Hopefully Senegal disaster is lesson learnt
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