Never before in the history of inland waterways management in Nigeria has emphasis on the use of waterways as a means of public transportation received attention as it is doing now. However, despite the intensified safety campaign, boat mishaps occur virtually every month. Are boat operators, for whatever reasons, willingly jettisoning useful advice on how to ply their trade? IZUCHUKWU OZOEMENA asks.

Perhaps, Nigeria’s inland waterways are jinxed, quipped a Lagos civil servant who said he regularly rides boat to office to avoid usual delays on the road caused by traffic gridlock. He was expressing worry on the persistence of boat mishaps nationwide despite the high level of public enlightenment on safety on the waterways by the National Inland Waterways Authority, NIWA.

Of late, Nigerians have been commending the current leadership of NIWA on pragmatic efforts so far put in place to ensure that travelling by water is safe. But the irony of it all, they say, is the more the public enlightenment the more, boat operators subject voyagers to untimely death by disobeying basic safety rules as demanded by the inland waterways regulator.

In a tone loaded with anger, another respondent who volunteered views on the rising cases of boat accidents on Nigerian inland waters shortly after a vigorous safety enlightenment programme by NIWA wondered openly. “Why can’t boat operators obey simple safety regulations while plying their trade? Why resort to reckless speed and night journeys, especially when they know that the waterways have wrecks and obstructions that can cause accident?” Yet, another respondent joked that maybe, the mythical mermaid on Lagos waters is opposed to the series of safety enlightenment campaigns and is now exerting her influence to spite serious efforts by the authorities in this regard.

In the last week in August, at least ten travelers were confirmed dead when a boat said to be carrying over one hundred passengers from Ebe village, Lokoja local government area of Kogi State, sank into the river following sea turbulence. The mishap, according to reports, occurred due to over-loading, over-speeding and movement at the dead of the night. According to reports, the unfortunate incident happened because of diversion by the passenger boat from the original channel into Burara River in order to escape the prying eyes of security operatives as it was also carrying drums of crude oil. Mostly traders, the passengers were said to have embarked on the night voyage to be able to be at the neighbouring Lamata market the following day.

Similarly, at least 10 people reportedly died in Port Harcourt, August 29, when a boat carrying 35 passengers capsized and sank. Said Onimode Bandele, co-ordinator, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA): “We can confirm that 10 persons died early today when a Port Harcourt-bound passenger boat sank”.

As at press time, NEMA was collaborating with other agencies to rescue the drowned and others as local divers rescued 17 persons, including four members of the National Youth Service Corps. The chairman of Bonny local government council, Adonye Wilcox, also confirmed the accident, which he said occurred at 7:45 am. “Information available indicates that the boat hit an object on the way and sank,” he said.

At about 8 pm on a particular evening last March, a boat ferrying people across 4th Avenue on 42 Road, Festac Town, Lagos, capsized and drowned 18 passengers in the murky waters of the canal. This incident prompted the Lagos State Waterways Authority, LASWA, to place a ban on night rides on water. As the outboard engine-powered boat moved to the middle of the canal, narrated a survivor, it developed engine problems and because it was overloaded, it tilted and water suddenly filled it up.

In the same month of March, another incident took place at Ogogoro Village in Navy Town, Apapa. A boat capsized and killed about 10 persons including a mother and her child. The death toll from a similar incidence on April 2 along Ebute Ero- Ikorodu waterway in Lagos was put at 10. The boat was said to have hit a solid object in the waters, upturning and throwing all its 28 commuters into the open sea at Majidun in Ikorodu. The victims included pregnant mothers and a lady and her fiancé whose wedding was scheduled for the end of the month. The would-be couple was said to have parked their car at Bell Marine jetty in Ikorodu before embarking on the voyage which claimed their lives.

