President Peter Mutharika has condemned poor crowd-control tactics that killed eight people and injured 62 people during a stampede at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe yesterday. The incident happened ahead of a friendly football match to climax the 53rd Independence Anniversary Celebrations.
Speaking at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) where he visited the critically-injured in the high dependency unit and the mortuary where the dead were being identified by their families, the President, who was visibly moved, said good crowd control strategies could have averted the tragedy.
Said Mutharika: “The innocent souls we have lost today wanted to be part of our independence celebrations. I am so saddened that they have lost their lives on a day like today and some have been hospitalised here, like we have just seen. I promise the bereaved families and other victims of government’s support in this time of need.
“Going forward, I think relevant authorities should make sure that this does not happen again. Those are modern structures whose designs are very much accommodating. We should make sure all proper and safety procedures are followed when people are entering the stadium.”
The President described July 6 2017 as “a sad day for Malawi” because of the tragedy.
Mutharika did not elaborate on the crowd-control issue, but some witnesses and social commentators pushed the blame on organisers of the Independence celebrations, stadium management and police for poorly planning the event.
For the free-entry event, gates into the 40 000-seater stadium were set to open as early as 6am but were not open until around 9am, with a huge crowd of expectant fans awaiting entry.
The witnesses said the police worsened the situation when they fired tear gas in an unsuccessful bid to bring peace.
The tragedy happened at around 9.30am when thousands of people, mainly school children from economically poor residential areas such as Senti and Mtandire around the stadium, ended up jostling to secure seats.
Thousands of people had been flocking to the stadium from Lilongwe, and elsewhere, to watch a game between Blantyre and Lilongwe soccer giants—Nyasa Big Bullets and Silver Strikers, respectively—to climax the end to the celebrations.
Many of the children saw the free-entry game as their chance to enter the modern football stadium opened in January this year as they could not afford entry charges for the games.
Some of the injured and witnesses told The Nation that by the time the stadium officials finally opened the gates, the stampede was inevitable, as push had literally come to shove in the growing and anxious crowd.
They added that even before the dead and injured were attended to, tear gas was fired in the face of the stampede, thereby forcing a hectic and chaotic retreat among some of those who had already entered the stadium.
Mtandire resident Agnes Maliki said she was alerted at her house that something was wrong at the stadium when she heard firing of tear gas, a thing she confirmed by seeing the gas engulfing the ask and people fleeing in all directions.
She said: “I stopped everything and rushed to the stadium, where I saw the dead and injured being taken to the hospital. I then rushed here [at KCH] to check for my nephew who had gone to the stadium almost at dawn this morning.
“I have searched for him at the emergency ward; he is not there. Now, I want to check among the corpses here at the mortuary.”
However, when asked about the tear gas incident at the stadium, National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said he could not comment authoritatively as he was not aware of it at the time of the interview yesterday afternoon.
But he said there will be an investigation to establish what happened in the stampede.
Minister blames ‘people’s impatience’
Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development Henry Mussa, whom the President delegated to represent him at the football match after cancelling his attendance due to the tragedy, said in an interview that a lack of patience by people who wanted to enter the stadium caused the stampede.
The minister was commenting in an interview a few hours after the tragedy.
Said Mussa: “It is all because of a lack of patience by the people who wanted to enter the stadium gates. If only patience was exercised, this tragedy could have been avoided.”
But his version is contrary to that of witnesses and social media commentators who point to delayed opening of the facility as the cause.
Public reactions on social media
The public soul-searching also partly faulted some parents and guardians for allowing their young children—most of the dead and injured were primary school pupils below the age of 10—to patronise such public events unaccompanied.
But other debate contributors poured water on the argument accusing parents and guardians, saying the children in the areas surrounding the stadium feel secure among their peers at school and in their neighbourhood; hence, do not seek parental approval when attending public events.
Some people wondered why the football match was not cancelled altogether, in the face of the tragedy earlier yesterday morning. n