Today (April 28th 2014) is the 21st anniversary of the terrible plane crash that shook African football to its core. With the kind permission of Empower-Sport Ltd. the magazine publishes the story of the crash and broken promises again in a version updated by Sekar for us. Another year has passed without the Zambian government fulfilling its promises. The current government promised answers and the release of the report to Satish Sekar in a recorded interview. Once again we call on Zambian Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili and his President Michael Sata to honour the promises made to us. The memory of the Lost Generation of Zambian football and their families deserve no less. We also call on FIFA and CAF to use their influence with the governments of Gabon and Zambia to ensure that the long overdue answers are provided. I hope that next year’s anniversary will pass without us having to make the same call for progress.
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 13th 2013) – Updated April 27th 2014
Imagine a national football team, say Spain in 2007, or England in 1965 that was tipped for great things, were killed in a plane crash before they achieved their potential. Now imagine successive governments over two decades promising to release the report of what happened and each of those governments broke their promises. And somehow, despite the tragedy, the players that replaced them reached the final of a major tournament the following year, losing narrowly.
Couldn’t happen? Well it has to last year’s African champions (2012) Zambia. 21 years ago the Zambian team, bar three regular players [Kalusha Bwalya, Johnson Bwalya (no relation) and Charly Musonda], were killed off the coast of Libreville, Gabon. Despite the changes in government over two decades the families of the victims of the Gabon Air Disaster, which robbed Africa of the most promising generation of Zambian football are still waiting for answers. Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili pledged to release the (Zambian) report last year.
“The only other issue remaining is the release of the reports for the families to know exactly what transpired,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of Zambia’s triumph in the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations.
“The previous government – our predecessors – didn’t release the Gabon Report, but as the new government, we are looking very positively to try and see the reports, so that we can release it to the public, so the public can know exactly what transpired here.”
When pressed on whether the new government would release the report Kambwili said: “Certainly.” I pressed further about when that would happen. “Very soon,” he said. Sadly we are still waiting.
A Pressing Need
Despite Kambwili’s pledge made 26 months ago the reports have not been published, but representatives of the families are still requesting their release. “Without the report the gap in our lives can never be filled until we die,” said Numba Mwila Jnr, whose father a Zambian midfielder of the same name was one the victims of the crash. Mr Mwila spoke to us on behalf of all the victims’ families.
“The minister, after Zambia won the cup, promised the release of the report,” he said.“We want the government to recognise our worth and presence and respect us, because our people pioneered all the glory that Zambia [the Chipolopolo] has today.”
Kambwili recognises that the people of Zambia, especially the victims’ families need to know what happened. Over two years ago the Minister told me exclusively: “As I go back I will table that with the Cabinet, because you know that the government is run by the Cabinet. As [a] Minister I will take the issue before the Cabinet and then Cabinet will approve, so we can release the report.” More than two years later if the issue was ever placed before Zambia’s Cabinet, the government that pledged open government has yet to keep its word and release the report.
The families still want answers and to understand what happened to their fathers. “People went to Gabon to watch the Final, using our names instead of ourselves,” Mr Mwila said. “We want to go to Gabon as the families to see the site were our fathers died so we can know and see what happened. Always when the memorial is about to approach there is some talk, but for 20 years we have been denied the truth about what happened, despite many promises.”
Kambwili stressed to me that Michael Sata’s government was pledged to openness and that there would be no problem releasing the report. “I can tell you something: there has been agreements,” Kambwili said. But 26 months after Kambwili’s pledge, Zambia’s Cabinet still has not been asked to consider releasing the report and despite further requests for the release of the report by the victims’ families their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Why?
“All the five Presidents have pledged to release the agreements to the people, but we’ve done it as the new government,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of the Chipolpolo’s African Cup of Nations triumph in Gabon in 2012. “We’re very committed to being transparent with everything that we do, so even the Gabon Disaster Report; it will not be a problem. It will be published. The people of Zambia have a right to know what exactly transpired.”
Over two years later the report into the deaths of five crew members and 25 passengers, which included the cream of Zambian football has yet to be released. On April 28th 1993 the Zambian Air Force’s de Haviilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo piloted by Fenton Mhone took off from Libreville International Airport. Problems had already been noticed at Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and again in Libreville where it refuelled. Work was done on the plane in Gabon, but it soon ran into trouble after departing nearly two hours late, raising questions as to whether it was flight-worthy or not. It crashed, killing all on board. 21 years later the truth of that terrible night has yet to emerge.
“Like I said I’m not privy to the Gabon Report,” Kambwili told me in our interview in February 2012. “It hasn’t been released, so I don’t have the details, but from what we were told when we went to the beach where the accident happened, the people that were there – eyewitnesses – told us that as the plane was going it started to turn like it wanted to go back and re-land at Libreville International Airport.”
It never got the chance killing perhaps the finest generation of Zambian football. A mystery that still awaits resolution began that night, fuelling conspiracy theories about the cause of that crash and who was to blame. Mhone is not the first pilot to be blamed for a crash, but his family have to live with not even knowing what exactly he was accused of doing and whether other causes have been ignored.
“In the process the plane exploded and there were some flames in the air before it went down, so it is difficult for me to say that the plane was not flight-worthy, or it wasn’t in good condition until I read the report,” Kambwili said. “That would be speculation.”
Still Waiting for Answers
Over two years after Kambwili’s pledge – yet to be kept – the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster are still waiting for answers. The report has not been released. But this is not the only report on the terrible crash never to see the light of day. The Gabonese Ministry of Defence also investigated the causes of the crash and produced a report. Its preliminary report suggested pilot error, but the full report and conclusions have never been released for public scrutiny. Until told of its existence by me, Kambwili was unaware of it.
“No, no, no,” he said. “We haven’t seen it. As we are here, the Vice President is going to pay a courtesy call on the President and probably I can ask him to find out if they have got a report that was done from there.”
When assured that there was no doubt that the Gabonese investigated the crash themselves and produced a report Kambwili expressed interest in it. “We will try and follow it up and I will ask the Vice President when he pays a courtesy call on his brother [Gabon’s President] to find out if there is any report and if there is any report we will try and ask for it, so we can compare it to the report that is going to be produced,” Kambwili said.
The twentieth anniversary of the crash passed last year. Neither the Zambian or Gabonese reports on the disaster have been released. Sheila Coleman, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, supports the Zambian footballers’ families’ fight for justice.
“This sad story of the loss of so many lives will resonate with anybody involved in the Hillsborough Disaster,” Ms Coleman said.
“Twenty years on and families are still seeking the truth – sound familiar? Football supporters around the world should support the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster in their fight to establish the facts surrounding the deaths of those young talented Zambian footballers.”
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extended solidarity to the victims’ families. Their fight for justice over the Hillsborough Disaster took a quarter of a century before justice began to emerge. “The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extends it’s support to the families of the victims of the Gabon air disaster,” Ms Coleman said. “Although continents separate us, we are united by our struggles.”
Among those who lost their lives just off the coast from Libreville on April 28th 1993 was goal-machine Godfrey Ucar Chitalu, whose feat of 116 goals scored in 1972 remains unsurpassed despite Lionel Messi’s achievement last year (2012). Chitalu was the coach of that promising Zambian team, which included perhaps the best ever goal-keeper to represent the Chipolopolo, Efford Chabala.