There are very few things which unite the Ghanaian people like football. There is a visceral, all-encompassing passion when it comes to the beautiful game – not only in Ghana, but worldwide. However, with such a game which has played host to numerous moments of unspeakable joy and celebration, there have also been moments which have encroached upon the very darkest parts of the human condition. Racism. Abuse. And most of all, death. Death found its way to Hillsborough and Heysel in the late 80s. And on the 9th of May 2001, death found its way to the 40000 all-seater Accra Sports Stadium (aka Ohene Djan Stadium). This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Accra Sports Stadium disaster on ‘Black Wednesday‘ which claimed the lives of 127 supporters.
Speak to any football fan and they will tell you that there are certain matches which peak interest unlike most of the others. Liverpool v United. Real Madrid v Barca. In Ghana, when the Accra Hearts of Oak go toe-to-toe with the Asante Kotoko, it’s a very big deal.
In such matches tensions are high as the tribalism and passion of the fans thunders through the atmosphere. You can feel it. You can taste it. And that fateful day in May was the same. Every tackle met with cheers of derision and accomplishment in equal measure. Until one refereeing decision proved to be one bone of discontentment too much for some. Hearts of Oak had scored two late goals to race into a 2-1 lead. This led to fans registering their displeasure by launching missiles onto the pitch – chairs, water bottles, etc.
The police decided to fight fire with fire and in an attempt to disperse the crowd, indiscriminately firing tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbangs into the throngs of people. A recipe for disaster. People in pain and distress now found themselves in a warzone, and everyone made a frantic bid for the exits. Fans couldn’t encroach onto the pitch because of the 2-meter high wire fences which were adorned with barbed wire – similar fences which had been outlawed in Europe post-Hillsborough.
So the fans made mad dashes down the six narrow stairways which led to the exits. The bottleneck effect was brutal, fans crushing against each other in panic. Amidst the mayhem and the bedlam, fans trampled over each other, everyone desperate to save their life. In turn, 127 individuals lost theirs. And countless others sustained injuries of various severities.
Locked gates. Narrow exits. It took too long to relieve the crush. Chests prevented from expanding. Those who had fallen did not have space to get back up. People had been trampled upon, piled up against each other. When all was said-and-done, the battle list read painfully. 117 died from traumatic asphyxia – having their chests crushed inward resulting in suffocation. 10 more died from stampede trauma. 148 children of the deceased are being catered for by a Stadium Disaster Fund.
Black Wednesday was a logistical catastrophe of errors on an unbelievable scale. Aggressive police were too hack-handed in their attempts at crowd control. There were inadequate numbers of safety staff, inadequate access for emergency services. The stadium originally built in the 1960s was not fit-for-purpose for the new millennium – a poorly-maintained concrete dinosaur which simply could not cope with the worst that sport can have to offer. 37 Military Hospital was unable to house all of the dead – and so instead of the 106 surplus bodies being shifted to other mortuaries, they were kept on the compound in inappropriate temperatures; already in a state of decomposition by the time collections began for burials.
The Accra Sports Stadium disaster on Black Wednesday still stands as the deadliest stadium disaster in all African history. It’s very ironic that the 15th anniversary comes just a couple of weeks after the new Hillsborough inquiry ended – just 8 less people died on Black Wednesday than Hillsborough and Heysel combined. Yes, an official Ghanaian commission blamed police on duty for inciting the stampede through criminal negligence. But unlike Hillsborough, there is no ongoing inquest, no active fight for justice. Even today, 15 years on, and despite renovation in 2007, the Accra Sports Stadium still falls short in terms of structural safety. Most of the recommendations from the government-appointed commission’s report following the disaster have been ignored.
But for a country which remains so football-mad, we need to do more to safeguard future sporting fans. The Ghanaian government needs to learn lessons from the West, which has made great strides in learning from their past disasters to ensure there is no room for repeat. The 127 need to be remembered – a safer, more fit-for-purpose sporting environment would be a fitting legacy. For nobody should leave home to go to a football match, cheering on their favourite team, and never come back home.
“As I made my way towards the staircase, I froze,” reported Accra sports journalist Yaw Ampofo-Ankrah in the aftermath of Black Wednesday. “I saw something I will never forget for the rest of my life…the most appaling look of fear and hopelessness was written across the faces of dying innocent young men. They were dying and ther was nothing anybody could do to save them.” We have the means, the will, and the lessons in our nation’s chapter to learn from the disaster and ensure that there is hope for the future. That there will not be another one of Ghana’s sons or daughters in such a predicament ever again. We can save them now. For as the inscription on the memorial bronze statue outside the stadium reads, ‘[We are our] brother’s keeper’.
By Dr Jermaine Bamfo (@Dr_Jabz27)