Twenty years ago, today, Africa’s worst sporting tragedy happened in Ghana, when 127 football fans died during a league game between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko. It was one of several such incidents in Africa over a period less than a month. On April 11, 2001, 43 football fans died and 250 were injured at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa during local derby between rivals Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. People were crushed to death when crowds continued to pour into the stadium, which was already packed to capacity.
A couple of weeks later, 14 people died and 51 were injured on April 29 during a match at Lubumbashi in the southeast region of the Democratic Republic of Congo when violence broke out in the league game between TP Mazembe and Lupopo. Police fired off tear gas as a method of crowd control, causing spectators to rush on to the pitch. Both gates of the stadium which contained at least 30,000 people were barred shut, causing delays in evacuation.
Then on, May 6, 2001 in the Ivory Coast, incidents between supporters and police led to 1 death and 39 injuries at the Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan. Supporters of Asec Mimosas and Stade Abidjan who are fierce rivals started the violence with the police after the game.
Back to the #BlackWednesday event. The rains have just stopped. The sun announced its presence briefly and left. A bright sky hanging over a tension-packed Accra. The streets were packed with a lot of football fans trooping into the Accra Sports Stadium.
Old foes Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko were battle-ready to set Accra alive in a midweek league game at exactly 17:00GMT. It was May 9, 2001. The atmosphere before the game was superb. In the stadium itself, the atmosphere was completely charged. On one side of the stadium were Kotoko fans, dresses in all red to match their team’s colours. Hearts fans also occupied the other half of the stadium, clad in the club’s traditional rainbow colours. The stadium was full three hours before the kick-off.
The rivalry between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko spans over half a century. It’s the biggest fixture on the Ghana football calendar.
Prior to the 2001 season, though, the rivalry between the Phobians and the Porcupine Warriors was at its highest point of interest. Hearts had won the previous four consecutive league titles.
Also, the Phobians had just won the CAF Champions League and CAF Super Cup, beating Zamalek 2-0 in the latter. Such dominance and success made the “enemy” jealous. Here was Hearts dominating in Africa and winning the domestic league four times in the previous five seasons. In that same period, Kotoko had tasted league glory just once in the previous eight seasons.
Worse off, Hearts had humiliated their rivals in their last meeting by handing them a 4-0 thrashing.
Before the game, Hearts had won all three opening fixtures of the league. Before the super clash, the Porcupine Warriors whitewashed Bofoakwa Tano 3-0 in match week 3.
It was matchweek 4 of the Ghana Premier League.
Hostilities had unfolded within the white lines of the stadium. Ironic cheers and boos filled the atmosphere. Applause and chanting diffuse the tension intermittently, but none of the sides was prepared to go home defeated. However, there was a loser and a winner. The score line ushered in the unexpected. The stage was set!
Centre Referee – Joseph Wilson Sey
F. B. Arthur – Line 1
M. D. Arthur – Line 2
Fourth Referee – Yeboah Yawson
Hearts of Oak Line-up
- Sammy Adjei (GK)
- Amankwah Mireku
- Jacob Nettey (C)
- Dan Quaye
- Stephen Tetteh
- Joe Ansah
- Charles Allotey
- Lawrence Adjah Tetteh
- Ismael Addo
- Emmanuel Osei Kuffour
- Charles Taylor
- Eben Dida (GK)
- Richard Nii Noi
- Dan Oppong
- Edmund Copson
- George Eranio
- Kenneth Sarpong
- Bernard Don Bortey
Coach: Cecil Jones Attuquayefio
Asante Kotoko Line-up
- Osei Boateng (GK)
- Kwaku Duah
- Godfred Yeboah
- Dan Acquah
- Joe Hendricks
- Joe Sam
- Lawrence Adjei
- Godwin Ablordey (C)
- Shilla Alhassan
- Nana Frimpong
- Frank Asowah
- Louis Quainoo (GK)
- Kwaku Kyere
- Anas Mohammed
- Stephen Oduro
- Abedi Sarfo
- Patrick Duodu
- Angelo Dedon
- Joe Okyere (Not in Jersey)
- Fuseini Adams (Not in Jersey)
Coach: Ernest Middendorf
The game began on a slow note, but in the stands, it was a totally different thing all together. Both sets of fans were in bullish mood, and were not prepared to go home defeated.
Kotoko scored first and sent the away fans into wide jubilation when Lawrence Adjei took advantage of a mix-up in the Hearts defence to slot home. However, the Phobians came back strongly, levelling the score through Ishmael Addo.
