Hope­fully Sene­gal dis­as­ter is les­son learnt

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

IT’S Satur­day evening, July 15: Stade de Mbour are meet­ing Union Sportive (US) Ouakam in the Sene­galese League Cup fi­nal at the Demba Diop sta­dium in Dakar. With the score evenly poised at 1-1 and the match hav­ing en­tered ex­tra time, the team from Mbour, 80km south of the cap­i­tal, scored what would prove to be the de­ci­sive goal.

The fans of Ouakam – a sub­urb of Dakar – turn on their ri­vals, charg­ing to­wards the fans in the Mbour sec­tion and throw­ing rocks. As Mbour fans seek refuge in a cor­ner of the stand, part of a sup­port­ing wall gives way, plung­ing them into the ditch which sur­rounds the pitch. In the fall and en­su­ing panic, eight peo­ple lose their lives and about 100 are in­jured.

In the af­ter­math of Sene­gal‘s worst sport­ing dis­as­ter, dif­fi­cult ques­tions had to be asked. How could this be al­lowed to hap­pen? Who was to blame? And what would be the con­se­quences?

A scape­goat was found in the shape of US Ouakam. Their fans were re­ported to have ini­ti­ated the vi­o­lence. The team were sus­pended in­def­i­nitely from all com­pe­ti­tions. The dis­or­derly be­hav­iour of sport fans was con­demned. This has been a re­cur­ring theme in Sene­gal’s sport­ing land­scape. It might be con­sid­ered sur­pris­ing that the vi­o­lence should reach its apex at a foot­ball match.

While liv­ing in Dakar and con­duct­ing ethno­graphic field­work on the tra­jec­to­ries of as­pir­ing ath­letes, I at­tended foot­ball matches and wrestling fights at sta­di­ums and are­nas. It in­cluded Demba Diop sta­dium.

I was warned by friends to avoid cer­tain ar­eas out­side the sta­dium prior to or af­ter the event. They warned me to leave the sta­dium early or watch it on TV in­stead. On more than one oc­ca­sion, I did get caught up in vi­o­lent skir­mishes where blows were ex­changed, ob­jects were thrown, and crowds were crushed into small ar­eas as they tried to es­cape.

Sene­galese sport fans are a pas­sion­ate bunch. A trip to the sta­dium can turn into a volatile ex­pe­ri­ence in the event of an un­pop­u­lar out­come.

But all the in­ci­dents and se­cu­rity warn­ings took place in the con­text of lutte avec frappe (wrestling with punches) – Sene­gal’s na­tional sport, which has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing steeped in oc­cult ac­tiv­i­ties and vi­o­lence. Foot­ball, by com­par­i­son, is con­sid­ered rel­a­tively peace­ful, in part due to the lower in­ter­est in do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion.

While there is no ex­cuse for the un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour of a small mi­nor­ity of fans, the sit­u­a­tion at Demba Diop was com­pounded by a glar­ing lack of se­cu­rity.

A source told me there was a cor­don of only 10 po­lice of­fi­cers sep­a­rat­ing the two groups of fans, and they left the scene once they re­alised that they could not con­trol the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence.

Other wit­nesses sug­gested there was not enough se­cu­rity – and that those who were there ob­served pro­ceed­ings with­out try­ing to in­ter­vene. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been launched to an­swer some of the press­ing ques­tions that arise from this tragedy: How many fans were al­lowed into the sta­dium? How could they bring in rocks and other pro­jec­tiles? Was there suf­fi­cient se­cu­rity present? Was their re­sponse, which in­cluded the de­ploy­ment of tear­gas to counter the crowd vi­o­lence, ap­pro­pri­ate?

For many Sene­galese, the dis­as­ter is just the lat­est in a se­ries of in­ci­dents which have demon­strated the neg­li­gence and com­pla­cency of po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­ties in guar­an­tee­ing cit­i­zens’ safety. In re­cent months, fires in the Dakar sub­urb of Par­celles As­sainies and at a re­li­gious fes­ti­val in Me­d­ina Gounass, as well as mass traf­fic ac­ci­dents in Saint-Louis and Kaf­frine have claimed many lives.

Some com­men­ta­tors have been dis­mayed by the lack of of­fi­cial re­sponse and ac­count­abil­ity. Pres­i­dent Macky Sall and Sports Min­is­ter Matar Ba de­clared that the events would be ex­am­ined in a full in­quiry. It re­mains to be seen whether these are any­thing more than hol­low prom­ises.

Demba Diop sta­dium was con­structed in 1963, and some mi­nor re­pairs have been car­ried out since. Its crum­bling walls and di­lap­i­dated stands bear tes­ti­mony to its age. Se­nior of­fi­cials have been call­ing for the re­fur­bish­ment and moderni­sa­tion of the sta­dium for years.

In the af­ter­math of Satur­day’s events, the for­mer Chelsea and Sene­gal striker Demba Ba tweeted his dis­con­tent about the lack of fund­ing for the coun­try’s foot­ball venues. It seems it has taken the deaths of eight in­no­cent peo­ple to pro­voke the au­thor­i­ties into tak­ing ac­tion.

What hap­pened at the sta­dium is sadly not an iso­lated event in the global con­text. A com­bi­na­tion of de­crepit sta­di­ums, poor se­cu­rity and a fail­ure to con­trol crowd vi­o­lence have led to sim­i­lar dis­as­ters in Malawi, An­gola and Hon­duras this year. And while sta­dium safety has im­proved in Europe, the hor­rors of Hey­sel, Brad­ford and Hills­bor­ough live on in the mem­o­ries of foot­ball fans.

Only last month charges were brought against those re­spon­si­ble for the Hills­bor­ough dis­as­ter of 1989, in which 96 Liver­pool fans lost their lives. The scale of neg­li­gence and the en­su­ing po­lice cover-up which reached the up­per ech­e­lons of Bri­tish pol­i­tics, have been pieced to­gether over a lengthy cam­paign and mul­ti­ple in­quests and in­quiries.

There are par­al­lels to be drawn to the Demba Diop dis­as­ter: an ini­tial fo­cus on blam­ing fans, in­ad­e­quate sta­dium de­sign and main­te­nance, and in­suf­fi­cient or neg­li­gent se­cu­rity.

As Sene­gal mourns the vic­tims and searches for an­swers, it is to be hoped that lessons are learnt and con­se­quences are swift. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

The sit­u­a­tion was com­pounded by a glar­ing lack of se­cu­rity

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