Few people remember the historical significance of the large fence made of Brazilian red burnt bricks on Broad Street in Odan, Lagos Island. A historical monument sits behind a large fence, near the Pathology Department of the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital. The vast wall, shielding a massive space of no less than two hectares, had perhaps hidden the historical and memorial significance of the wall and the area.
Before 1972, few people would pass that place with so much joy. Not even the fact that it lay next to the old Federal Ministry of Justice and the Pathology Department of the General Hospital, Lagos Island. The place is the defunct dreaded Broad Street Prison. Herbert Macaulay, Obafemi Awolowo, and Michael Imoudu, among other well-known Nigerian nationalists and anti-colonial campaigners, experienced imprisonment in the defunct dreaded Broad Street Prison.
Investigations by Feferity online entertainment journal revealed that the Broad Street Prison was established after Britain made Lagos a Colony in 1861. They constructed the first prison in 1882 using mud walls and grass thatch, but opponents of the colonial government quickly destroyed it.
Theo Lawson, the architect of Freedom Park, stated that those against British colonialism in Lagos continuously burned down the park. In response, the colonial government imported bricks from England to reconstruct the prison in 1885.
For thirty-odd years, that was between 1979 and 1999, the Federal authorities did not know what to do with the place. Normally, the hawks close to the corridors of power spiraled around the vacated land, then considered as prime property, but for whatever reasons, nothing could be done there. At a point, the Federal Government was said to have partitioned the land into four, and allocated them to four developers, with each to construct offices and residential accommodations on them. But for reasons best known to them, none still could do anything. Thus, the place was empty from 1972 when the prison was shut down till 1999 when Architect Theo Abiodun Lawson led a team of twenty architects to think and talk about how the Government of Lagos state could celebrate the millennium anniversary with a legacy project worthy of presentation to the rest of the world.
Their talks zeroed in on the abandoned and then fast-dilapidated Broad Street prison Yard. All shades of miscreant have taken over the place and the huge fence already coming down in some areas. They inspected the ground did a compilation of all the available proposals and presented it to the Lagos State Government, under the governorship of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, now the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The government of the time liked the idea, but somehow could not do much. But sometimes in 2008/09, providence smiled on the project as a mere mentioning of it to Governor Raji Fashola earned the team of Architects an i’s meeting. And in two weeks, approval was given. The idea now changed from celebrating the millennium to celebrating Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary in 2010.
The Park was constructed to preserve the history and cultural heritage of Nigerians. Monuments in the park reveal the Lagos colonial heritage and history of Her Majesty’s Broad Street prisons. It was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary independence celebration in October 2010. The Park serves as a National Memorial, a Historical landmark, a Cultural site, Arts and Recreation center.
It was learned that the original walls of the prison were preserved and serve as the perimeter fence of the park
Once the State gave approval to revive the disused Prison into a Green Park, Architect Lawson, and his team moved in and started recovering all that could be recovered among the huge debris that had become the entire area. They found the original prison yard design and quickly transformed it into Freedom Park, a modern park that symbolises freedom. Something akin to an oasis in the over-congested Lagos Island community.
Architect Lawson envisions Freedom Park as a memorial and leisure park in downtown Lagos, Nigeria. It was once Her Majesty’s Broad Street Prison. Architect Theo Lawson designed it as a speculative project under the CIA-Lagos (formerly the Creative Intelligence Agency and now the Cultural Intellectual Association) in 1999.
Standing on that two hectares of land before it was dismantled in 1972 was the Broad Street Prison. The most notorious, fearful prison in the country. Overlooking the Prison Yard was the old Federal Ministry of Justice, and close by the Federal Printing Press and other offices. Easily, anyone on the last floor of the Federal Ministry of Justice would have a clear view of all the happenings within the confines of the Prison. This perhaps led to the insinuation that the Broad Street Prison was not built as a correctional center at the time. It was conspicuously clear that it was meant to torture inmates mentally and expose them to all manners of shame and ridicule.
Architect Abiodun Lawson from Total Consults has creatively redesigned the abandoned Prison yard, turning it into a joyful place that brings people together. The Reception area, a dreaded area of old, is now a most welcoming area, where a mini museum is kept. While all the Cell Blocks are artistically retained.
The female cell has now been artistically re-designed. It is now a beautiful and homely section for children and kids to enjoy light music and play catch fun.
Two large fishponds are next to the bathing area of the old Prison yard, adding an aquatic atmosphere to the Park. One pond breeds a special golden brown fish, while the other breeds tilapia fish. These fish, Feferity gathered are sold to visitors at a very cheap rate. A visitor only needs to rent a hook and pick up anyone in the pond. Either big or small, it goes for a flat token.
The fishponds create a watery atmosphere and also preserve the historical bathing area for prisoners. All these relics artistically told the eerie life of the inmates then. They horribly exposed the inmates to psychological torture, opprobrium, and all attempts made to break their spirits. A skeletal effigy at the ramp that is now the Block Cell, where the late Pa Obafemi Awolowo and his twenty-seven lieutenants were kept, depicts this all. The effigy made of cast iron depicts the inmate in a chained-down position. The face rumpled with abject pain as if crying for his life, his freedom, which sadly never came till he breathed his last.
The Broad Street prison had been home to several golden names in Nigeria’s history. Sir Hubert Macauley, Pa Obafemi Awolowo, his twenty-seven lieutenants, and particularly, one Mrs Esther.
Reading the story of Mrs Esther Johnson was pathetic and brought to the fore the evil shenanigans of the colonialists. Mrs Johnson was said to have lent her husband the sum of four hundred pounds sterling sometime in 1950. The man had claimed he wanted to use the money for a business transaction in England. But he went back to England to live a large life, enjoying himself, and marrying another lady. Esther got wind of her hubby’s escapades and became livid, totally uncontrollable. When the man came back with empty hands and was trying to cook up stories, the woman conspired and eliminated him. She was arrested, charged and convicted. She got a life sentence. But was eventually released in 1961, after serving nine years in the most dreaded Prison Yard in Nigeria.
Like in all apartheid enclaves, which providence did not allow the British to turn Nigeria into, the Northern end of the park was where the Block A cell meant for the Europeans was. But curiously, it was never occupied till the whole place was dismantled in 1979. Today, standing on that end, representing the Block A cell is an office block. That is where the Nobel Laurette, Professor Akinwunmi Oluwole Soyinka, has his office.
The park, which is now a serene abode for individuals, visitors’ collective contemplation and interaction, is open to the public every day. Today, Freedom Park has become a venue for diverse social events and recreational entertainment.
Today, both the British Council and Lagos State Government have organised several Black Arts Festivals inside the new Freedom Park. Prof. Wole Soyinka has also organised a Black Heritage Festival inside the Park. More recently, between October 9 and 15 October 2023, the Park hosted the Felabration celebrations, with the major theme ‘Questions Jam Answer’. It was a huge event where a lot of activities, including boxing matches, took place.
All these artistic and cultural events project a message of love and art. The old feelings of chains, manacles, working tools, and hangman’s noose are now all part of the dismantled past, only the relics are kept in the Museum where the Reception was, during their harrowing days in the Prison enclave. The future now is a Park where freedom is guaranteed, where you run, to escape the mad congestion within the city.
The Museum is filled with all manners of relics of a colonial-era Prison Yard. There were recovered chains and manacled. There were hoes and other working tools. There were the old hanger and noose, all now preserved. But as Arch. Lawson puts it ‘more are still interred under the ground, all over here. This is because we did not have enough time to properly evacuate all the materials. We couldn’t do much of the archaeological evacuation before we started construction because of the shortage of time. We had eighteen months only to deliver the project’
He continued: “This is a hallowed ground. Because under here, what we have are memorial, cultural, and historical materials. And we hope to still do more to keep them for history.”
Behold, from the anguish of the past, now emerges an ‘oasis’ as the unassuming Arc. Theo Abiodun Lawson puts it.
Story by Afolayan Adebiyi
© Feferity Media Group, November 2023
Photo credits / Freedom Park Management and WikiMedia