Prison to Park: A Trip to Freedom Park, (formerly Her Majesty’s Broad Street Prison)

On Thursday, 20th September, 2018 my ‘Tourism’ Community Development Service (CDS) group, embarked a visiting tour to the Freedom park (formerly Her Majesty’s Broad Street Prison), which is located at Broad Street, Lagos island.

Before we arrived at our destination, we passed a couple of historical buildings along broad Street that bears remembrance of the British colonial era. Among them were the famous Cathedral Church of Christ, (responsible for the popular CMS bus stop landmark on the island), St Anna’s courthouse, CMS bookshop, etc.

Cathedral Church of Christ

It’s commendable how these architectural pieces of history have been preserved for several decades until date. In no time, we arrived at our destination; the freedom park 🙂. We finally arrived at the Freedom Park and sorted out our entrance fee at the gate (N500 per person) before we proceeded to meet our tour guide, who treated us to a history of the place.

History of Her Majesty’s Broad Street Prison/Freedom Park

In 1861, the British gunship, Prometheus,threatened the then Oba of Lagos, Oba Dosunmu who acceded and handed over Lagos to the then Queen of England, Victoria, effectively making Lagos Island a colony of the British.
With the annexation and subsequent colonisation of Lagos, and then Nigeria, in 1876, the colonial government passed the ‘prison’s ordnance’ that introduced their own concept of crime and criminal justice to the colony, to enforce order and protect their economic interests.

Because the British criminal justice system allowed for the creation of the penal system, this prompted the design and construction of prisons.
Hence in 1872, eleven years after Lagos island was ceded, the British built Her Majesty’s Prisons – which later came to be known as the ‘Broad Street Prisons‘.

Layout plan of the Prison

The initial prison structure was built in 1882 with mud walls and grass thatch but did not last long as it was an easy target for anti-colonialists.

They kept throwing fire into it and setting it ablaze and so then in 1885 the colonial government imported bricks from England and rebuilt the prison,” says architect Theo Lawson.

What was even more remarkable was the bricks were imported for £16,000 and that year the British spent £700 on education in the colony, so it shows the priority then was on law and order,” says Mr Lawson, who drew up the plans to turn the former prison into Freedom Park.

But it’s notable to state here that this brick fence remains the only non demolished structure of the former prison today, after over a century when the prison was constructed.

The anti-colonialists who destroyed the former fences would later be arrested by the force, who were made up of mostly Hausa speaking natives from the then Northern protectorate. The colonisers deliberately chose military recruits from northern Nigeria in order to have a disconnect between the local population and the personnel tasked with imposing law and order and violently suppressing any resistance to their rule.

In the years leading to Nigeria’s independence, the prison was a maximum security prison where political prisoners, amongst other prisoners were kept. The Broad Street Prisons held some of Nigeria’s foremost activists and nationalists like Sir Herbert Macaulay, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Lateef Jakande
and Michael Imodu who all served time there at one point or the other due to their political beliefs and activism.

Sir Herbert Macaulay
Profiles of unknown prisoners containing crimes committed and duration of their sentences

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was imprisoned here in 1963 while undergoing trials for charges of treasonable felony for purportedly conspiring to overthrow the federal government along with some other members of his Action Group political party. There’s a myth that Chief Awolowo placed a curse on the place, the curse of which was responsible for the site being in a derelict, undeveloped state for decades until its transformation into a park.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

But the most discussed inmate at the Prison till date was a 22 year old Esther Johnson, popularly known back in the 50s as ‘Ada Ocha Ntu’ who murdered her expatriate lover, Mark Hall, in 1953 after she found out he’d used the £400 she loaned him for her business, to marry an English bride while he was on holiday in the UK.
Mark also used ‘change’ of Ada’s money to buy his new bride a car which she would use as a taxi cab. He returned to Nigeria and told Ada what he’d done with her money and a very furious Ada used a pair of scissor to stab Mark. Mark eventually died from injuries sustained from the attack.

Esther Johnson and Mark Hall

She was arrested, tried and, in 1956, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Ada remained on ‘Death row’ in Broad Street Prison until her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
In 1961, on the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, perhaps recognising that her crime was a crime of passion’, Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe pardoned Ada ‘Esther Johnson’ Ntu “in the name of the Queen.” Her story went viral globally and carried even by international tabloids like the NY times and UK’s Telegraph, etc.
Today, on the grounds of the park is a section called ‘Esther’s Revenge’, in remembrance of the infamous female inmate.

An enlarged publication of the New York Times bearing Esther Johnson’s story

In preserving the history of this place for future generations, the Lagos State Government chose to recreate the former space of oppression and colonialism into a memorial park.

Model of the new Freedom park
Transformation of the former Prison ruins into the present day park

In October, 2010 Freedom Park was opened as part of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence celebration. The Park serves as a National Memorial, a Historical landmark, a Cultural site, Arts and Recreation centre.

After the (long) history lesson, we took our tour further round other areas in the park where we were told that the present structures in the park we’re seeing were erected on same spots of notable parts of the then Broad Street Prison.

Where the hanging gallows used to be, is now a stage where notable performances have been carried out

In one corner of the prison is where condemned prisoners were executed by hanging.
It was very shocking indeed – to watch this man being brought in, cloth over his head and then prayers for him,” recalled Kofi Duncan, who worked as a doctor in the prisons in the early 1960s shortly after independence.
The man who carried out the executions had to be brought from northern Nigeria. He has to be somebody who knows nobody at all,” said Dr Duncan.
All he has to do is come into this small room and when they say ‘go’ he pulls and the trap door opens. Brrrrrm bang,” he said, adding that he then witnessed the prisoner’s tremors and after one and a half hours he had to do a medical examination to confirm he/she was dead.

A hanging gallow
Where the kitchen used to be, is now a food court
Where the record’s office used to be is now a museum
The bath area for the Prisoners is now an open fountain area

In the centre of the Park, one cell block has been rebuilt and is a chilling reminder of the conditions. Each cell is just 1.2m x 2.4m (4ft x 8ft). Our guide told us each cell was containing just one inmate, but this increased gradually to about eight per cell when the Prison eventually became overpopulated.

Cell block turned into booths

We went on to wander about the Park’s garden which is filled with several statues, celebrating the several tribes and their tradition in Nigeria. Some other notable art works depict the sad life of a prisoner in broad Street prison such as hanging, slavery revolt, freedom, etc

In the centre of the garden is a statue celebrating the three founding fathers (aka the three wise men) of Nigeria’s independence; Chief Awolowo, Dr Azikiwe and Dr Bello.

There’s also a bust of Nigeria Nobel Laureate, Professor Soyinka in the garden, amongst other art works

We completed the last leg of our tour by visiting the museum which holds several artefacts recovered from the ruins of the 1979 demolition, as shown below

Recreated cell in the museum
Cell window bars

We rounded up the tour, posed for pictures and took our break before our departure at about 2:05pm.

Have you been there before or planning to? We’d love to know what you think in the comment section below. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @20Somethingsteps and subscribe to our email newsletter to get first hand alerts of our new posts.


Nonye 👣

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