There was a moment when I was in the crush, when I could feel other people’s knees and elbows digging into my body, when it became just a little bit harder to breathe. The gates ahead of us were locked. Officials were frantically looking for a key, but couldn’t find one. A police officer picked up a rock and started hammering it against the chains. The crush got a little bit tighter. The police horse to my right couldn’t move, rammed in against bodies on all sides.
Suddenly, the chain was smashed and the gates opened. Everyone surged forwards and we staggered, one by one, through the turnstiles, grinning and laughing, relieved that we were out of the melee.
During the few hours I spent at Nigeria’s national stadium in Abuja for the Super Eagles’ World Cup match against Kenya there were several incidents like that which could have been fatal.
The police seemed more interested in taking a whack at fans then guaranteeing our safety. As we walked up towards the stadium a few hours before kick off, black-clad police appeared waving branches they had just ripped off nearby trees. Anyone without a ticket in their hand got a beating. I saw one guy struggling to get his out of his wallet as three police officers took aim at his legs and back.
Too many tickets had been sold. An hour before kick-off the public address announcer implored those fans standing in the gangways and at the back of the stands to move up to the second tier. A few yards to my left there was a loud crackling noise as a police officer used a cattle prod to disperse some fans. They responded by throwing water bottles and cans.
There was nowhere for the fans to go. By the time the match started every gangway was full, as were the entrances at the back of the stands. In front of us tall metal mesh fences separated fans from the running track and the pitch – the sort of fences which proved so deadly at Hillsborough 20 years ago.
If something had happened – a fire, a fight – there would have been nowhere to run.
Too many stadiums in Africa have a problem with crowd safety. In Ivory Coast 19 people were killed earlier this year, while eight died in Monrovia the year before. Every single one of the last 10 stadium disasters around the world happened in Africa.
Some of the problems are relatively simple to deal with. For a start, don’t be greedy and try and sell more tickets than there are seats. The crumbling state of many of the stadia is also a fairly straightforward to solve if money is available.
Other problems are a bit harder. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of will, to change a culture of policing which views football fans as animals. In England things only started to change after 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough.
On the pitch Nigeria beat Kenya 3-0. The match was more even than the scoreline suggests and the Super Eagles may struggle against Tunisia, their main rivals in the World Cup qualifying group. It would be a shame if some of the continent’s best players don’t make it to Africa’s first World Cup. It would be a tragedy if any of their fans were killed along the way.