On 6 July 2017, people gathered in large numbers outside the Bingu National Stadium in Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe. A football match between Malawi’s two best clubs, the Nyasa Big Bullets and the Silver Strikers, was scheduled to take place as part of the country’s independence celebrations. The gates had not been opened early, hence people had to wait outside. The match attracted such a huge number of people because entrance was free and it was the first time that a match between clubs was scheduled for independence day celebrations. In the past, the national team would play against another national team in such celebrations.

In the past, stadiums would open as early as 6am, but this time gates only opened around 9am. At first, people started entering the stadium normally, but later there was pressure at the gate, which resulted in people scrambling to enter. Police used teargas to control the crowd, but that caused people to run for their safety. An adult and seven children were confirmed dead and, initially, 43 were injured. That number has since increased to 65.   

Earlier that day, prayers were held at the Bingu International Convention Centre. President Peter wa Mutharika and religious leaders conducted a sermon of thanks for the year’s good harvest. Upon receiving the sad news from the stadium, the president said in a public broadcast: “My government will do all it can to assist the bereaved families. We are mourning with you.”

The independence day programme had included a visit to the stadium by the President later in the afternoon, but it was changed and he went to the hospital to visit the victims.

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika

What really went wrong and who is to blame?

At past independence day celebrations, people were allowed to enter the stadium as early as 7am, but this time it was not the case. Malawian soccer fan Mr Mwafulirwa said that, in his opinion, “there was a fear of theft at the stadium. The stadium is new – it just opened its doors in January 2017. Many things continue to be stolen at the stadium – mirrors, taps – during matches. So, if the stadium opened as early as 6am, thieves would have more time to steal things at the stadium. So, the late opening was based on a good intention, but the outcome has been a bad one.”

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Other people have indicated that it was a risk to have two events on the same day. They are referring to the prayers and the soccer match, which were held at two different venues. This divided the attention of security.

Bingu National Stadium. Photo: David Joseph Kapito

Some are of the opinion that since the game was free, it attracted a lot of people who had never seen the stadium from the inside. This was their opportunity, as it was also a public holiday.

The use of teargas by the police has also been blamed. It caused people to start running away, which resulted in the stampede that caused plenty of injuries and the death of seven children and one adult. Other people have said that if the teargas had not been used, people would have flocked in at the entrances, posing a danger to those who already made it inside.

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Can we stop this from happening again?

The remarks above tally with my experience of past independence celebrations. At Civo Stadium, for instance, the issue of opening gates early was not an issue, because it is an old soccer facility. As a result there was no fear of thieves stealing water taps or other materials.

There is always pressure during independence celebrations, and security should be stiff both inside and outside the stadium.

There is always pressure during independence celebrations, and security should be stiff both inside and outside the stadium. When I was 14 years old, I attended independence day celebrations at Civo Stadium without my parents’ approval. I remember how I had to squeeze and struggle with adults to get in. Such celebrations are not safe for children and they should only be attended if the child is with a guardian. Even then it is a big risk because the stadiums usually get packed to full capacity.

Parents should make sure to avoid children attending such occasions without an adult guardian.

The tragedy that has happened is a warning that stiff security measures need to be adopted in order to avoid such situations in the future. Parents should also make sure to avoid children attending such occasions without an adult guardian. The pressure of huge crowds of people at independence celebrations has always been there; it is not something new. I It is essential that security officers should be trained so that they will know exactly how to handle such pressure situations at the new stadium and elsewhere to avoid tragic situations from occurring again.