The Nelson Mandela Freedom Park in Osogbo, Osun State once held promise for the residents of the state. It was a hub for small business owners who found patronage among the visitors, residents and tourists. However, by 2021, it had become overgrown by weeds, so much so that the World Institute for Peace, in an open letter, had called on Governor Adegboyega Oyetola to act fast in bringing the park back to life.
JOSEPH OLAOLUWA reports about what the park looks like now, and what it used to be like.
Until the advent of the administration of Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola in Osun State in 2011, the space that the Nelson Mandela Freedom Park now occupies in Osogbo, the Osun State capital, was the biggest plank market in the state. It was also a source of worry for the Osogbo residents as hoodlums had transformed it into their haven at night, perpetrating all manner of heinous crimes like rape, robbery, and drug abuse.
To combat this, then Governor Aregbesola decided to demolish the market and erect in its stead a tourism center that would complement the railway park in Osogbo, which already had a guest house. At the center of the park was a garden with adequate sitting corners, planted trees, and flowers that radiated leisure. There were also terracotta heads of past state governors and administrators situated near a fountain that was protected by perimeter fencing.
The park was situated on either side of the railway line, while a gantry (like a ladder) was constructed over the line to help residents enjoy the view. One side of the park had a well-cultured garden, relaxation tents, and bouncy castles, while the other had sitting corners, terracotta heads, and a fountain. The park had two gantries at the entry and end of the road/street where it is located. It also had big parking spaces at the various entrances, which were said to be well-utilized while the park blossomed.
Residents of the state – and visitors alike – greeted the completion of the park, regarded as the state’s version of Trafalgar Square in London, with pomp and pageantry. An aerial picture of the park in 2017 showcased its beauty, while other pictures show how much fun the residents had when the park was launched. The gantry that runs across the rail line was painted in a beautiful green color and was a lovely sight to behold as many people climbed on it daily while visiting the park. The Nelson Mandela Freedom Park, as the Aregbesola administration named it, was used to host an event to mark the end of Aregbesola’s eight years as governor. The Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, was in attendance at the park with several other dignitaries.
The Nigerian Tribune had reported it thus, “The whole Freedom Park is completely lit at night, giving an ambiance of beyond average setting and novel euphoric experience. The park comes with a big hall for restaurants, an events arena and a water fountain called the Atewogbeja Water Fountain which is surrounded with seats for people to sit, relax and enjoy the undiluted beauty of a serene environment. And despite the movement of vehicles and human activities around, the park which is yet to be completed but is already being used by residents, stands aloof in contrast to activities going on around it, forcing anyone inside to slow down and forget the worries outside.”
The joy associated with the park’s launch was short-lived, however, as the glory, beauty, shine and attraction of the centre have disappeared due to what residents describe as its abandonment and neglect. Our reporter paid a visit to the park in February 2022, and discovered a now abandoned tourism centre. At the entrance, there was no security personnel or any other official to attend to our reporter until he decided to stroll into the park, free of charge, after several minutes. Suddenly, an attendant appeared from the blues, requesting a payment of N300 for a ticket, even though N500 was printed on the ticket.
One completed project idling away because of another ongoing project
The current manager of the park, known simply as Mr. Brand by everyone, and who manages the park for its concessionaire, Bristol Family Park, told our reporter that the construction of the Olaiya overhead bridge close by was responsible for the low turnout of residents to the park. A cursory look outside the park walls showed its surroundings littered with waste, and weeds creeping over the walls.
Seeking to explain the desolation at the park, Brand said, “I am the one that manages this place. People are not many today because of this overhead bridge. We are doing a re-opening when the bridge is completed.” He also explained his presence as the lone presence at the park, saying that the other hands attached to him, corps members of the National Youth Scheme Corps (NYSC), were not available on the day to assist him.
On entering the park, it was observed that the chairs were dusty and had not been used for a long time, and the bouncy castle was deflated. At the fountain, the water was not flowing; what was observed was a pool of dirty water that had a foul smell. Likewise, the electric cars were filled with dust and were unusable by fun seekers.
Our reporter’s efforts to get a meal at the park were initially futile. A caterer had to be contacted on the phone to prepare pepper soup for our reporter, who had requested it as he sought to test the readiness and efficiency of the park’s kitchen. From his findings, not much business is being done in that regard, as the park’s kitchen is practically idle.
Business on the low
Also, it was observed that most of the stalls erected at the park were not functional; another pointer that business was on the low. At one stall, our reporter saw a woman in her mid-40s tending to a fire from a charcoal pot. Most of what she referred to as her stall was an open-air ramshackle from where she ran her food catering business.
