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Today marks 15 years of May 9 disaster

Fifteen 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 at the Accra Sports Stadium.

Trouble had been anticipated, and extra security measures had been taken ahead of the match between Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko on May 9, 2001. A football rivalry was in the waiting.

Old foes Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko were battle-ready to set Accra alive in a midweek league game. A sea of fans drenched in hot red occupied one side of the stadium 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 diffused 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.

Hearts of Oak scored two late goals to defeat Kotoko 2–1, which led to disappointed Kotoko fans ripping off their plastic seats and hurling them, together with bottles, onto the pitch.

The response to this crowd disturbance from the police was to fire tear gas into the crowd. Panic ensued and a resulting stampede led to the deaths of 127 people.

Reports claimed that medical staff had already left the stadium, as the incident happened near the end of the match. Some gates were locked, preventing escape.

An official inquiry blamed police for over-reacting and reckless conduct arising from indiscriminate firing of plastic bullets and tear gas. Six police officers were charged with 127 counts of manslaughter afterwards, but the trial court ruled that the prosecution had failed to make a case.

The commission of inquiry recommended improvements to stadium security and first aid facilities, and for nationwide rapid response teams to be set up. The May 9 disaster was the fourth football disaster to strike Africa in four weeks that same year.

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