In August 1963, two years after independence, the sporting world turned its attention to Nigeria, to the western region of the country, to the city of Ibadan. Liberty Stadium, Nigeria’s first, commissioned only two years previously, was hosting the first world boxing title fight on African soil. That 10 August Middleweight Championship fight, between Nigeria’s own Dick Tiger and the USA’s Gene Fullmer, was attended to the stadium’s 25,000 capacity.
Named in honour of the independence ideal, Liberty Stadium was conceived not only as a sporting arena but also as an advertising showcase for the Western Region, which was positioning itself as a socio-cultural centre in the continent. The high profile of the boxing match ensured an influx of fans and power players in boxing into Ibadan, and media attention on the region.
Sited in the southern area of Ibadan, near the foot of a hill, Liberty Stadium was built with direct labour supervised by the regional Ministry of Works and Transport. It was equipped with facilities for basketball, lawn tennis, hockey, volleyball, and handball, and has an Olympics-size swimming pool.
On the day of its commissioning in September 1960, Chief Mrs Hannah Awolowo presented the legendary player Dejo Fayemi with the Akinwunmi Cup. There was also a football match between West Rovers and Portuguese Guinea, which kicked off in the evening under floodlights. It was the first time that a football match was played under floodlights in the country, and it inspired, by the following year, a competition called the Floodlit Festival Cup, organized by the West Nigerian Football Association and sponsored by the Nigerian Tobacco Company.
In the decades since 1963, the stadium went on to host a series of high-profile football matches. In 1980, when Nigeria hosted and won its first African Cup of Nations, the stadium was a venue for some group games and the semifinal between Egypt and Algeria. In 1997, it hosted the African Junior Athletics Championship, which Nigeria won. In 1999, during the FIFA World Youth Championship, it was the venue of the Group C games, a second round game, and the quarterfinal between Japan and Mexico.
On 12 November 2010, then president Goodluck Jonathan, on a visit to Chief Mrs Awolowo, renamed the stadium as the Obafemi Awolowo Stadium.
The old Liberty Stadium was a major success because of the regional government’s investment in it, and it remains a replicable model for cultural promotion.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.