Africa

How Nigeria turned Her Majesty's prison into a place of pleasure

Freedom Park (July 2014)

A colonial-era prison in Nigeria's main city, Lagos, has turned into a leisure and arts centre representing freedom, writes the BBC's Will Ross.

A major musical highlight in Lagos is the monthly Afropolitan Vibes show at Freedom Park.

It is a chance for lovers of live music - no artificial, auto-tuned voices here - to blow off steam with the option of a calabash of fresh palm wine.

But some of the revellers may not realise the dance floor has history. It is the exact spot where for many years female prisoners were incarcerated in what was then Broad Street Prison.

The clue is in the thick white wall surrounding the compound.

Image caption The prison was built in 1882 before being revamped

This was the first of Her Majesty's Prisons to be established after the British navy had captured the town and set up Lagos Colony in 1861.

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.

Flourishing trade

"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.

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Image caption The prison was often set on fire by anti-colonial forces so bricks were imported at great expense to rebuild it

The Colonial report for 1898 tells us that 676 males, 26 females, and 11 juveniles were imprisoned at Broad Street during the year.

They would have been arrested by the Hausa force - 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.

At the time, the colonial powers were keen to protect the flourishing trade between Britain and Lagos and expand into the interior.

Records from 1897 show that goods valued at precisely £892,863 came into Lagos port - the top two commodities being cotton goods followed by wines and spirits.

Exports totalled £882,339 - a large chunk of which were palm kernels for lubricating Britain's industrial machines and rubber.

Over the next few decades the prison housed several notable thorns in the side of the British colonialists including the writer and political activist Herbert Macaulay and Pa Michael Imoudu, a trade unionist who led strikes in the 1940s and whose release prompted a massive anti-colonial rally. The politician Obafemi Awolowo was also imprisoned in the 1960s.

'Northern executioner'

In one corner of the prison is where condemned prisoners were executed by hanging.

"It was very shocking indeed - to watch this guy 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.

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Image caption The park is one of the few green spaces in the congested city

"The guy who carried out the executions had to be brought from northern Nigeria. He has to be somebody who knows nobody at all," said Mr 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 was dead.

Some of the last prisoners to be detained here were separatists during Nigeria's post-independence civil war.

Broad Street Prison was pulled down in 1976 and Mr Duncan remembers it becoming "a dumping ground and a place where highway robbers were able to enjoy themselves".

'Macabre'

In the 1990s, Mr Lawson had joined the CIA - not spying for the Americans but working with other professionals in the Creative Intelligence Agency to come up with ideas for the new millennium to improve Lagos.

Thanks to political upheavals the prison site had not become yet another high rise office block.

"Various developers were allocated the site and even brought in their equipment but you know the history of Nigeria: coup after coup and the contracts were ripped up," says Mr Lawson.

Some members of the CIA focused on plans to reduce the legendary traffic jams or go slows - Mr Lawson wanted to give the congested city some breathing space.

He helped design a park which would be a home to the Arts and a mirror for visitors to contemplate the city's history.

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Image caption People from across the social spectrum visit the historic site
Image caption Graphic designer Ayodeji likes to work in one of the old cells as he says it is a place of solace

"We didn't want to rebuild a prison. We wanted to create a space that was a park where people could enjoy with reference to the past without it being macabre," he says.

"So, where the kitchen used to be, we put the food court. Where the records office was, we put a museum to tell the story and where the gallows were we put a stage."

In the centre of Freedom 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).

'Joyful narrative'

Even today the cells are not empty as some people use them as a cramped place to work.

"I find solace here to rest and focus on work. It' a very iconic place," says graphic designer Ayodeji as he looks up from his laptop.

"It's pretty difficult to position a table and chair in it but because of what it represents I find comfort in it," he says as people wander through the park taking in the latest photo exhibition.

"I think that the fact that the present band stand or stage is where the gallows used to be is a perfect example of the palimpsest that is the Freedom Park," says businessman and blogger Tunji Lardner.

"Lagosians have inscribed a new joyful narrative on this colonial parchment, and its stories can only grow with time," he says.

As the musicians keep belting out the music during, the organiser of the Afropolitan Vibes event says it is a special place to perform.

"It used to be a place of sorrow and with music we've been able to transform it into a place of happiness," says musician Ade Bantu.

"All kinds of people mingle, interact and that's the beauty of this space and I hope it stays like this for a very long time," he says as the crowd leaps up and down to the song, "Lagos Jumping."

Who would have thought Her Majesty's Prison would one day be hosting such a party.

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