May 9 2001 - When the beautiful game became ugly in Ghana

Twelve 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
The rains have just subsided. The sun announced it's presence briefly and left. A bright sky hanging over a tension-packed Accra, the capital of Ghana. The streets were dead, but the buildings were alive with thousands of football fans waiting to flock to the Accra Sports Stadium which was once christened Ohene Djan Sports Stadium.

A football rivalry was in the waiting. Old foes Hearts of Oak [based in Accra] and Asante Kotoko [Kumasi-based team] were battle-ready to set Accra alive in a midweek league game. It was May 9, 2001. A sea of fans drenched in hot red took one side of the stadium to ransom while bright rainbow colours decorated the other half.

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 a defeated unit. However, there was a loser and a winner. The scoreline ushered in the unexpected.

The Phobians [Hearts] were leading the Porcupine Warriors [Kotoko] 2-1 with only five minutes to stoppage time. Agitated fans hurled missiles on the pitch. The police responded with tear gas into the stands. Gates were locked tightly. The fans had nowhere to seek refuge. They were trapped. Stampede ensued. Hell broke loose. Death was on rampage.

"The most appalling look of fear and hopelessness was written across the faces of dying innocent young men. They were dying and there was nothing anybody could do to save them."

- Yaw Ampofo-Ankrah

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.
Yaw Ampofo-Ankrah, a sports journalist in Accra, witnessed the fatal incident. “As I made my way towards the staircase, I froze! What I saw is something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he told the BBC. “The most appalling look of fear and hopelessness was written across the faces of dying innocent young men. They were dying and there was nothing anybody could do to save them.”

A sad year

The Accra stampede was the fourth football disaster to strike Africa in four weeks that same year. On April 11, 43 people were killed at a stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. Eight fans perished in another stampede in Lubumbashi, DR Congo, on April 29. And three days prior to Ghana’s incident, fighting broke out among fans at a football match in Ivory Coast, killing one person and injuring 39.

To hell and back

Abdul Mohammed survived the disaster. He was believed dead and carted to the morgue with several other still bodies in a pick-up truck. The 35-year-old 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 told 10 years after the fateful incident.

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.”

The police

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 to

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.

I Am My Brother's Keeper | A memorial in honour of the 127 lives

Mohammed still visits the stadium to watch games after putting it on hold for close to four years. However, as he walks past a giant monument erected outside the stadium in remembrance of the departed, it constantly reminds him to be a gentleman in the stands in order to protect the beautiful game from turning ugly. He has had the chance to counsel agitated fans around him in the stands to shelf their anger. The Hearts of Oak aficionado is abiding by the inscription on the memorial, “I am my brother’s keeper”.

As Ghana mark the 12th 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.