Scribe’s visit to place of disaster

GABONESE soldiers and rescuers assembled at the beach as divers searched for the bodies of passengers after the 1993 crash that killed members of the Zambian national soccer team. PICTURE: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE — GETTY IMAGES

CYNTHIA MWALE, Libreville, Gabon
I WAS a journalism student in Kitwe, and as part of my training, I had opportunities occasionally to cover local football matches.One player I remember watching was the nimble-footed Numba Mwila, who comes from a footballing family. His younger brother is currently coach of Zanaco Football Club, one of the leading teams in the local league.
Numba, who did his primary and secondary school in Ndola, initially played for Abraham Mokola’s Vitafoam United before moving to the star-studded Nkana Red Devils after just one season.
At that time, Nkana was at its peak in local football and used to contribute perhaps more players to the national team than any other team.
Not surprisingly, Nkana lost the highest number of players in the Gabon air disaster, which claimed the lives of 25 passengers and five crew members who were on their way for a World Cup qualifier match in Senegal.
The plane crash took place in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon. Numba was among the 18 players who died in the crash.
Last week was the 25th anniversary of the Gabon air disaster.
As the commemorations were happening in Lusaka, I happened to be in Libreville, Gabon, the place of disaster but also of joy. It is a place of joy because, in 2012, the Zambia national football team, with Kalusha Bwalya, who himself survived the Gabon disaster as a player, now as president of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) lifted the Africa Cup of Nations after beating Ivory Coast at the Stade d’Angondjé in Libreville, just a short distance from the spot where the air crash happened.
I arrived in Libreville on Monday April 23 via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was not an entirely comforting trip although I can imagine not as bad as that one experienced by the national team on the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) DHC-5 Buffalo aircraft which crashed.
We had a fairly difficult landing after being met by cloudy winds that caused turbulence. On my part, I experienced butterflies in my stomach.
Other than that, language was also a barrier as Gabon is a French-speaking country. The entry procedures took almost two hours to be completed.
I was here to attend the 14th Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) Partnership Platform.
The CAADP is Africa’s policy framework for agricultural transformation, wealth creation, food security and nutrition, economic growth and prosperity for all.
In 2003, the African Union (AU) Summit in Maputo, Mozambique, made the first declaration on CAADP as an integral part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
Agriculture is everyone’s business: national independence depends on its development because it enables us to escape the scourge of food insecurity that undermines our sovereignty and fosters sedition; it is a driver of growth whose leverage is now acknowledged by economists and politicians; it is the sector offering the greatest potential for poverty and inequality reduction, as it provides sources of productivity from which the most disadvantaged people working in the sector should benefit,” said Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, chief executive officer of the NEPAD Agency.
The meeting I was attending was themed ‘Accelerating the implementation of the National Agricultural Investment Plans to Achieve the Malabo Goals and Targets.
The Malabo Policy is a follow- up to the African heads of State and governments commitment to the Malabo Declaration in 2014 to request the AU Commission (AUC) and NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency to work with member states, regional economic communities and partners to report every two years on the progress made in the implementation of the declaration.
However, the biennial review report revealed that the continent as a whole is not on track to achieve the Malabo Declaration by 2025, as observed by the AU Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, Josefa Sacko.
Mrs Sacko urged member states to turn around the scenario by formulating Malabo compliant national agriculture investment plans (NAIPs).
In addition, she said there is need to mobilise and invest in priority areas identified in the NAIPs while strengthening systemic capacity for implementation and coordination.
She said the 14th CAADP PP was a good platform to strategise on how countries can be supported to revise or update their NAIP to invest and implement the Malabo declaration.
The host country, Gabon, did relatively well in the scorecard. Zambia was not far off.
It was an intense three-day meeting and on April 27, the Zambian entourage decided to head to the Sablie coast, where the Gabon air crash occurred.
It was a 10 minutes’ drive from our hotel, Radisson Blu. The driver managed to take us there using the almost impassable gravel road.
It was a sobering moment.
“So this is the road where the bits and pieces [remains] were being transported,” one colleague remarked.
It all took us to that day in April 1993 when news filtered through that the national football team had been involved in a plane crash.
Like Dan Bilefsky, a Canada correspondent for The New York Times, based in Montreal, wrote following the death of members of Chapecoense soccer club of Brazil in a plane crash on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia, plane crashes can be uniquely devastating when a sports team is involved.
Keen followers of Manchester United will be familiar with the Munich disaster, which happened when the plane carrying the team crashed as it was taking off from Munich’s airport in Germany. Of the 44 people on board, 23 died including eight players and eight journalists.
The crash would play a role in cementing the Red Devil’s status as the club rebounded to re-emerge as a dominant force in English football.
Zambia equally managed to rebound following the 1993 disaster. The following year, the Great Kalusha-inspired team managed to reach the final of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations before narrowly losing 2-1 in the final to Nigeria.
They almost made it to the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States but were denied by Morocco (or, as many soccer fans believe, by Gabonese referee Jean-Fidele Diramba, who they thought made some questionable decisions).
On Saturday, April 28, it was time to say aurevoir (goodbye) to Libreville.
Gabon will forever be part of our football legacy.

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