By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 7th 2012)
The Irreplaceable Loss
Tomorrow afternoon Henan Construction FC’s Zambian striker Chris Katongo will lead his team out in Bata as underdogs against the Black Stars of Ghana. It is the first time that Zambia has a realistic chance of success in the African Cup of Nations since their unlikely campaign in 1994 – one that was robbed by a preventable disaster of possibly the greatest ever Zambian team.
On April 27th 1993 that talented Zambian team set out for a Cup of Nations qualifier against Senegal. Sadly they never arrived in Dakar. Eighteen players lost their lives, including former Zambian Sports Personality of the Year David Efford Chabala. He had been his country’s first choice goal-keeper for the last decade of his life and has a claim to be Zambia’s most-capped player – a claim also made by Kalusha Bwalya and their manager Godfrey Chitalu.
A plane that was unfit for travel was allowed to carry the hopes of a nation and lost them all. They had reservations about that plane, but allowed the love of their country and desire to play for the Zambia to persuade them to take the flight. Bwalya played for PSV Eindhoven at the time. He was due to fly to Dakar from the Netherlands and meet his team-mates there. It saved his life. Anderlecht’s Charles Musonda was injured. They were the lucky ones.
Midfielder Wisdom Chansa and defenders Samuel Chomba and Robert Watiyakeni played in South Africa, while Saudi Arabian football had secured the services of talented forwards Kelvin Mutale and Moses Masuwa. Mutale had scored a hat-trick for his country just three days earlier. Midfielder Godfrey Kangwa played in Morocco’s top league.
The other players who lost their lives were goal-keeper Richard Mwanza, defenders Whiteson Changwe, Winter Mumba, Kenam Simambe and John Somo, midfielders Moses Chikwalakwala, Derby Makina, Eston Mulenga and Numba Mwila and the forwards Patrick Banda and Timothy Mwitma.
Zambia’s tragic loss was not confined to players. Journalists and coaching staff also died, as did the plane’s crew and pilot. Chitalu was one of Zambia’s greatest players and he was busy proving the myth that great players can’t coach false. Chitalu was just 45. His assistant Alex Chola also had a distinguished playing career before moving into coaching. The then President of the Zambian FA, Michael Mwape was also lost in the crash.
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda loved and invested in football, but the economy stagnated and 1988 was both a great success and disaster for Zambian football. Their performance in the Olympics won admirers – it could hardly fail. Bwalya, scored a hat-trick in the 4-0 demolition of a good Italy side, but the economic down-turn had a heavy price. Zambia was due to host the African Cup of Nations that year, but had to pull out – it could not afford it.
They missed out on the World Cup and Kaunda was voted out of office after 27 years in 1991. The new President Frederick Chiluba failed to arrest the economic slide. A terrible consequence was that to save resources a plane that had was not flight-worthy was drummed into service. The Zambian FA had to cut costs, so it chose not to use the more expensive but safer Zambian airlines, but an air-force Buffalo DHC-5D that had not flown since December 1992. The plane was unfit to fly.
It stopped in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, but should never have been allowed to leave there as faults were noticed. Instead, it was decided that it should fly on to Libreville in Gabon for repairs, before refuelling in Abidjan and finally on to Dakar.
In addition to that, despite being tired from a previous flight, the pilot, Captain Fenton Mhone, was required to fly a great distance without sufficient rest. Repairs were conducted at Libreville, but shortly after departing the plane had further problems. An engine caught fire and the pilot mistakenly switched off power to the wrong engine. It plunged into the Atlantic Ocean killing everyone on board. This was a shamefully preventable tragedy.
No expense was spared to return the bodies of the lost generation to Zambia for burial. If only they had been treated with such courtesy while alive that talented team would have had the opportunity to prove themselves to be one of Africa’s finest teams. They were given a state funeral at Lusaka’s Independence Stadium and lavish promises were made to the bereaved. They were promised that the education of their children would be paid for by the Zambian State and that they would be given answers about why the crash happened
An inquiry by the Gabon Defence Ministry and a Zambian one blamed pilot error for switching off the wrong engine, but the fact that the other engine was plainly unfit to use escaped mention. The full Zambian report, that had been promised to the victims’ family, was never made public. A promise that an annual commemoration would be paid for and held by the State was also cynically broken.
Almost nineteen years later the full truth about the final moments of the lost generation of Zambian football has yet to emerge. Their relatives are still denied justice even though Chiluba was later accused of monumental corruption. He was eventually acquitted. He died last year. None of the probes of Chiluba’s activities investigated the broken promises to the families of the lost generation of Zambian football. The Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) and football itself should ensure that not only are they remembered as Gabon’s African Cup of Nations draws to a close, but that broken promises are belatedly kept.