The first weekend in September was tragic for the people of Niger State as a boat conveying commuters capsized between Dere and Murtala Bridge on the River Niger, claiming no fewer than 33 persons. The boat accident was said to have occurred at 4.30 am when a pipeline patrol team flashed its light on it, leading to the loss of control by the operator with over 100 passengers on board.
The boat, which was conveying passengers to Lokoja market from Katcha Local Government of Niger State, was said to have broken into two. Eye witnesses attributed the high casualty figure to lack of life jackets by the passengers.

The time of the travel may have also shielded the boat from checks by concerned authorities, just as the seaworthiness of the boat could not be confirmed. It is common for river transporters to overload their boats without providing safety jackets for passengers.

It was also gathered that among the victims were people from Yawa and Baka in Lapai Local Government Area of Niger State.
Aside the 100 persons the boat was conveying, it had on- board 100 bags of rice, baskets of fish and other valuables.

A shipwreck is what remains of a ship or boat which was either wrecked, sunk or beached. Causes of shipwreck include long negligence by the owner, bad weather, poor design and fire. Others are improperly stowed cargo, collision with another vessel, navigational and human errors that could lead to abandonment, shoreline dislocation and other geographical problems. The United Nations (UN) estimates that there are more than three million shipwrecks in the ocean floor worldwide.
Nigeria is one of the major countries where many ship wrecks are said to be lying under the water bed. By her position, Lagos State occupies a prominent place in the comity of states concerned, perhaps, a reason for the unending cases of boat mishaps.

In 2009, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) got federal government’s approval to remove wrecks from the nation’s waterways at a cost of N3.4 billion. Twenty-four of the wrecks were deemed highly critical to navigation around Nigerian waters. As stated by Malam Abdulsalam Mohammed, the then managing director of NPA, surveys conducted in the Lagos waters showed that more than 100 wrecks were lying in different locations along the channel. He revealed that out of the 31 wrecks considered very critical to navigation, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) was working on seven. In the Port Harcourt and Bonny Channels, NPA identified 24 wrecks, five of which it considered as critical to shipping.

At the global level, marine mishaps do happen especially in climes where safety rules and regulation are not rigidly observed. This happened recently in South Korea when a ferry drowned more than 300 out of 459 passengers.

Boat accidents in Nigeria occur frequently following reckless driving, collision with hard objects submerged in water, night voyages and overloading. Other reasons include poor vessel maintenance, over-speeding and poor lighting. Of all the factors, wrecks and other solid bodies in water which cannot be easily seen during navigation contribute the highest.

To demonstrate its concern for increasing cases of boat mishaps on the waterways especially in the Lagos area, the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) hosted a well-attended stakeholders’ forum in various parts of the country earlier in the year where river transportation is popular. This included, Igbokoda in Ondo State, Malale and Nupeko in Niger, Warri in Delta and the riverine areas in the Calabar axis. Port Harcourt area was not left out. The aim was to create the needed awareness on safety and how commuters, boat operators and other stakeholders should conduct themselves on water to reduce boat mishaps to the barest minimum. Life jackets were distributed to operators and commuters. The bottom-line was that even when there are wrecks, operators should sail in such a manner that dangerous points are sidetracked to avoid collision with objects hidden in water. Speaking at the Lagos event which was held at the NIWA jetty in Marina, Lagos, Hajia Inna Ciroma, Managing Director of NIWA, urged ferry operators to adhere strictly to operational rules and regulations to ensure safety on waterways.

“NIWA has started the campaign for safety on the nation’s waterways nationwide by distributing life jackets and other informative materials to reach all stakeholders operating on the waterways,” she said. Expressing concern that several boat mishaps recorded in Lagos often happen at night, she advised stakeholders not to use ferries for night voyages.

As public concerns on waterway mishaps continue, NIWA is advised to make the safety enlightenment campaign more regular for maximum effect. But one thing, people say, is to enlighten the public on the need to adhere to prescribed safety regulations while the other is the willingness to adhere to what is being preached. Perhaps, some form of forceful compliance through arrests and prosecution could help.