The Demba Diop stadium football crush: Is this Senegal’s Hillsborough?

Survivors of a stampede at Demba Diop stadium, Senegal. Eight people were killed when a wall collapsed after fighting started between fans. EPA

It’s the evening of Saturday July 15: Stade de Mbour 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, 80 kilometres south of the capital, scored what would prove to be the decisive goal.

The fans of Ouakam – a suburb of Dakar – started turning on their rivals, charging towards the fans in the Mbour section of the stadium and throwing rocks. As the Mbour fans sought refuge in one corner of the stand, part of a supporting wall gave way, plunging them into the ditch which surrounds the pitch. In the fall and ensuing panic, eight people lost their lives and around a 100 more were injured.

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

An immediate scapegoat was found in the shape of US Ouakam. Their fans were reported to have initiated the violence which triggered the incident. The team was swiftly suspended indefinitely from all official competitions. The disorderly behaviour of sport fans in general was widely condemned. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in Senegal’s sporting landscape for some time. It might be considered surprising, however, that the violence should reach its apex at a football match.

Warnings about the stadium

While living in Dakar and conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the trajectories of aspiring athletes, I regularly attended both football matches and wrestling fights at stadia and arenas across the city. It included Demba Diop stadium, where most of the biggest wrestling events are held.

I was frequently 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 to stay away entirely and watch it on TV instead. On more than one occasion, I did get caught up in violent skirmishes where blows were exchanged, objects including chairs and bottles were thrown, and crowds were crushed into small areas as they tried to escape the violence. 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 of these incidents and security warnings took place in the context of lutte avec frappewrestling 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 significantly lower interest in domestic competition.

When I went to the Demba Diop stadium to watch the semifinal of the football League Cup in 2015, there were only a handful of fans in an otherwise deserted stadium. Indeed, the matches of the inter-district navétanes championships are often better attended than the main league and cup formats, due to their important role in fostering community togetherness and local pride.

Normally very few fans attend football matches at Demba Diop, like this game in 2015. Mark Hann

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

Other eyewitnesses suggested that there was simply not enough security in the ground – and that those who were there simply observed proceedings without trying to intervene. An investigation has been launched to answer some of the pressing questions which 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? And was their response – which included the deployment of teargas to counter the crowd violence – appropriate?

Complacency of political authorities

For many Senegalese, the Demba Diop disaster is just the latest in a series of incidents which have demonstrated the negligence and complacency of political authorities in guaranteeing the safety of citizens. 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. Both President Macky Sall and Sports Minister Matar Ba have declared that the events at the stadium will be examined in a full inquiry. But, 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. However, 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 several years. Until now, almost nothing has been done, despite the fact that the venue also plays host to official international matches.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s events, the former Chelsea and Senegal striker Demba Ba tweeted his discontent with the lack of funding for the country’s football venues. It seems that it has taken the deaths of eight innocent people to provoke the authorities into taking action. With tensions in Senegal already riding high due to the legislative elections at the end of July, all major sporting events have been suspended until then.

What happened at the Demba Diop stadium is sadly not an isolated event in the global context. A combination of decrepit stadia, poor security, and a failure to control crowd violence have led to similar disasters in Malawi, Angola and Honduras this year alone. And while stadium safety has improved immeasurably in Europe thanks to safety measures including the introduction of all-seater football grounds, the horrors of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough live on in the memories of football fans.

Thousands gathered last year in remembrance of those who died at the Hillsborough disaster, that claimed the lives of 96 people in 1989. Peter Powell/EPA

Indeed, it was only last month (June 2017) that 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 gradually pieced together over the course of 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 learned, and consequences are swift.

This article is based partly on research conducted as part of the GLOBALSPORT project based at the University of Amsterdam and funded by the European Research Council.