AFCON 2021: The Paul Biya Stadium Disaster

by | Feb 18, 2022

There was something perfunctory, almost callous about the memorials before each subsequent Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) match to the eight fans (including two children) who died trying to get into the Paul Biya Stadium on 24th January, minutes before Cameroon’s second round match with Comoros started. The silences were too short to recite the names of the identified dead, let alone respect their memories. And the show went on.

In his series of excellent AFCON articles, the “i” newspaper’s Daniel Storey cited “the omnipresence of tragedy in Cameroon” as a major factor in the low-key memorial process, alongside tournament organisers’ priority to “protect and increase” African football’s “reputation,” even if that means “washing their hands of a tragedy in their showpiece event as quicky as possible.” Illustrating his first point was the “Yaounde nightclub fire,” in which “at least 16” people were killed, the day before the stadium disaster. Illustrating his second point was everything the football and government authorities have done in relation to the disaster.

The hastily compiled Wikipedia entry, “Yaounde Stadium Disaster” is initially appropriately matter-of-fact, noting with a simplicity which amplifies the tragedy that it “occurred as fans were attempting to enter the arena to watch a football match.” But it soon gets starkly accusative: “There was a violent stampede by Cameroonian fans,” it declares, establishing fans’ culpability before reporting the question-begging fact that “security officers directed fans towards a locked entrance gate,” and that “when the gate was opened, a surge of people came through and trampled each other, killing eight.”

As I’ve previously noted, the early pervasiveness of a “blame-the-victim” mentality resonated with observers such as Guardian journalist David Conn. Conn wrote extensively about the Hillsborough disaster and saw painful echoes of the seeds of the appalling injustices meted out to the loved ones of the 97 fans unlawfully killed at a 1989 FA Cup semi-final. You can see why. Instant references to “ticketless fans” and the imputation of thoughtlessness attached to “stampede,” albeit a word seemingly more readily-used by African media than elsewhere.

Domestic press coverage first disassociated officialdom from the tragedy. The stadium is officially the “Paul Biya Stadium,” after the Cameroon president who has held that office since 1982. But it has been the Olembe Stadium in all coverage. And media outlets, domestic and foreign, have consistently associated the tragedy with fan-behaviour.

The BBC captioned early video footage of pre-match scenes outside the stadium as fans “rushing” towards it. But these fans were largely jogging and walking. They would all have qualified as socially distanced. And there were no signs of panic. Many other reports noted that “footage of fans climbing on fences while others were trampled” was “unverified.” And so the mixed messaging began.

In a 25th January press conference, Confederation of African Football (CAF) president, South African Dr Patrice Motsepe, offered a kindly version of “ticketless fans.” Some “came just to be part of the atmosphere, including those who didn’t have tickets.” He didn’t comment, though, on two other clearly possible reasons for the numbers outside the stadium when the tragedy occurred. The provision of free entry to Cameroon games. And allowing stadia to be 80% full for said games, when limits for all other games were 60%. Both CAF ideas. BTW.

And, crucially, he made no suggestion that fans “stormed the stadium,” as was already being suggested. Because, having visited the area where the eight died, he said: “You see it’s a gate. That gate was supposed to be open (but) it was closed for inexplicable reasons. If it was open, they would have walked through and we wouldn’t have had this loss of life.”

Yet, as Motsepe said this, Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar, on behalf of the team, took to twitter to offer “heartfelt condolences” to victims’ families, and, in clear response to developing narratives of fan culpability, to “urge the football fans in Cameroon and Africa to be highly disciplined and responsible within and outside the stadiums so that (AFCON) matches remain festive moments.”

One disciplined and responsible fan caught in the crush, 46-year-old Ndombi Irene, gave her eye-witness account to BBC Africa’s Piers Edwards.

Many phrases stand out. “The entrance was too small.” “The police suddenly asked us to stop.” “I observed from the way the police were managing (the crowd) that it might be very difficult for everybody to enter the stadium before (kick-off).” “The crowd behind did not know what was happening ahead, so they kept coming.” “The crowd was so mammoth that the stampede occurred all of a sudden. The force behind forced us in front to fall and those from behind walked over us, smashing us.” “The security agents did not foresee that situation. They were not prepared for it.”

Marie-Therese Asongafack was an oft-quoted eye-witness in early news coverage. And an article by Isifu Wirfengla, published in Johannesburg-based “social justice media publication,” New Frame, quoted her saying that “the gate after the area where Covid-19 vaccination certificates and test results were being checked at Entrance S was locked.” Security personnel finally opened the gate. But “with all the anxiety and after having been locked out for about five minutes, people pushed the security guys away and forced themselves inside.” And “that is where it all began.”

