional 5,620 archaeological artifacts are also awaiting their return to Niger from France. These objects – prehistoric arrowheads and carved stone pieces, amongst others – were seized from a Malian trafficker at a Paris airport in March 2004. Officials in Niger say efforts are also underway to ensure a local trial for the accused.

“The case is being investigated in France and the objects will certainly be returned to Niger. At the national level here, Niger’s government filed a complaint with the criminal investigation unit to extradite the trafficker to Niger to be prosecuted,” says Ali Bida, the official in charge of museums and the preservation of Niger’s heritage.

A law passed in June 1997 imposed fines of up to 16,000 dollars, and prison terms from one month to two years, for those who engage in theft of artifacts and related offences. However, authorities lack the means to enforce these penalties.

“This inability is a result of the technical services’ lack of material and human resources in relation to how vast this country is. Niger covers an expanse of 1,267,000 square kilometres,” says Bida.

Boube Adamou, an archaeologist with the Niamey-based Institute of Social Science Research, agrees.

“Every known archaeological site is at risk of being looted. In Boura, for example, out of the hundreds of sites I was able to inspect, only one is properly protected,” he told IPS.

The village of Boura, located about 200 kilometres west of the capital, is famous for its important archaeological sites. Two well-known terracotta statues called ‘The Horsemen of Boura’ were discovered in 1985 at one of these sites, which is thought to have been inhabited between 1300 and 200 B.C.

Experts say the statues are archaeologically important because they have, amongst other things, thrown new light on the way in which the African continent is thought to have become populated. The monetary value of the larger of the two figures is put at about 120,000 dollars.

Even when police do manage to catch art thieves, the results of these investigations may be less than satisfactory. Take the case in which a haul of artifacts was intercepted about seven years ago, at the airport in Niamey.

“Twenty-five statuettes with a value of more than 4.5 million CFA francs (about 9,000 dollars) were seized from an individual in 1998 at Niamey airport,” Mamdou Kelessi, the curator at the National Museum of Niamey, told IPS.

“Nevertheless, these statuettes mysteriously and unfortunately disappeared. As for the individual, he was let go after only a few months in prison,” Kelessi added. “The failure to respect the law penalizes all sectors in Niger. That has created a culture of impunity in the country.”

For Adamou, poverty and ignorance pose the greatest threats to safeguarding Niger’s archaeological heritage.

“It is the rural people living near the sites who steal artefacts and sell them. Their clients are art dealers, or sometimes tourists who are passing through,” he says.

Lawan Amadou Arafat, a dealer who operates from a Niamey hotel, confirms Amadou’s claims – apparently with little fear that his statements could land him in hot water with authorities.

“We have suppliers (of artefacts) in different parts of the country,” he notes. “When they find these objects, they bring them to Niamey to offer them to us. Often, we give them orders for specific items.”

Adamou says profits from the sale of artefacts have increased dramatically in recent years. While looters were able to earn between five cents and 1.5 dollars for their discoveries during the 1990s, prices now vary between 70 and 400 dollars. Elsewhere in the region, artefacts can command more than 1,000 dollars.

These increases have been matched by growing sophistication on the part of thieves.

“To begin with, rural communities had no knowledge of which objects were of greater importance. Over time, however, they have gradually become aware that people who buy the artefacts make a profit from those which are of a certain type – or are older,” says Adamou.

In the face of threats to Niger’s heritage, archaeologists are trying to educate communities about the importance of safeguarding artefacts to educate children about their country’s history – and to maintain the tourist trade.

Efforts are also being made to raise awareness amongst law enforcement officials.

“We have organised several sessions to educate the defence and security forces…about the traffic in cultural objects,” says Bida. “Several sessions were held between 1996 and 2003 on the importance of archaeological finds and how to identify them."

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