General News of Sunday, 13 May 2001
Source: The Observer
My son, Kofi, was at the Accra Sports Stadium, watching his team, Kumase Asante Kotoko, play Accra Hearts of Oak, when a stampede occurred and 123 people were trampled to death.
As reports of the worst disaster ever to hit Ghana began to flood the internet on Wednesday evening, I phoned home, knowing he would have gone to watch the match. You cannot be a Ghanaian football fan and miss a match between Kotoko and Hearts.
Kofi was safely in bed when I called. But his mother had had some very anxious moments.
Kofi's luck was that he had not sat, as usual, with Kotoko supporters, who were most numerous in the stand where the stampede occurred a few minutes before the end of the game. With Asante Kotoko trailing 2-1, its fans began hurling chairs and bottles. Police responded by firing tear gas which started a panic.
Kofi had sat in the stand opposite. 'I think the men supposed to man the gates had come into the stands and were enjoying the match so much they forgot their duties,' Kofi told me. 'The gates are supposed to be thrown open 15 minutes before the end of every match. But five minutes to full time, the gates were still closed.
'The police fired tear gas into the section of the crowd from where missiles were being thrown on to the pitch. Everyone there panicked and rushed downstairs for the gates. With the gates closed, they had nowhere to go. As more people pressedtowards the closed gates, while some massed on the stairs, those closest to the gates and railings got crushed. Many died of suffocation and broken ribs.'
President John Kufuor has ordered an inquiry into the causes of the disaster to report back in a month. On Friday at a memorial service for the victims he renewed his appeal for calm.
But in the teeming and poor Muslim suburb of Nima, home to many of the victims, angry youths attacked a police station, blocked roads and set fire to kiosks and tyres.
Scores of armed soldiers and around a dozen armoured police and military vehicles took up positions on the main access roads to Nima. A military helicopter circled the scene until a tense calm was restored late in the evening.
Neither Ghana nor the other African countries to have had football disasters recently (South Africa, 43 dead on 11 April; Democratic Republic of Congo, 9 dead on 30 April) have far to look for the causes.
In many African countries, sports officials print more tickets than there is room for spectators, and pocket the excess money. The public are left to suffer the consequences of the ensuing overcrowding.
Stadiums, dating from colonial times or built in the Sixties to celebrate independence, are now archaic. They were built more with an eye on preventing people from being able to get in to watch matches free of charge, than on providing an easy way to get out in times of trouble.
In Accra, wire barriers between the stands and the field prevented fleeing fans from spilling on to the grass. Often stadiums have no one managing crowds; the police, who tend to be poorly trained in crowd control, react with excessive force. Firing tear gas has become common practice to quell rioters in many African countries, including Nigeria, where the police routinely use whips to disperse crowds.
Every African state has inherited a semi-military police force whose understanding of crowd control is implied on the nickname that has gained currency among the Nigerian police: 'Kill and go'.
Yet these shortcomings are hidden from those who can change them, because every stadium is provided with a well-appointed 'VIP' enclosure. The media are also usually well catered for.
Last week's carnage took place not on the battlefields of war or political activism, but on the sports fields of sleepy Christiansborg, Accra. It is beyond comprehension.