Ayeasha Mumbi told a similar tale of maladministration-induced anxiety: “There are a series of gates before you get into the stadium. Most (fans) had already passed the health checking system. And when they got to the final gate they were asked again for health checks (which) created a lot of crowd. Some thought the game was about to start so they started getting agitated and things blew off. The pushing started and it got really scary. I saw how it unfolded before running for my life.”

However, ticketless fans re-appear in the New Frame article. “Liam Nwen, a spectator who was there during the stampede,” said: “People wanting to use different entrances to those marked on their tickets exacerbated the situation.” People had “arrived late as there was traffic and some roads were blocked.” Other “people came to the stadium without tickets and had access. Some of them scaled the fence.” And “a crowd forced two gates open.” Lucky for him, then, that he could take “a few steps back as he didn’t want to end up being pushed.”

On 26th January, CAF announced, confusingly, that “the next match scheduled for the Olembe Stadium will not take place until CAF and the Local Organising Committee have received the full report of the Investigation Committee…indicating the circumstances and events that led to the injury and death of spectators.” CAF later clarified that the match would “be relocated to (Yaounde’s) Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium.” Their own AFCON Organising Committee also required “the assurance and guarantee that appropriate and adequate interventions and measures have been implemented to ensure that a similar incident will not occur at the Olembe Stadium.”

Two days later, “CAF and the Local Organising Committee” (LOC) received ‘a’ report, on which Cameroon sports minister Narcisse Kombi briefed a press conference. Very briefly, in fact.

He couldn’t “give the results of investigations ordered by Cameroon President Paul Biya” but could somehow still blame “the massive and late influx of supporters” for causing the crush. Ticketless, too, unspecified numbers of them. Not, as Motsepe noted three days earlier, “just to be part of the atmosphere.” But, the Associated Press reported, “to avoid security checks and Covid-19 screening” (proof of vaccination and negative tests have been stadium entry requirements across the AFCON).

And even with no investigation results, Kombi somehow detailed “security” measures for the rest of the AFCON. Some would facilitate more efficient stadium entry, e.g. additional “entry points” and bracelets to fans with proof of negative Covid tests to hasten identification. Others wouldn’t, e.g. “additional security checkpoints,” increased video surveillance at the Paul Biya Olembe Stadium, banning under-11s from matches (wise but unenforceable) and a headline-grabbing deployment of “250 extra police officers for Cameroon’s next game,” which, AP noted, was “at a different stadium.”

As Storey noted, “if there is room for so many improvements, it suggests that there were other, more aggravating factors than supporter behaviour.” And Kombi did acknowledge them. “The number of security agents on duty was insufficient,” he said. And the decision to open a security gate when faced with a “flood of people” was “reckless.” The gate Motsepe said was closed for “inexplicable reasons.”

Kombi “explained”: “That gate was momentarily closed by security in the face of a surge of spectators, despite other entry gates being in operation. Overwhelmed by this surge, the security forces took the reckless decision to open the south gate.” But while all this “led” to the crush, fans still “caused” it.

The government closed schools and public offices early to facilitate timeous arrivals at the stadium. But some fans spent the half-day watching the afternoon AFCON game on TV before travelling. “This,” a self-unaware Kombi noted of a result of his government’s measures, “explains the high concentration of people on the roads to the stadium.” And, fan-blaming again, he said that this was mainly on one route “even though there were other ways into the sports complex.”

Of course, Kombi might just have been protecting the Local Organising Committee president, who said that whatever the investigation found, “the final must be played there.” That president’s name? Narcisse Kombi. Of course.

Other, conflicting, observations emerged in the week of the disaster. One local journalist declared: “I have been to matches in seven African countries and every time, I make the same observation. So many police officers and so little safety.” Yet, the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson and Nick Ames, long-time excellent chroniclers of AFCONs, quoted another fan, “Romaric,” observing that, ten minutes before kick-off, “there were only 10 or 20 police officers for about 1,000 people. It was not enough,” and that officers told “everyone that other gates were open but many wanted to take the shortest route rather than go round.”

It was also reported by some media that “a similar incident was only just avoided in the early group games.” And concerns over stadia safety and other infrastructural issues pre-dated the tournament by years. Cameroon were stripped of their hosting rights to the last AFCON because of incomplete venues and accommodation. And only three weeks before this AFCON, Motsepe visited Yaounde to address widely reported “worries over a lack of organisation and incomplete building work.”

