“I saw death.”
Marie Therese Asongafack says this repeatedly as she recounts her experience at the Olembé Stadium in Cameroon, where a stampede claimed eight lives and left 38 people injured, seven of them seriously, on Monday 24 January.
The Cameroonian government called on citizens two days later to help identify an eight-month-old baby who survived and find her family. The youngest victim is reportedly a six-year-old boy.
The stampede occurred during the Indomitable Lions’ 2-1 win over Comoros in the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). Asongafack says the gate after the area where Covid-19 vaccination certificates and test results were being checked at entrance S was locked. When security personnel finally opened the gate, “with all the anxiety and after having been locked out for about five minutes, people pushed the security guys away and forced themselves inside. That’s where it all began.”
Asongafack found herself out in front of the stampede, with people on the ground being trampled. She says “the security guys in that frenzy didn’t begin assisting to pull people out”. Spectators who had entered the stadium earlier tried to pull them out, pleading with those pushing forward to stop, “but with the force from behind, no one truly had any control of their movements”.
The loss of life put a further damper on the event. It had already faced delays because of Covid-19, questions about Cameroon’s readiness to host the expanded Afcon and fears that violence from the Anglophone crisis could spill over into the tournament.
“I felt guys pulling at my hair. Luckily I had a wig on, [otherwise] they would have pulled out my scalp. I was beginning not to feel my right leg, but thank God I got pulled out before any real damage,” says Asongafack. One of the friends she went to the game with has a slight ankle injury and his vision was blurry for more than 20 minutes after they were pulled out of the stampede. Another is in hospital with a trampled ankle.
“I knew that if my hands touched the ground, it would be over for me. I saw a child less than 10 years old lifeless, guys were trying to revive him. Medical aid wasn’t immediately available, people were just trying basic first aid on victims.”
A confluence of events
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) called an urgent press conference at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium. Looking wary and devastated, CAF president Patrice Motsepe expressed “deep condolences to the families” of the victims on behalf of CAF and the local organising committee. He added that CAF, the committee and the government should all shoulder the blame even though security is the responsibility of the local organising committee.
“Thousands of people, more than what was expected, arrived. I saw one lady and a good number of women this morning. She came with her small son, and two others came with very young children, and I am told some of the people came just to be part of the atmosphere, including those who didn’t have tickets,” Motsepe said.
Under Covid-19 restrictions, 80% of the stadium’s capacity is used when the Indomitable Lions are in action and 60% when other nations are playing. Motsepe said “the gate was supposed to be open but it was closed. If it was open, people would have walked through, but it was closed. Who closed it?”
Liam Mwen, a spectator who was there during the stampede, says people wanting to use different entrances to those marked on their tickets exacerbated the situation. For international competitions such as the Afcon, the seating arrangements are different to what most fans are used to for domestic football games.
He says people arrived late as there was traffic and some roads were blocked. “Access was really, really difficult. People came to the stadium without tickets and had access. Some of them scaled the fence.”
No more games at Olembé
A crowd forced two gates open, he says, and he took a few steps back and let them in as he didn’t want to end up in a situation where he was being pushed. “There was a lady who collapsed while we stood there. She couldn’t breathe.” They couldn’t evacuate her because of the crowd and ended up having to pass her over the fence and into the stadium, and she fell.
Olembé Stadium – officially the Paul Biya Stadium, named after the president who has been in power since 1982 – hosted the opening ceremony of the Afcon and was supposed to be the venue for the final. But no matches will be held there until CAF knows what happened.
“I need, and CAF needs, a report on … the circumstances that led to people being injured and those who lost their lives. There must be an immediate committee set up to find out what happened, who was supposed to do what and who did not perform their responsibilities. We want that report by Friday [28 January],” said Motsepe.
He added that the stadium would only be cleared for use after “absolute measures have been taken to make sure [the] remaining matches are played in an environment of primary focus on safety and health … There is zero tolerance, absolutely zero tolerance, to circumstances resulting in people being injured at the stadium or people losing their lives.”
Matches have been moved to the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, which is also in Yaoundé.
‘The family is inconsolable’
Véronique Dorothée Djilo, 41, is among those who died as a result of the stampede. Cameroon’s government has confirmed the other victims as Ndongo Louis Bruno Nzinga, 14, Ndongo Marie Laure Nga (student, age not provided), six-year-old Ambassa Mandela Bilogue, Bernard Ebaneck, 30, and Beyene Donald Onana, 22. Two others are yet to be identified.
Djilo’s niece Leoka Laure says her aunt died at the health centre, but would still be alive had rapid “treatment been initiated the moment she was brought there. Her friends say she was still breathing when they arrived.”
Her family can’t make funeral arrangements as the authorities say they need Djilo’s body for their investigation. “We want to bury her … because the more the corpse is there, more and more people wail. The family is inconsolable,” says Laure.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who attended the opening ceremony at the Olembé Stadium, expressed his “deepest condolences” to the families and friends of the victims. Biya has also extended his condolences and ordered an investigation into the stampede, which came a day after 18 people died in a fire sparked by fireworks at a nightclub in Yaoundé.
“Government urges citizens to be more responsible, disciplined and exhibit good civic behaviour for the success of this big sports celebration. At the same time, government will continue to take necessary measures to this effect,” said Minister of Communication René Emmanuel Sadi on 24 January.