From there, chances were few and far between both teams but, just as it looked like the game was headed for a 1-1 draw, Ishmael Addo popped up again to put Hearts in front to make the Phobia fans sing the ‘Arose Arose’ anthem
Emmanuel Osei Kuffour dispossessed a Kotoko player off the ball after a series of pulling and tugging. The attacking midfielder then squared the ball to the unmarked Addo who tapped in to make it 2-1 in favour of Hearts.
Some Kotoko fans felt the goal should have been disallowed, insisting the referee should have stopped play after his linesman raised his flag in the build-up to the goal.
However, Jacob Wilson Sey, the referee who officiated the game, later explained that indeed his assistant signalled him of an infringement in the build-up to the goal, but he opted to play the advantage, rather than call for a foul on the marauding Hearts attacker.
“People said that my assistant raised the flag. Of course, he did but it was for a different infringement. The infringement he flagged for was on the same attacker who had the ball and they had the advantage. By the rules of the game, I had to play on and I did. The player scored and that was it,” he said in an interview with TV3 Ghana.
It was a late goal, and it was heart-breaking for the Kotoko faithful. Whiles the home fans jumped in ecstasy, their rival fans seriously rumbled in misery.
Agitated fans hurled missiles on the pitch. The police responded with tear gas into the stands. The big gates at the stadium were locked tightly with the small gates only opened. The fans were rushing to leave the stadium to seek refuge. Stampede ensued. Hell broke loose. Death was on rampage.
Hearts of Oak eventually won the game 2-1 – putting them five points clear of their rivals – but there was no cause for celebration. Rather, that victory marked the beginning of Africa’s worst ever sporting tragedy.
A BLACK WEDNESDAY
The terrible statistics showed that 127 football fans died. They were choked to death – compressive asphyxia. Both the dead and unconscious were mixed and bundled together into car trunks and ambulances, and rushed to major hospitals. Inept, immobile bodies of young and energetic men and a few women clogged hospital morgues.
People besieged hospitals as news filtered in to identify dead or alive relatives. It was a sorrowful moment. Women and children wept uncontrollably as they kept punching motionless bodies lying on the floors of morgues to respond to their cries. The nation was at a standstill – all official engagements were cancelled. A national mourning had struck. It was the longest and darkest night in Africa football history. Then President, John Agyekum Kufour, called for three days of mourning. The Ghana Premier League suspended play for a month.
Abdul Mohammed survived the disaster. He was believed dead and carried to the morgue with several other still bodies in a pick-up truck. He was lined-up among the dead on the arid floor of a large air-conditioned room pending preparation into the frozen world. He gained consciousness when he felt a heavy and sharp load on his left foot. Apparently, someone had stepped on his foot in the course of the melee.
“It was only God. I would have been counted among the dead. That nightmare still haunts me. I sometimes hear and see dying people screaming at that stand in my dreams. I’ll never forget. It was horror.
“A lot of people were on top of me that night. Blood was all over as people were crushed to death. I tried to force myself out, but my strength had gone. I didn’t know how I passed out. It was a big miracle for me to have my eyes opened at the mortuary, else I would have been buried alive,” the mechanic said.
Herbert Mensah was the chairman of Asante Kotoko at the time and was in the thick of the rescue efforts. “I remember rushing down there and shouting at people; I think it was on the third body that one or two others also got involved. It was so pathetic; there was one guy who I was picking up and I remember him telling me in a low tone, ‘leave me I’m not dead o’… How I got through in the end, where all the others got the strength from, I don’t know.”
Several Ghanaians put the blame on the doorstep of the police for over reacting. “They rained tear gas on us like animals. They had no sympathy as we suffered to breath. They kept firing as we screamed and struggled to survive,” Frank Mills, another survivor said.
Six police officers – Assistant Superintendents of Police John Asare Naami, Faakye Kumi, Frank Awuah, Francis Aryee, Benjamin B. Bakomora and Chief Superintendent of Police, Koranteng Mintah – were held responsible for the tragedy. However, two years after Africa’s worst sporting tragedy, they walked free courtesy of a seven-member jury of a High Court.
“The fact that 127 people perished, grievous as that is, would not have been made any better if the senior police officers were unjustly punished for these deaths,” defence lawyer Yoni Kulendi told the BBC after the ruling.
The sentencing of the policemen or holding someone responsible for the gruesome murder would not bring back the lives of 127 (people), but it would have soothed the pains of the distraught families and the 148 children of the deceased who are being catered for by a Stadium Disaster Fund.
A bronze statue was erected outside the stadium of a fan carrying another fan to safety with the inscription title “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” in honour of the victims of that tragedy.
As Ghana mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster today, may the monument continue to remind the millions of football fans across the continent in general and Ghana in particular that never again will they allow their emotions to send a single soul into the belly of the earth.
Written by Kwabena Asante Marfo, KobbyKyeiSports