Fifteen Years After Africa’s Deadliest Stadium Disaster, Not Much Has Changed

There were almost as many deaths at Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana on May 9, 2001, as there were in the Hillsborough and Heysel stadium disasters combined.

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Apr 27 2016, 2:44pm

The deadliest stadium disaster in African history occurred on May 9, 2001, at Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana. There were almost as many deaths that day as there were in the Hillsborough and Heysel stadium disasters combined, yet you've likely never heard about it.

Despite an official commission blaming the police on duty for inciting the stampede through criminal negligence and the stadium's structure being conducive to crushes, no official has been held accountable. Unlike with Hillsborough, there is no ongoing inquest or fight for justice. The stadium is hardly any safer, and is still described as a "death trap." The only reminder of Africa's deadliest stadium disaster, which killed 126 people, is a bronze statue outside the grounds with the inscription "I am my brother's keeper."

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On that day, Ghana's two biggest soccer teams, Accra Hearts of Oak Sporting Club and Asante Kotoko, faced off at the stadium located in Ghana's capital. Hearts of Oak and Asante were—and remain—the two biggest clubs in the country, both playing in large stadiums in the country's two biggest cities: Accra and Kumasi, respectively. Tens of thousands of fans filed into Accra Sports Stadium, which was built in 1960 but had been sporadically maintained.

After falling behind, Hearts of Oak scored two late goals to take a 2-1 lead. Asante supporters, perceiving a great injustice against their team, began throwing bottles onto the pitch. The chairs they sat on were old, cheap, plastic bits that could be ripped off the concrete very easily. They threw those, too.

Ghana didn't have the vibrant hooliganism that dogged European soccer, but it did have the occasional outburst, especially during big matches. Anticipating as much, Ghana's National Sports Council (NSC) requested the police provide extra security that night, a relatively standard procedure.

For some reason—a commission later convened to investigate the night called this reasoning "quite obscure"—the police came armed with rubber bullets, tear gas, and what reports refer to as 'thundershots' (which seem to be like flashbangs). Without any form of warning, the police used the thundershots to get the Asante fans to cease the vandalism. By all reports, this worked, and the fans stopped throwing things onto the field.

But the police continued firing into the crowd in the North stands, again without warning. They shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the terraces. The fans fled. They couldn't go onto the field because Accra Sports Stadium then still had two-meter high fences with barbed wire and spikes at the top, the exact kind Europe did away with after Hillsborough. So, with nowhere else to go, fans rushed down the six stairways to the exit gates.

According to the original design, Accra Sports Stadium was supposed to have eight stairways, but only six were built. At only a meter wide each, the stairways had metal railings at the bottom, which created a bottleneck. As fans funneled toward the exit, they crushed against each other in a panic. The original design also called for more robust exits. Instead, there were narrow cages with gates. Again, for some reason, the gates were locked. Fans were trapped.

Fans remained there, bodies piled against one another. People tripped and were trampled, with not enough space to get back up. Some survived by cramming their faces against the railings, taking in as much air as they could, although the crush prevented their chest cavities from expanding.

It took over an hour for the crush to be relieved. A hundred and sixteen people died from traumatic asphyxia, or having their chest cavities crushed inward resulting in suffocation. Another 10 died from trauma, likely from being stampeded. Ghana's president, John Agyekum Kufuor, immediately announced three days of national mourning. An investigative commission was launched and national soul-searching ensued. The Ghana Premier Football League suspended play for one month.

Unlike Hillsborough, where the tragedy was first loudly and wrongly laid at the feet of hooliganism, there was never any mystery as to the root cause of the Accra Sports Stadium disaster. It took less than two months for the government-appointed commission to publicly blame the police's indiscriminate firing into the crowd, which was then relayed around the world by the BBC and the AP.

But the commission's report, while putting the brunt of the blame on the aggressive police, also mentioned dozens of other factors that contributed to the tragedy, which included the lack of safety oversight from the NSC, poor emergency services capacity, lack of safety staff at the stadium, stadium structural shortcomings, poor maintenance, and lack of communication between all official parties involved. Even the hospitals were not properly distributing their available resources: 37 Military Hospital, which received the most dead, had a full mortuary that night. Rather than send 106 bodies to other mortuaries, the hospital kept them at the facility, in temperatures as high as 79 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time the bodies could be prepared for burial, they had already begun to decompose.

The commission made 64 recommendations, most of which were decades behind their European counterparts, such as doing away with pre-Hillsborough protective fencing, restricting fan movement in times of duress, and employing safety stewards during match days. But the ones about the police got the most attention. The commission asked for the police involved to be properly disciplined. Six police officers were charged with manslaughter, but all were acquitted because the cause of death was asphyxiation from being crushed, not inhaling tear gas.

Unfortunately, what got far less attention was the NSC's total inability to promote a safe atmosphere at the country's sports stadiums. At the time, there were only three stadiums with proper terraces: Accra, Kumasi, and a privately owned facility in Obuasi.

Nevertheless, the NSC had allowed Accra Sports Stadium to fall into disrepair. Expert testimony by the Ghana Institute of Architects, quoted in the commission's report, called the stadium a "death trap" and said that the number of exits were "grossly inadequate for emission of spectators and it's just waiting for another disaster to occur." The commission found that the NSC had gone beyond its purview by altering the stadium design, reducing the number of stairways and the types of exits—decisions that cost lives on May 9.

Accra Sports Stadium was renovated in 2007 and brought up to FIFA's safety standards in some respects, including fixing many of the NSC's original errors: creating adequately sized escape routes and automatic turnstiles.

But, less than a decade later, the stadium is, again, in a state of disrepair. The renovators, for all their modern inclusions such as a new pressroom, a terrace with a roof, and a bar, did not think to use rustproof paint for a facility some 400 yards from the Atlantic Ocean. The salt-water air has already corroded the steel.

"So far as I know very little has been done," the commission's chairman, Sam Okudzeto, told VICE Sports in an email. "A monument had been erected but most of the recommendations have been ignored and the habit of ignoring what a previous government starts is clearly manifested even in this important recommendations arising from such a great tragedy."

Recently, the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports informed Parliament that fixing the metal will cost $3.15 million, some 10 times more than the amount currently earmarked for the stadium's maintenance. The government—already in dire fiscal constraints due to overborrowing, prior to the collapse in oil prices, on newly opened rigs off the coast—is hoping a private investor will come forward. Meanwhile, the matches go on.

So, 15 years later, the NSC is facing some of the same criticisms as the immediate aftermath of the stadium disaster: a "singular lack of attention to, and understanding of, the concept of safety," as the commission's report put it.

The commission did recommend a way for the NSC to fund these safety measures: holding an annual memorial match between the two teams as close to May 9 as possible, as well as a knock-out competition, the proceeds of both going toward stadium safety efforts. But, to this day, a memorial match has yet to be played.