So, it was clear that any proper investigation would take weeks to fully account for what was starkly described in one press report as the disaster’s “gruesome combination” of contributory “factors” Kombi’s hopes of a swift return of AFCON matches to Olembe were therefore dashed. And…wait…what?

Two DAYS after Kombi’s sketchily informative press briefing, CAF announced that they had received the whole report, which “highlighted the extensive on-site meetings and discussions” with “senior representatives of the police, the gendarmerie, the military, high-ranking government, defence and police ministers, inclusive of the Governor of Yaounde and other stakeholders.” Fans? Eye-witnesses? CAF weren’t saying.

The report also “dealt with and highlighted” the disaster’s “tragic circumstances” and “further highlighted the recommendations and interventions to ensure that (such) a tragedy should never be repeated.” And, in a remarkably busy two days, during which two quarter-finals were staged, CAF’s AFCON Organising Committee met, the report’s “recommendations and interventions” were accepted en-masse, unanimously, and it was “unanimously agreed” that the Paul Biya Olembe Stadium could stage one AFCON semi-final and the final.

However, the report was, and remains, unpublished. Kombi’s 29th January press conference reinforced the already prevalent narrative from government and other “official” sources. As the “Voice of America” website reported, “fans trying to enter the stadium overpowered hundreds of police, leading to the crush,” which contradicted so many direct eye-witness accounts…and even Kombi’s own admission of an “insufficient” security presence.

And it is firmly in the interests of those who commissioned and undertook the investigation into the tragedy (both from CAF, under presidential orders) to maintain this narrative. Publishing the report might expose their disregard for any eye-witness testimony which paints a more complex picture than “blame the fans,” as most published eye-witness testimony does. No need for any “Olembe – the truth” articles if the report can be filed away without public scrutiny.

This narrative has worked. Alternative viewpoints occasionally broke cover, such as Egypt boss Carlos Queiroz’s wild response to Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o framing the nations’ semi-final as a “war.” The “real war,” Queiroz advised, before a match in which he was sent-off for screaming dissent, “is about protecting people dying at stadium gates.” He had an angry week. More typically, in a 1,000-word editorial on 13th February by Nigerian digital newspaper, The Will, headlined “Lessons to learn from AFCON 2021,” the tragedy was referenced only in its final paragraph and only as “a stampede that resulted in fatalities (and) marred the overall success of the competition.”

Even in superficially heart-warming stories, the treatment of the tragedy has jarred. Sadio Mane was unusually expansive on twitter about his pride in Senegal’s on-field triumph. And he was praised for finding space among all that to re-iterate his “condolences to the families of all the victims.” But he also found space to call Cameroon “the perfect host for this competition.” Undoubtedly well-intentioned (Mane is generally accepted as one of football’s good guys). But wrong, nonetheless.

Unanswered questions remain. Such as who “recklessly” decided to “open the south gate”? Will they be held accountable, legally and/or otherwise? Why were their “insufficient” security agents? Why was the entrance “too small”? Did fans availing of free entry actually have tickets? And countless other questions about venue suitability and matchday operations, many of which have dreadful echoes of the Hillsborough Disaster, echoes which have prime responsibility for how angry researching this article has turned me.

On 13th February, Motsepe, Kombi, three CAF vice-presidents and CAF’s secretary-general visited the homes of the bereaved families “to offer the condolences and solidarity of the entire African football family and CAF.” And Motsepe said: “In our Bantu tradition, which is part of the tradition of many African countries, we are going with the government to see how we can stand by you in this difficult ordeal because you must not be alone.” But all six visitors already knew how best to “stand by” the families, whatever the “tradition.”

CAF said on 31st January that “having significantly increased security and resources” at Olembe, they and “the Local Organising Committee and the Government of Cameroon” were “confident that the safety and security of spectators and visitors will be assured.” And, as I wrote in my AFCON overview: “Eight sets of loved ones deserve to know” why those assurances came a week late.

The loved ones of one still unidentified victim, and those of student Ndongo Marie Laure Nga, 30-year-old Bernard Ebaneck, 22-year-old Beyene Donald Onana, 41-year-old Veronique Dorothee Djilo, 65-year-old Moise Mbom, 14-year-old Ndongo Luis Bruno Nzinga and six-year-old Ambassa Mandela Bilogue. SIX YEARS OLD.