Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara yesterday ordered three days of national mourning and launched an investigation into the causes of the tragedy.
Two survivors said the normally open Boulevard de la Republic had been partially blocked when around 50,000 people gathered in the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium and elsewhere in Abidjan’s Plateau district to watch the fireworks.
Revellers encountered the barriers as they left the stadium.
“Near the Justice Palace we were stopped by some people who built wooden blockades in the street,” Zoure Sanate, 33, said from her Cocody Hospital bed. “They told us we must stay in the area until morning. None of us accepted to stay in Plateau until the morning for a celebration that ended at around 1am.
“Then came the stampede of people behind us,” she said. “My four children and I were knocked to the ground. I was hearing my kids calling me, but I was powerless and fighting against death. Two of my kids are in hospital with me, but two others are missing. They cannot be found.”
Another hospital patient, Brahima Compaore, 39, said he also was caught in the pile of people stopped by the roadblock.
“I found myself on the ground and people were walking on me,” said Mr Compaore. “I was only saved by people who pulled me onto the sidewalk.”
Local newspapers suggested thieves set up the roadblocks so that pickpockets could steal money and mobile phones from revellers. Some observers have asked why the police had not acted to prevent the tragedy.
“The investigation must take into account all the testimonies of victims,” said Mr Ouattara yesterday. “We will have a crisis centre to share and receive information.”
The president also postponed the traditional New Year’s receptions at his residence.
The leader of a human rights organisation said deadly incidents were predictable because the police and civil authorities had not taken adequate protective measures.
“The situation is deplorable,” said Thierry Legre, president of the Ivorian League of Human Rights. “It is our first tragedy of 2013 but in 2012 we could already see possibility of such a tragedy because there are not adequate authorities patrolling our roads and waters.”
Mr Legre said the stampede “exposes our weak and dysfunctional civil protection system. This must be corrected immediately. The government cannot invite people to this kind of public gathering without taking adequate precautions to protect their safety and their lives.”
The government organised the fireworks to celebrate Ivory Coast’s peace, after months of political violence in early 2011 following disputed elections.
In 2009, 22 people died and over 130 were injured in a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match at the overcrowded Houphouet Boigny Stadium.