The May 9 disaster: 19 years ago on a dark Wednesday

Grime. A nation’s day of grief. Ghana’s football day of terror.

Wednesday May 9, 2001. The Accra Sports Stadium had just witnessed a beautiful game of football after rush hour.

For the 90 minutes it hosted the home side Accra Hearts of Oak and the visiting team Kumasi Asante Kotoko, two of Ghana’s biggest clubs, football did what it does best: bring joy to the thousands who had thronged the venue.

But that excitement was short-lived as what is today, Ghana’s biggest sporting horror reared its head.

All it took was a careless spark of fan indiscipline, agitation, misplaced bravado and a misjudgment on how to handle the situation.

127 people lost their lives, till today, the highest for any number of casualties for a football match in the country, and sits in the world’s top stadium disasters of recent memory.

Years on, the images of what was a Dark Wednesday, lingers for survivors and persons close to the deceased. The pain never goes away.

Hawa Asare was 11 years old when the incident happened 19 years ago. The agony of losing her father has weighed heavily on her all these years.

“I and my siblings spent my father’s last days with him. In the hours before the game, we were together and even asked him not to go since the cloud had gathered. But he went because of the love he had for his club Asante Kotoko. Later, we got to know of the incident, and it so happened that he was part of those who had lost their lives.”

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Gory. Unimaginable. Grave. Gloom shook the very foundations of Ghana football. A people’s beauty and love for football had been marred. Many were not spared. They left behind memories. They left behind dreams.

The casualty list is enormous, and has affected families, threatening their livelihood. For years, they have had to live without their loved ones in an excruciating manner that plays back to them, the events of May 2001, everyday.

Agnes Owusua, a new mother at the time, lost her husband, Ebenezer Amoako in the disaster. Like many, she heard of the news on radio, an unfortunate piece of information that later proved true.

“I was shaken when I heard it on radio. Later, I passed out only to recover subsequently. I have tried to fend for myself and my three children all these years.”

For the Ghanaian people and football fraternity, it is a blemish on a sporting journey that had seen nothing of that magnitude prior to 2001. Herbert Mensah, Chairman of Kumasi Asante Kotoko at the time, and the lead campaigner in ensuring the significance of the day is not lost, agrees this shouldn’t happen again.

“If anybody has had to be with a family who is grieving, they will know to tamper their activities when they go to the stadium,” he says, adding that the need to stamp hooliganism out of the game cannot be emphasized enough.

The call by Herbert and other well-meaning stakeholders cannot be taken lightly as the dangers of not abiding by stadium rules has far reaching implications such as the struggle affected persons put up with long after disasters.

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Over the years, football fans, families of the affected persons and survivors as well, continue to preach responsible fan behavior at games. For everything they have experienced, they are better placed to offer an insight on behaving well at games and avoiding living with pain.

Never again? It has been the mantra over the years but do recent happenings give cause to worry that this may repeat itself?

“Best practices, which Africans are poor at, are what must now determine whose job it is, who is accountable, who checks on the person who is meant to do A, B, C and D. It is only that you can turn around and say it might not happen again,” says Herbert Mensah

He adds that: “But if best practices are not in place. If people do bring guns; what is the punishment?”

The message is loud enough. The dark horrors of May 9, 2001 offer sufficient admonition.

Never again.

By Juliet Bawuah||Ghana