Remembering the horrible Gabon disaster air crash annually on 28th April is not a failure to move on and to stop mourning, as has been suggested in some circles. On the contrary, the commemoration of the event should be a stark reminder of what can horribly go wrong when unbridled political greed, on the one hand, and atrocious incompetence by football officials, tasked to manage the game, combine to blight the game. The fate of the people on the flight was not sealed when the propellers of a De Havilland C5 Buffalo Zambia Air force military plane winging its way to Senegal for a World Cup qualifying fixture gave up the spin and crashed off the coast of Gabon. The unfortunate incident had been long in the making.
Though it has been 19 years since the incident happened, the inexplicable contradictions both before and after the tragedy still boggle the mind. The ruling political elite of the day assigned a flying coffin to ferry its elite fotballers to fulfill away fixtures. A veritable metallic disaster waiting to happen. For the Buffalo was a contraption designed to undertake short-haul flights. It was a small plane unsuitable for transporting high performance athletes on long-haul flights as it was fitted with hard, straight seats. It was a military plane for God’s sake – someone should have known this! Contrast this with the elaborate plans of having the remains of the dead heroes flown back home in an exquisite Zambia Airways DC 8 plane!!
However much we may try to excuse the then Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) executive, it was their incompetence that greatly contributed to the disaster. In failing to raise money to charter a flight for the “KK11″, as the team was then known, resort was had to the ill-fated Buffalo. Resorting to the Buffalo plane was not a one-off unavoidable exercise. The then government and FAZ Executives had made a habit of cost saving at the expense of the comfort and safety of the Zambian players. Perennial failure to generate money from the market place through poverty of ideas had reduced the Football Association of Zambia into a basket case surviving on pushing around the proverbial begging bowl in order to fulfil away international fixtures. The reason why a sports executive is elected into office, in the first place, is to marshal resources for the sustenance of the organisation. A distinct failure to discharge this most basic of duties has been the hallmark of FAZ executives since records began!
In fact, the brainless activity of passing around the begging bowl when an international event is a day away has long been the perfected practice of the majority of sports administrations in Zambia. Begging has been perfected into a rare art form by Zambian sports administrators.Tired headlines like “ABC Association in K2 million shortfall” , “Govt bails out ABC” or some such captions grace the sports backpages on a daily basis. Even the marquee event of the Zambia Amateur Athletics Association (ZAAA) – the Inter-Company Relay, which by now should have become self-financing, has organisers who major in announcing the shortfalls in donations. It is such a disposition of the sports administrations in Zambia that also pervaded the then FAZ executive and the entrenched incompetence made innocent people pay with their lives.
A few months before the doomed trip to Senegal, the Buffalo had dutifully ferried the team to Madagascar. Ian Hawkey in his an ‘unputdownable’ of a book “Feet of the Chameleon: The story of African Football” aptly captures the terrifying experience of being on the Buffalo during a trip to Madagascar in December, 1992 – a few months before it crashed in Gabon. During this flight, the players were requested by the captain to wear their life-jackets as the creaky plane coasted across the Indian Ocean. The stocky winger, Johnstone Bwalya held his nerve to photograph his colleagues in the inflatable life jackets!
This cheapening of the lives of the players bordered on the criminal! This was playing with the lives of someone’s child, someone’s beloved dad, someone’s benevolent uncle, someone’s nephew. In this author’s case – his only idol – Alex “Computer” Chola. This indifference to the welfare of the players was going on while our deplorable politicians were – now we know- messing with the nation’s cash register! For no sooner had the team crashed in Gabon than a DC 8 was hastily deployed to return the remains of the long-suffering players to Zambia; with the players dead, cost was strangely no longer a consideration!
