Africa

Zambia's 19-year wait for closure

Charles Mafa

The government has yet to reveal what caused the aeroplane crash that killed the football team

Nineteen years after the aeroplane crash in which the entire Zambian football squad was killed, the Zambian government has yet to release the full official report of the inquiry into the disaster.

And as next week’s anniversary of the 1993 crash looms, a relative of one the dead players has called on the government to come clean.

Michael Chanda, the elder brother of former Zambian forward Kelvin Mutale, said although the report would not bring back his brother, it might prompt the authorities to take measures to avoid such accidents in future.

The two-engine air force Buffalo transport aeroplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Gabon, killing 18 footballers en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal as well as another 12 people on board.

Each year, relatives and friends of members of the team — probably the best Zambia has produced — join government officials at “Heroes’ Acre” outside Lusaka’s Independence Stadium for a memorial ceremony.

In 2003, the Zambian government issued a partial report in Parliament through former vice-president Nevers Mumba, ascribing the accident to a mechanical fault in the plane’s left engine.

Mumba added that this could only be confirmed by experts.

The report also indicated that the pilot had been tired, having just flown back the previous day from a match played in Mauritius, where Mutale had scored three goals.

It did not explain why the aeroplane was allowed to fly.

Mumba said the government would make an official statement on the report at a later date, which has never happened.

Asked why the government has not released the report and when it would do so, the permanent secretary in Zambia’s ministry of information, Amos Malupenga, said he could only attend to the question next week.

In an interview this week, the bereaved Chanda said Zambia’s success in the Africa Cup of Nations this year had only succeeded in bringing back memories of his brother.

He said he had prayed for Zambian defender Stophira Sunzu as he stepped up to take the decisive spot kick against Ivory Coast during the final in February.

However, when Sunzu scored, Chanda’s elation gave way to sadness.

“That joy brought back memories of my brother,” he said.

“I know that the team [of 1993] was headed for great success.”

He said his brother was the hope of the family, a generous man who was much loved.

“While some of his friends spent their money drinking, Kelvin managed to build a house for dad and mom during his years as a footballer.”

According to the Aviation Safety Network, an investigation by Gabon’s ministry of defence suggested that, after the failure of the ill-fated aeroplane’s left engine, the pilot had shut down the other engine, causing the aircraft to lose all power.

The report, released in November 2003, also found that the pilot had been suffering from fatigue.

The Aviation Safety Network is a private, independent initiative founded in 1983 by a Dutch national to gather information on aircraft accidents.

The Zambian squad was forced to confront painful memories of the tragedy when they played the Africa Cup final in the Gabonese capital, Libreville.

Kalusha Bwalya, probably Zambia’s greatest player and now the president of the country’s football federation, escaped the April 28 crash because he was based in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven and had made his own travel arrangements.

Bwalya, the 1988 African footballer of the year and former Zambian skipper, told the BBC before the Africa Cup that his players would not be pressured by memories of the tragedy.

“I have said to the boys [that] there is no pressure on them. But they have to know that one of the best teams in Africa and world football died off the coast of Gabon, so we will get emotional when we get there.”

Zambia’s 87-year-old former president, Kenneth Kaunda, travelled to Libreville for the final.

Because of his intense interest in the game, the national side was once known as the KKXI.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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