An empty Accra stadium the day after a stampede that killed 126 football fans. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images
Rosalind Amoh went cold, frozen at the wheel of her car at the sound coming from the nearby Accra Sports Stadium. “It sounded like fans charging at each other, which wasn’t uncommon at the stadium,” Amoh, the deputy editor of the state-owned Daily Graphic newspaper, tells VICE World News.“Then it morphed to the sound of people crying for help. It was when I turned on my radio, and saw the cloud of smoke above the stadium that I knew what had happened.”
On the 9th of May 2001, 30,000 football fans had packed into the Accra Stadium to watch two of Ghana’s biggest teams: Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko. The match was almost over when fans of Kotoko, disappointed their team was about to lose 2-1, started throwing objects onto the pitch, before ripping out the stadium’s seats and tossing them towards opposing fans.In response, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, causing panic as thousands of agitated spectators tried to escape. However, some of the gates into the stand were locked, leading to a 30-minute stampede that resulted in the deaths of 126 fans, with hundreds more injured. It remains the worst stadium disaster in Africa. And, 20 years on, no one has been held accountable for the lives of the people who never returned home.
Chapter O were the main supporter's organisation for the Accra Hearts, at a time when interest in the country’s local football league was at its peak. Chapter O did more than just sing jama (supporter chants) for their team – they were a community organisation and a spiritual support system for Hearts, the group’s former lead drummer in the stands, Ahmed Ibrahim, known as No Man, tells VICE World News.Five days before a game, they would kill a cow and distribute the meat on the morning of the match to the poor in the community. Before important matches like the one against Kotoko, fans of all faiths would gather, offering prayers in their own religions and sing jama, before marching to the stadium together.
“Supporting Hearts was spiritual for some of us,” No Man says. “Every time we meet to practise, no matter your religion, you’ll talk to God.”On the day of the tragedy, No Man remembers seeing a teenager before the match waving a Hearts’ flag at passersby on the street. “The next time I saw him, he was running down the stairs at the stadium,” No Man recounts. “He never [made it] back home. His name is TJ.”“We lost a lot of guys,” No Man says as he counts to nine with his fingers.After the stampede, fans of both teams were seen carrying victims who needed help and driving them to hospitals as ambulances were slow to arrive. “There were no beds,” Rosalind recounts, “the injured, collapsed, and the wounded were all lumped together. The impact was devastating.”The police were widely blamed across Ghana for the tragedy – accused of responding poorly by adding fuel to an already tense situation.A commission was set up by then-president John Agyekum Kufuor to investigate the role of the police in the disaster. The commission recommended a series of crisis management training programs that aimed to better prepare them for dealing with large crowds, not only at stadiums but throughout Ghanaian society. These recommendations were never followed through, either by the Kufuor administration or by successive governments. Before the tragedy, stadium culture was big in Ghana. That all changed after the 9th of May disaster, which led to a sharp decline in attendances and general interest in the Ghanaian local league, despite security improvements to stadiums across the country.A day before the disaster, a friend told No Man that he had a surprise for him at the match.“At the stadium, he was sitting behind me with the surprise: a cake big enough for everyone in our space,” No Man recounts. “When I was drumming and the entire squad were charged and singing the team’s anthem, he made people open their mouths, and he’ll put a piece of the cake in. We lost him too.” No Man paused for a moment, then continued: “[That’s why] I don’t like cakes.”