PRISCILLA CHIPULU & STEVEN MVULA, Lusaka
GOVERNMENT has suspended operations of Church of Christ following a stampede that killed eight people, including a nine-month-old baby, in Lusaka yesterday as a church organisation doled out free food hampers.
The accident also left 28 people injured.
Inspector-General of Police Kakoma Kanganja and his officers from the divisional headquarters had to stop the programme to avert a bigger disaster at the OYDC.
Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Godfridah Sumaili said in an interview that the church failed to submit operating documents even after being asked to do so on Thursday last week.
She said the church will remain suspended until investigations are concluded by relevant authorities.
Reverend Sumaili said the government was not aware of the outreach programme the Church of Christ had engaged in at the OYDC yesterday.
â€œI asked them last week on Thursday before the event could take place to bring the certificate of registration, their constitution and their profile but they didnâ€™t bring. We have deaths involved. Therefore, we decided to suspend its operations until investigations are completed,â€ she said.
What was to be a joyful event turned tragic as thousands of Lusaka residents, including those who had not been registered as beneficiaries, surged forward to get their own share of the windfall.
The dead and the injured were among over 35,000 people who had gathered as early as 04:00 hours to receive the free food hampers from the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ).
Police spokesperson Esther Katongo said an investigation had been launched into the matter.
However, before the stampede resulted in more deaths, Mr Kanganja and his officers stormed the premises to halt the programme.
An uncompromising but tactful Mr Kanganja was accompanied by Lusaka Province commissioner of police Nelson Phiri, other senior police officers and Mayor of Lusaka Wilson Kalumba.
Wiggling his way through the hordes of people, Mr Kanganja managed to reach the podium and addressed the crowd comprising mostly women with babies strapped on their backs.
He spoke in Nyanja, and the authority could not be mistaken in his voice.
â€œLeave this place in a slow and orderly manner. Donâ€™t run. We have cancelled this programme so that it can perhaps be organised properly. You saw what happened in the morning. We donâ€™t want to lose more lives here,â€ Mr Kanganja said calmly but boldly.
But the crowd did not want to give up easily.
They were adamant and roared back defiantly that they would only leave after receiving their share.
â€œWhy did they bring us here? We want transport money to get back to our homes!â€ an elderly woman shouted back at Mr Kanganja.
However, after several minutes of persuasion, Zambiaâ€™s police chief convinced the crowd, which started reluctantly pouring out of the OYDC premises, which had been filled to the brim.
The media-shy event organiser, Lesedi Maphedto, of a group called Lesedi Seven, which was working under the auspices of the Church of Christ immediately and calmly claimed innocence.
â€œWe came here with the intention to give to the poor and the elderly. We worked with local pastors in various churches and we gave out 35,000 tickets for food hampers comprising a 10 kilogramme bag of mealie-meal and one kilogramme of beans,â€ Mr Maphedto said with a heavy accent before abruptly ending the interview.
But what really happened before the stampede?
The injured narrated the ordeal from their hospital beds at Chipata and Matero referral hospitals as they grappled with the reality of the tragedy.
Speaking from her hospital bed at Chipata Referral Hospital, 71-year-old Mutape Banda said she had gone to OYDC as early as 04:00 hours in the company of other elderly women to receive the free hampers.
A devout Catholic, Ms Banda narrated that the opening of the gate to the OYDC was delayed forcing people to surge forward thereby pushing her and her friends to the ground.
â€œMzukulu wanga (my grandson) I am in pain. As you can see for yourself I am an elderly woman who was told by a friend that I would receive free food. But while waiting there, people became impatient and forced their entry. This made the few police officers to fire teargas,â€ Ms Banda.
Hospital superintendent Gabriel Ngongo confirmed receiving 29 people of whom 18 were women and 11 men.
Dr Ngongo said seven people, one of them a nine-month old baby, had been brought in dead.
Ms Bandaâ€™s story tied with that of 24-year-old Catherine Muhango, who is admitted to the Matero Referral Hospital.
â€œI fellowship at BIGOCA, but I got the coupon at the Baptist Church. They delayed to open the gates and in the process people forced their way in and police fired teargas causing the strong ones to stample on us,â€ Ms Banda said.
Mr Kalumba dispelled assertions that the stampede had been caused by hunger.
â€œIt is inevitable that where there are freebies (free handouts) people will turn out in large numbers and as you know that area is highly populated,â€ he said.
PRISCILLA CHIPULU & STEVEN MVULA, Lusaka