2020 Stampedes: Iran, Tanzania, Kenya

On January 7, 2020, a human stampede erupted at a funeral procession for Qaem Soleimani in Kerman, Iran. The country’s renowned military general had recently been incinerated by a U.S. drone strike just outside the Baghdad International Airport. The angry crowd was left to ponder the aftermath of the tragedy: 56 dead, 200+ injured.

Based on similar past crowd crushes, the number of injuries is usually 5x to 10x the number of fatalities. So just over 200 injuries seems, by any means, a conservative estimate. Although the scope and magnitude of the incident is certainly horrific, there’s nothing “seemingly unusual” about the calamity itself. When 6-7 bodies occupy the physical space of 1 square meter, it becomes impossible to move, let alone draw breath. It’s simply physics.

A good friend saw coverage on the news and messaged me, asking if I was going to write an article about it. I replied, “I doubt it.” (Not joking, this actually happened). The sad truth, this particular stampede was basically just a human crush due to massive overcrowding. I tend to focus on unique triggers, specifically technological ones. Now I’ll concede that the crowd was hostile and emotions were running high. But like I said, although it was absolutely tragic, there really isn’t a whole lot of insight to be had.

Fast forward one month. Two human stampedes occurred in East Africa. These ones caught my attention.

Mt. Kilimanjaro provided a scenic backdrop for what turned out to be a deadly evening in Mosha, Tanzania. On February 1, 2020, Boniface Mwaposa, a popular evangelist, was conducting a religious revival in the local soccer stadium. When Mwaposa urged the crowd to step forward and be anointed with “holy water” or “sacred oil” or whatever, a crush ensued. Reuters reported at least 20 dead and more than a dozen hurt. Again, these final tallies seem purposely vague, or at the very least, misleading. Mwaposa was arrested the following morning at the airport in the capital city of Dar Es Salaam. He was allegedly attempting to flee the country.

Incidents like the one in Tanzania are on the rise. The entire continent of Africa has become a breeding ground for “prosperity preachers.” So not only are your ailments cured, but you also get lifted out of poverty. And find love, discover happiness, and so on and so forth. It’s more of an all-inclusive package. In a nation racked by extreme poverty and despair, such a presentation could be especially enticing. Truth be told, religious stampedes are the worst. Why? Because the deaths are entirely avoidable. Not to mention the notion of being killed or injured at the hands of a charlatan. A thorough investigation has been promised by authorities. Seriously though, the chain of accountability here seems pretty obvious.

Just a few days later on February 4, 2020 a stampede broke out at the Kakamega primary school near Nairobi, Kenya. The tally — 14 dead, over 40 injured… many critically. It has been alleged that a teacher was administering some form of “extreme corporal punishment.” The children, mostly 5th graders, feared they might be next in line to be disciplined. So they panicked and fled the school. Many appeared to have died in a narrow stairwell.

If the alleged accounts are accurate, it’s worth thinking about. Because these two stampedes had very different triggers. The Tanzania stampede was triggered by hope and desperation. The Kenya stampede was triggered by fear and terror. Two incredibly powerful motivators. Although this might sound a bit callous, stampedes occur due to unanticipated variables and unexpected circumstances. And an element of situational awareness always comes into play as well. Hence the reason I like to remind people that official evacuation orders for large, confined crowds (stadiums, ballparks, etc.) would NEVER be initially delivered via your personal cell phone.

Adding to the dilemma, in this day and age, there are a variety of ways to saturate large crowds and deliberately trick people in real-time. Social media rumors and hoaxes, weaponized tweets, wireless carrier hacking, deep fake technology, opt-in notification abuse, reverse 911 sabotage, Stingray, mass-trilateration, targeted spam, spear-phishing, malware, bulk texting, mass emails, robocalls, malicious application of cellular alerts — safety check-in alerts, phony presidential terror alerts, extreme weather alerts, campus text alerts, Amber alerts, etc. Take a moment and consider the fundamental essence of an active shooter alert followed by the command to “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.” People are more susceptible to real-time disinformation than ever before. This trend line is not fading. It’s becoming more and more prominent. Oops, I almost forgot… phone calls. Oh yeah, those things. Last time I checked, if you were suddenly worried about a loved one’s physical safety, whatcha gonna do? Oh yeah, call them. It’s the reason cell phones were created in the first place. To talk on them.

My point. Maybe it would be a good idea if someone, other than myself, relayed the truth about outdated emergency evacuation protocol. I know, I know. It sounds boring. But can I tell you something? (Don’t pretend like you’ve got a choice). I don’t take much solace in the prospect that the truth will eventually come out. What worries me is that this generic public safety information will only be disseminated in the aftermath of a preventable tragedy.

Because guess what? Stampedes happen. And they all have one shared trait. That being a negative outcome.