France returns historic sword to Senegal

El Hadj Oumar Tall’s sword, nineteenth century. Photo: Anne-Sylvaine Marre-Noël. © Paris – Musée de l'Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

As part of its promise to restitute artefacts of cultural importance to its former West African colonies, France has returned a sword to Senegal that once belonged to West African political and religious leader al-Hajj Omar Saidou Tall. France’s Prime Minister Édouard Philippe handed the sword back to Senegal’s President Macky Sall during a ceremony in Dakar, attended by the country’s leading cultural practitioners as well as the descendants of Tall. Philippe highlighted the significance of the gesture stating, ‘This sword symbolises an important episode in the history of Senegal and its neighbouring countries. It also symbolises friendship, respect, [and] the mutual admiration that unites our two peoples today.’

The move comes after a year the release of a controversial state-commissioned report by academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy (number 6 on this year’s Power 100 list) advocating the systematic restitution of cultural artefacts acquired in dubious circumstances during the colonial era (of which there are reported to be at least 90,000). President Emmanuel Macron was quick to react, agreeing to return 26 art objects to Benin and to make restitution one of his priorities over the next five years. Almost a year later, Benin is yet to receive these objects.

With state progress seemingly lagging, there are other parties beginning to emerge as key figures in this effort. The Open Society Foundations, a network of philanthropic foundations founded by investor George Soros, recently announced that it will put forward $15m to aid the return of African artefacts taken by Western nations during the colonial period. 

19 November 2019