Mobilizing Stakeholders for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Africa


The protection of cultural heritage is an important issue across the African continent, particularly in view of threats and challenges that include conflict, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property, or the lack of awareness or resources.  From East to West Africa, cultural actors, partners and stakeholders were mobilized to strengthen regional cooperation and joint initiatives for the protection of cultural heritage.  Two regional meetings organized simultaneously by UNESCO in the Republic of Mauritius and in Senegal from 18 to 19 July, 2017 have prompted more action.

On 20 July, 2017, in Balaclava, Republic of Mauritius, Ministers responsible for Culture in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Somalia and South Sudan issued a Joint Statement on Strengthening Synergies for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Eastern Africa and the adjacent Indian Ocean Island States.  It recognizes the need for culture to be included in national plans for development, for improved legislation and policies to protect and promote cultural heritage, and for countries to ratify international normative instruments in the field of cultural heritage protection, inter alia.  

This followed from a regional conference that also included ministerial representatives from Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Seychelles, United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda.  A Survey carried out prior to the conference revealed the low level of legal and policy measures for the protection of cultural heritage and of awareness of existing tools and resources, as well as the need for capacity building and technical assistance in East Africa.  Ms Nadia Arop Dudi, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, South Sudan, noted that “Lack of awareness, and lack of museums to preserve and protect our heritage, are some of the challenges we face in South Sudan. The encouragement and support of UNESCO has led South Sudan to ratify three Culture Conventions, and we are committed to ratifying others.  We need to undertake further measures to prioritize culture, for example strengthen laws and draw up inventories … because culture is peace, development and people.” 

As in other parts of the world, illicit trafficking is on the rise in Africa and joint efforts are needed to combat it.   Prof. Dr. George Abungu, archaeologist and international heritage consultant, provided examples ranging from illicit trafficking of the Vigangos of the Kaya community in Kenya, to the return of the Makondé Mask from the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva to the National Museum of Tanzania. “We are confident that by coming together and joining forces to protect our heritage, we can mutually support our individual and collective efforts in heritage preservation,” said Mr. Abdirahman Dahir Osman, Minister of Education, Culture and Higher Education of the Federal Republic of Somalia. 

Cooperation and information sharing are essential not only for government officials, but for museum professionals, armed forces, police and customs personnel as well.  The conference resulted in 10 recommendations to strengthen cultural heritage protection in the region, which ranged from the need to develop cultural indicators on the impact of culture on sustainable and economic development, to the need for documentation and research, inventories and databases of cultural heritage and cultural property both nationally and regionally. 

Over 70 participants were able to learn more about the UNESCO 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols (1954 and 1999), the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, as well as the network of partners and resources, which provide a solid foundation for safeguarding cultural heritage. The Minister of Arts and Culture, Hon. Mr. Roopun, announced the Government of Mauritius’ intention to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention as well as the two protocols of the UNESCO 1954 Convention, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. Participating Ministers from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan also pledged their intention to ratifying international normative instruments in the field of cultural heritage protection.

In addition to legal instruments, practical tools such as museum inventories, ICOM Red Lists of endangered categories of objects, or the INTERPOL Database of Stolen Works of Art were highlighted.  Experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT), the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the African World Heritage Fund (AWHF), and the Centre for Heritage Development in Africa (CHDA) were among the UNESCO partner organizations participating in the conference and sharing their expertise and resources.  

The event was hosted by the Government of Mauritius Ministry of Arts and Culture in collaboration with the Mauritius National Commission for UNESCO, and received generous financial support from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

At the same time, practical and participatory work was taking place along the same heritage protection lines, but in West Africa.  In Dakar, Senegal, UNESCO convened a regional working group focused on illicit trafficking in cultural property in the Sahel region.  From 18 to 19 July, 2017, with the aim of mobilizing joint action, Directors of Heritage and Museums from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal joined experts from ICOM, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Office for West Africa (UNOWAS) to prioritize issues and strengthen cooperation.  As actors involved in the implementation of the integrated strategy of the UN for the Sahel, the participants worked to draw up a sub-regional map on illicit trafficking in cultural property including actors, spaces, traffic routes and priority areas for action.

For more information, read the final following documents from the Mauritius conference: