It was not impossible to believe that a prison once stood here. This axis of Broad Street advertised itself as a haven for lost souls. The First Baptist Church of Nigeria is here, so is the Federal Mortuary and a long time ago, the Broad Street Prison (initially Her Majesty’s Prison) was an active correctional facility on the street.
Of the numerous landmarks, the church has been totally rebuilt, the mortuary renovated, and the prison brought down. Its strong reinforced concrete walls have partially given way to Freedom Park, a new building erected by the Lagos State government as a symbol of Nigeria independence.
In the words of the governor, Babatunde Fashola, the new centre is part of “metropolitan regeneration and redevelopment (that) have been critical components of our efforts toward the renewal of Lagos and the revival of social tradition, as well as traditions of an infrastructural nature.”
My visit there today is not by chance. Three gates lead into Freedom Park, an irony, considering there is usually just one entry into a prison. In front of the main gate is a statue of a man breaking loose from his chains. Besides the Baptist Church, surrounding the Park, are the new City Hall, Holy Cross Cathedral, and Western House.
Brace up for a history lesson. The prison was built in the 19th century as part of the colonial government’s methods of repression. Dissidents against colonial rule (read murderers and freedom fighters) were kept in their place on Broad Street.
The prison was functional from 1885 till the 1960s (it was rebuilt with 16,000 pounds worth of concrete imported from England). In its heyday, the prison manifest comprised the likes of Adeyemo Alakija, Herbert Macaulay, Michael Imoudu, and Obafemi Awolowo.
The prison, which held both male and female prisoners, was also home to Esther Johnson. In 1953, Johnson, in her early 20s, had been sentenced to death through execution for murdering her British lover in a rage of passion. The lover, Mark Hall, had run off to get married in England. He established his new bride in a taxi business with 400 pounds that Esther had loaned him. Hall returned to Lagos to gloat. Esther, having none of that, dispatched Hall to the hereafter. After eight years and a month on death row, the Governor General, Nnamdi Azikiwe, freed Ms. Johnson in the year following Nigeria’s independence.
SYMBOLS OF HOPE
Freedom Park spares nothing in emphasising the essence of independence. A bronze mural now stands in the Park bearing the faces of Awolowo, Azikiwe, and Ahmadu Bello.
The Park’s horticulturist, who becomes my de facto tour guide, is happy to inform me that the colour theme for the Park is red and white for a reason. ‘Red’ symbolises the blood shed that brought about the current era of peace, which is represented with ‘white’. Interspersed with both colours is the ‘green’ of the plants that adorn the Park’s floors. Barks of trees as old as the old prison have been retained as part of the ground’s history.
Where once stood prison cells, a prison kitchen, and the administrative quarters, are now symbols of hope and man’s freedom. Awolowo, in his autobiography, ‘My March Through Prison’, admitted to being taken aback by what he saw. The Pagoda Cells represent perfectly the 8×4-foot cells that so scared the late nationalist. The cells now look more like market stalls or office cubicles.
According to my tour guide, this is the concrete representation of the prison. The steel representation is a few feet away; its cubicles are also 8×4. Right under our feet is the natural re-enactment of the prison: flower beds with ridges measuring 8×4.
The Independence Tower that doubles as a fountain now stands at the centre of the Park, where the prison guards formerly kept an eye on the inmates from a watchtower. There is a new watchtower at the top of what is billed to be the Prison Museum. This will house artefacts discovered while clearing the prison grounds and artworks donated by the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, who is himself is not new to the prison experience. My guide points out here that while they were excavating the old prison well on the laureate’s suggestion, they dug up some human bones. He added to my horror when he said it was probably the same in every well in every prison. He was not done yet.
A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
Theatre enthusiasts can stage and watch a performance, and vexed Nigerians have a podium to vent their spleen on the Freedom Park stage. Ironically, the new stage was once the venue for prison executions. No one will shut you up now, he suggested.
The fear of prison is rife amongst Nigerians, but that is part of what the new Freedom Park seeks to dispel. There is as yet no entrance fee and no restriction of movement in the Park but for the museum, where work is still ongoing. Some geese roam free; there are fish in the pond and my guide is only too happy to accept my offer of donating two seven-year old sea turtles.
The Weekend Jamz takes place every Friday night and the barbecue grill -shaped like a steam engine- is good and ready to spurn food for the brave and the free. The bar was already in full swing when I paid my late afternoon visit to Freedom Park, perhaps an unthinkable act when the grounds still housed a correctional facility. An amphitheatre is also available for the service of the public and to recoup maintenance costs, the ground’s space can be rented for events.
An anonymous source said she looked forward to returning to Freedom Park to bask in “the quality of the architecture and see the geese again’ in what she described as ‘a serendipitous experience.”
Freedom Park has no intention of rivalling Disneyland, but what it stands for is worth more than the thrill of a ride on a Ferris wheel.