When our reporter climbed the gantry, he noticed that the pair of lights on the staircase was not working, just as the green paint on the railings had faded completely. Further down the gantry, he found out that the big hall had been neglected after its construction.
Our reporter also discovered a fountain that is no longer in use. He observed that goats had taken over the monument of the brief history of the state’s past military and civilian leaders erected in the park.
Near the monument, it was discovered that the park’s perimeter fencing had been pulled down, allowing goats and other undesirable elements, who have made the park their home, unfettered passage into the park. Some of them hung their clothes on the perimeter fence to dry them out in the sun.
Different ideas about how it could have been better handled
To Funke Kamarudeen, a resident of the area, the state government wasted so much money on the project. She believed that the street could have been converted into an access road that would serve Old Garage and Olaiya Junction, linking them together.
Kamarudeen said, “Its previous state is better than this structure that is currently constructed. Before now, shops were constructed there, but, now, armed robbers can easily start living among residents here. It is not good enough this way. I have been here for 20 years and sometimes, even prostitutes come around here to seek company. If they can find a solution to the abandoned park, they should construct it like a warehouse so that we can all benefit from it. It is not good that it is abandoned. They did not think well when constructing the park. It could have been better converted into a road where tolls can be collected.”
Olayokun Idowu, who served as the community leader of the Togunle community where the park is sited, did well to take our reporter on a historical development of the park, which he derisively termed a wasteland.
Idowu said, “The Nigeria Railway Corporation had the land before the park was constructed. I am unsure if the land was leased, but both bodies had an agreement to create the park. Before then, there were some houses there and a few restaurants (up to three) that were here. Some churches were also situated here. The government destroyed the initial building on the site. Also around that time, there was a sawmill situated on the land that had been there for a long time. My mother was the first person to build a property in Togunle, as we have been here for over 40 years. The sawmill developed some areas and began to use them to work. But when the government came, it declared it wanted to use it for Freedom Park. We know the government is looking for a way to increase the internal revenue, but if you look at the park, you can see it was not well done. It is as if money was just wasted here. But there are other things the government can do to make the park viable. If they truly make this place a market, and this road in front of us leads to Ayetoro, it would have helped. Alternatively, they could use this road here as an alternative route, but everything has been blocked.”
“If the people of Ayetoro take shops here, it will be more viable for the government on a yearly basis. The government has ignored our advice when there are many things we can do to turn this place around. Millions of naira have been sunk into this place,” Idowu concluded.
Death of commerce when traders were sent away
Residents of the Togunle community said that the abandonment of the Freedom Park not only hampered the revenue the state would have made from tourism, but it is also endangering their lives. They said that over time, many residents have abandoned their homes, which have now been occupied by some Fulani traders who engage in the hawking of vegetables like cabbage and carrots.
Idowu recalled that this was not the history of the community as it was once the cynosure of eyes before the park was constructed. He said, “The time when the hotels were here, business was booming. Now that they are doing Freedom Park, it has become a barren land. There is a woman that was selling food (referring to Funke Kamarudeen, who our reporter had met earlier), when many people were living here, she never hawked her food for once. After they sent them away and demolished the initial structures for the park, she began to hawk her food in garages. It is the same sad story for many others. The community never really benefited much from the location of the park here. We told the Ministry of Commerce that nobody can maintain the grass growing in the park. But if they can turn it to a supermarket and open the road, things will do well.”
Authorities keep mum
The immediate past Osun State Commissioner for Commerce, Industry, and Cooperatives, Mr. Ismail Adekunle Jayeoba-Alagbada, refused to explain why the park was neglected and abandoned.
When our reporter contacted him, he said, “I am busy now, I am in a program. Go and talk to the Commissioner for Commerce. I am no longer in the office. I have no comment for now.”
Similarly, the incumbent Commissioner for Commerce, Industry and Cooperatives, Dr. Olanipekun Henry Olabode, refused to speak to our reporter on the project.
The Commissioner for Environment & Sanitation, Oladepo Solagbade, said he was no longer in charge of the park and refused further relations with our correspondent. “Ask the Commissioner for Commerce or the Nigerian Railway Corporation. I am no longer in charge of the park,” he said.
There have been media reports detailing some other abandoned projects in Osun State. An investigation by The ICIR in 2018 revealed that at least five different waste recycling machines were lying dilapidated and unused. One of them, at the Osogbo landfill along Iwo road, cost N15 million but has been grossly underutilized.
All of these are potential business opportunities for small and medium-scale businesses and investors, but they are idling away due to the current situation.