It was in April, 1993 when the bumbling Buffalo had to attempt crossing the Indian Ocean again. This time to Mauritius. Both the Zambian political operatives and the incompetents in FAZ had – between December 1992 and April, 1993, still not figured out a way of chartering a commercial flight for the players. Ian Hawkey narrates how that the plan, for the Mauritius trip, was for the Buffalo to make two refuelling stops – in Malawi and Madagascar before landing in the picturesque island of Mauritius. The journey was supposed to have taken 10 hours in total. Unfortunately, after refuelling in Malawi and taking off, the plane was ordered back to Malawi because the next refuelling stop – Madagascar- had closed its airport for the night. The Buffalo being primed for short-haul flying could not reach Mauritius without stopping over in Madagascar. The players spent that night on the Buffalo at an airport in Malawi. They continued the journey the next day. The anticipated 10 hours journey became 24 hours!! This should have put a perceptive government and a well-clued sports administration on alert notice that disaster was imminent, but nay, not the Zambian administrators!
The most heart-rending description of this whole Buffalo debacle are the words of one of the liveliest characters Zambian football has ever known – Efford Chabala. Ian Hawkey recounts a conversation that Beauty Lupiya, a Zambian journalist that travelled with the team to Mauritius, had with Efford Chabala. In trying to persuade Beauty not to write about the tribulations of flying in the Buffalo said: “We have jobs to keep. Don’t write anything please but if we crash and a miracle happens that you survived, tell the nation the Buffalo is not the best plane to use”. Wow!
In short, Chabala seemed to have had a premonition that the team’s fate was sealed as long as they continued using the Buffalo. He and his colleagues were helpless in preventing their impending premature deaths. Other than quitting international football, they had limited options of sustenance, or so they must have thought. They were bread winners whose bread and butter was earned a bit handsomely through hopping on and off the Buffalo.
Perhaps, with the enduring lessons served up by the crash of the Buffalo, no self-respecting African footballer in this era of the game should think they have no other choice apart from enduring shabby treatment at the hands of their clubs, football association or indeed government. They could borrow a leaf from Emmanuel Adebayor who refused to board a plane to fulfill a World Cup qualifying match away to Zambia in September, 2008 because he had heard a rumour that the plane would crash. This made the flight to be delayed by 24 hours as he also asked the team not to board. The next day he gave a condition that he would only fly if the then president of the Togo Football Federation, Tata Avlessi Adagio de Mass joined the travelling party! He said, “My life is very dear to me and if we have to go down we’ll go down together with the President. There are rumours that if we go on the aircraft it will go down”.
Uncharacteristically, in an era where politicians and football officials would happily surrender an arm and a leg for per diems on foreign trips, the president of the Togo Football Federation claimed a family breavement stopped him from making the trip. The plane landed safely in Lusaka without any incident and Chipolopolo duly gunned down Togo. Well, maybe if the Lusaka grapevine had been as active as the Togolese one a few of the players who perished in Gabon would still be around, we will never know.
In commemorating the Gabon disaster, Zambians should resolve that never again will political greed, mediocrity and institutional incompetence endanger the lives of innocent Zambians again. The Jews never tire to observe the Holocaust memorial day lest some forget the tragedy that befell their people. 9/11 still brings America to a standstill. 21st March is a commemoration of Sharpeville massacre in South Africa where it is now celebrated as Human Rights Day while UNESCO observes it as the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination.
While the Gabon memorial should now be less of a graveside wailing event. It must needs graduate to memorializing the virtues of selfless national service and abasing mediocrity, incompetence, greed and the ilk. It should be observed by lectures, sports activity, schools organising activities around the memorial themes and candle light services. Scholarship Funds can be set up in memory of the fallen stars. The idea announced by FAZ of observing the day every five years is more a case of lack of creative thought about what to do with the 28th day of April, besides laying wreaths on the tomb stones and complaining about waist-high grass!
Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston “Yellow man” Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom “Summerbee” Chansa, Kelvin “Malaza” Mutale, Timothy “Teacher” Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba, Patrick “Bomber” Banda, Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu and Alex “computer” Chola – when the propellers of the De Havilland C5 Buffalo Zambia Air force military plane tired, the angels of God swept you up in their wings and took you to a bright resting place.
Editor – New African Football