Heroes remembered – Zambia commemorates 26-years of the ‘Gabon Air Disaster’

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“FATHER we ask you to look kindly upon this nation.  Look at your people they are destroyed. They are indeed distressed, they are deprived but with you near us, with your angels guiding us, Lord yes we have lost but we know you will sustain us,” said President Frederick Chiluba in his prayer during the burial of national team heroes who perished on April 27, 1993 when a Zambian Air Force de Havilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 500 metres offshore from Libreville, Gabon.

To date, the crash is regarded as one of Zambia’s darkest days as the nation lost 25 passengers and five crew members who were killed in the plane which was taking the Zambia national soccer team to Senegal for a FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Teranga Lions.

This year marks 26 years since the Gabon Plane disaster which took the lives of 18 talented sons of the soil such as striker Timothy Mwitwa, midfielder Numba Mwila, shot stopper Efford Chabala among others.

Chabala remains one of Zambia’s best goalkeepers ever produced. Born in Mufulira on February 2, 1960, he was Zambia national soccer team’s first choice goalkeeper from 1983 until his death on April 27, 1993 in the Gabon plane crash.

His brilliant saves between the goalposts not only left Zambian fans in amazement, but also the international scene. His outstanding saves between the sticks included saving a penalty from Emmanuel Quarshie in Accra, and aided Zambia’s qualification to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games on a 2-1 aggregate score-line against the Black Stars of Ghana..

Chabala started his career as a striker for Lubuto Amateur Club, but a two-hour cover up for his absentee teammate in goal during a training session, was impressive and saw him switch to manning the posts.

He played for Mufulira Wanderers from 1978-1991 and had a stint in Argentina with Argentinos Juniors during the 1991/92 season but he returned to Wanderers in March 1992 till his death.

Midfielder Numba Mwila was a rare gem. One of Zambia’s talented left-footed midfield maestros. Many have been left guessing what he was to be, if not for the 1993 plane disaster, that put a stop to the talent embedded in the veins.

Mwila’s performances at 13-time Zambian league champions Nkana earned him a place at the national team under the tutelage of Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu who also perished in the plane crash.

Meanwhile striker, Timothy Mwitwa’s incredible soccer skills cannot easily be brushed off. Nicknamed “Teacher” or Tim “Tiger,” Mwitwa provoked a sense of pure joy whenever he had the ball at his feet.

Born with the finest talent on May 21, 1968 Mwitwa became an instrumental player in the Zambia national team and featured in the 1990 and 1992 Africa Cup Championships where Zambia was booted out in the semi-finals and quarter-final stages respectively.

Mwitwa’s career started at Kabwe Rangers whose mesmerising skill during trials at Kabwe Warriors convinced then Coach Godfrey Chitalu to ink his name in the magnificent team.

He played a role in Warriors’ maiden win of the Zambian Super League championship in 1987 and Champion of Champions Cup the same season before joining Nkana in 1993.

 Others who perished in the plane crush include John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Godfrey Kangwa, Kelvin Mutale and Wisdom Chansa, Richard Mwanza, Winter Mumba, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Patrick Banda, Kenani Simambe, and assistant coach Alex Chola.

Crew members, Phenton Mhone (head pilot), James Sachika (co-pilot), Victor Mubanga (co-pilot), Edward Nambote (flight planner) and Thomson Sakala (steward).

Others were Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) president Michael Mwape, executive member Wilson Sakala, team medic Wilson Mtonga, deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Youth and Sport Nelson Zimba and Joseph Salim (journalist).

The crash left the victims’ families with a lot of unanswered question as to what caused the accident. In an interview with Daily Nation Sports after the 24 years Gabon memorial service held at the Heroes Acre, Freeman Chabala, son to the late goal keeper Efford Chabala called on the government to give the affected families a report of what caused the death of his father and his colleagues.

Chabala said it was frustrating that the affected families were not given a report of what caused the crash 24 years after the accident.

“We have always been asking for the report and its becoming frustrating. A report is what can tell us what really happened. Most of us were young and we have sisters who were babies and right now we don’t know what to tell them because we also don’t know what happened.

“We want the report. It’s becoming more annoying because it’s like they don’t want to listen to us. The pain will never stop, not until we know what caused the plane crash,” Chabala said.

But how did Government take the news of the plane clash in Gabon?

“We had been in Kampala on the night of April 27 1993 when the first,  tentative report that the Zambia Airforce de Havilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 500 meters offshore from Libreville, Gabon and that all 25 passengers and flight crew had perished.

“It was unbelievable because only a few days earlier, I had handled correspondence concerning the sustainability of the aircraft to undertake the trip.  President Chiluba had been assured that the plane was in good shape and the crew was experienced and capable of undertaking the trip. It was on this assurance that the president, as Commander-in-chief had authorized the flight,” said former State House Press aide Richard Sakala in the fifth chapter of the book “A President Betrayed.”

“Although no official report has been released, a Gabonese investigation concluded that the accident was as a result of the instrument and pilot error. The investigation found that pilot fatigue and an instrument of error had contributed to the accident.

“The speculation was that the left engine caught fire and failed. The pilot who had also flown the team from a match in Mauritius earlier in the week, then reportedly shut down the right engine, causing total loss of power, leading to the crash into the Atlantic Ocean. That Kampala to Lusaka flight was one of the longest,” Sakala explained.

The 1988 African footballer of the year, Kalusha Bwalya, who escaped Zambia’s plane disaster because he was travelling separately said; “I have been privileged to have been with the Zambia national team from when I was a teenager (1982-2000). Blood, sweat and tears, I hope could represent people who are not here today.

“The memories are with me. If you think about it this month (April) marks 25 years since our gallant team left us off the shores of Gabon, it makes it more significant to all of us as Zambians,” said Kalusha Bwalya after he was honoured last year by the Gauteng Province government for the recognition of his contribution to the development of football in Zambia and Africa as a whole.

Bwalya is not only respected for his heroics and superb free kick taking skills but for his achievements as FAZ president.

It was under his reign when Zambia conquered Africa and went on to win the prestigious Africa Cup of Nations after humbling giants Ivory Coast 8-7 on post-match penalty shootouts following a goalless draw in the final played in Libreville, Gabon, a few kilometers from where the 1993 heroes died.

 Bwalya, considered as the greatest Zambian footballer of all time, was engulfed by the Zambian players after their victory in Gabon in a penalty shoot-out, and wished that it was his former team-mates celebrating with him as he shed tears of joy after being crowned 2012 African Champions.

As we commemorate the 26th Gabon Memorial anniversary on April 27, 2019, it is crucial to remember what President Chiluba asked for in the national heroes sending off prayer:

“Father we ask you to look kindly upon this nation. Look at your people they are destroyed. They are indeed distressed, they are deprived but with you near us with your angels guiding us lord yes we have lost but we know you will sustain us and you will give us.”

Yes we lost great sons of the soil and there is need to seek peace. The peace that comes from the Lord and not the peace of the world but the peace that unites us as a nation, the peace from God.

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