The ‘killing’ of Liberty Stadium, once one of the best stadia in the world
I anchor a new sports programme on Africa’s largest television network, the NTA, with a conservative domestic viewership of some 60 million Nigerians in all corners of the country. The live programme, The Sports Parliament, has been running for 10 weeks.
This past week the topic of conversation and examination for the seven parliamentarians in session on the show was of sports facilities and infrastructure in Nigeria, with particular focus on the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, a sprawling sports complex, and once a monument for an authentic sports development and sports engagement programme in Nigeria that has now gone bad.
Today, the stadium is wasting in dereliction, lying idle and decaying in a sea of humongous opportunities and possibilities. During the programme, the conversation on the National Stadium in Lagos kept reminding me of another even bigger sports infrastructural disaster, one that must also be brought to public attention so that history will document the facts of the incalculable damage done to a national heritage, a collection of sports edifices destroyed through the deliberate acts of incompetency and misdeed by a few greedy sports administrators in power at the time, and well known to Nigerians.
They have retired now from the service, are ‘enjoying’ the spoils of their actions, and have left the rest of the country to carry the burdens and bear the consequences of their ignoble acts.
There are other such similar stories of wasting and mostly idle facilities around the country that also must be told. But this here is the story of the greatest edifice yet in our country’s history that was destroyed before our very eyes and is now left to rot in the dungeon of history.
I paid my first visit to the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, as a student of The Polytechnic Ibadan when I went to watch the finals of the Nigerian Challenge Cup (the FA Cup) played in that wonderful sports edifice between Bendel Insurance FC of Benin and Mighty Jets FC of Jos. That was eons ago in 1971.
How time flies.
I was a teenager straight out of a ‘bush’ closet in the hinterland of Nigeria, from the serene, beautiful, cool, tin mining city of Jos high up in a bowl on the plateau some 2000 feet above sea level.
It was a huge culture shock to be thrown from that background into the middle of a developed, heavily populated, most politically active environment of Ibadan, the largest city in West Africa then, and capital of one of the most culturally advanced, sophisticated and educated Black tribes on earth – the Yoruba.
I was fascinated by the city – the sprawling University of Ibadan, the Cocoa House skyscraper, the wide boulevard on Queen Elizabeth Road, the University Teaching hospital and Liberty Stadium! All of these were built and remained functional since around the period of Nigeria’s Independence in 1960. Naturally, it was the stadium that held the greatest fascination for me.
On that memorable evening in 1971, I had the opportunity of my first visit to the stadium. The stadium had a massive reputation at that time, particularly following the world boxing title fight between Nigeria’s Dick Tiger and America’s Gene Fulmer in July 1963 transmitted by Africa’s first television station around the world from Ibadan, the first city in Africa to set up a television station. Nigeria’s Dick Tiger fought and won that fight to become the world’s welterweight champion.
That was the stadium to host the first FA Cup final outside Lagos. The match itself was moved to Ibadan from Lagos, following the controversy generated by the first match at the King George V Stadium (Onikan Stadium) in Lagos. The match had ended abruptly in confusion with the last kick of the ball in that match taken by late Samuel Garba Okoye. As he struck it, the ball and the long blast of the whistle ‘sailed’ simultaneously together into the Bendel Insurance goal. Was it the signal of a goal? Or was it the signal of the end of the match?
In the ensuing mayhem no one was sure what the decision of the referee was. The crowd incursion that followed the final whistle did not help matters.
The result of that match was decided later that evening in the NFA boardroom. The goal was awarded Mighty Jets of Jos, making the final scores 2 – 2. A replay was ordered but this time the match would be played in the more secure, better stadium and immaculate turf of the world class Liberty Stadium in Ibadan.
That’s how I had my first opportunity to watch an FA Cup final as well as see and experience Liberty Stadium. Liberty Stadium had a capacity of 25,000. It was an all-seater stadium with an underground entrance leading right into the main playing pitch, an architectural wonder at the time and still considered something special even today in the world of stadia design.
Liberty Stadium, with its first class drainage and watering systems, immaculate lush, flat, green Bermuda grass turf, was way ahead of its time even in 1971.
The turf and its daily maintenance regimen were a major tourist attraction. It was not uncommon to see hundreds of students from schools from all over Western Nigeria at the stadium early in the mornings on excursion to watch the daily synchronized sprinkler system of watering, as well as the grass mowing techniques of cutting patterns on the field surface, all coordinated by a highly UK-trained staff of pioneer professional stadium managers and groundsmen, led by late Chief Ogunyemi. This team, under Ogunyemi, became the bedrock of stadium management and groundsmanship in Nigeria.
In the mid-1990s, the Federal Government took over the ownership of Liberty Stadium in preparation for bidding and probably hosting Nigeria ‘99, the FIFA World Youth football championship.
An Israeli company was contracted to do the renovation and expansion work in the stadium. The work took a few years, but one year into the renovation work, the head engineer of the project, lamented to us in a private chat at the stadium at the time that what they met underground the Liberty Stadium field was way ahead of anything they had ever handled even in Europe. They were absolutely stunned at the sophisticated drainage and watering system in place, and that there was no need to have excavated anything and replaced it with an untested underground watering system called Cell system that they had been contracted to do. Israel, he confessed, did not even have such a system!
Prophetically the entire work was a disaster. The damage was irreparable. Liberty Stadium that used to be the hub of social and sports activity in the whole of Western Nigeria, ‘died’!
No decent sports event, of national or international dimension, has taken place in that venue again since then. The legacy built by the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and left behind to develop and promote the best culture of sports in Nigeria was permanently destroyed by greedy and, probably, ignorant sports administrators in the NSC/Federal Ministry of Sports of that era.
That edifice is now a shadow, a colossal national disgrace, a monumental disaster, a psychological depressant, a permanent eyesore, a skeleton in the sun, a daily reminder of how a few Nigerians have raped our country and destroyed our heritage.