LATEST insights from The punch that between January 2020 and October 2022 no less than 701 people died in 53 boat accidents in Nigeria shows an alarming trend. The death of 76 people in just one such accident in Anambra state underscores the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy. Officials attribute the accidents and deaths to factors including overloading, reckless sailing, poor boat maintenance and turbulent weather. The result is that state governments must increase regulation and oversight to keep waterways safe and reduce deadly tolls.
Not surprisingly, the report suggests that boating accidents are more common during the rainy season between April and July. Niger State recorded the highest number of boating accidents with 176; followed by Kebbi, 84; Anabra, 80; and Lagos, 72. A total of 233 people were killed in 2022, with Benue recording six deaths; Jigawa, 34; belly, five; Tarabah, 18; Nigeria, 16; Lagos 17; Bayelsa, 22; Anabra, 77; delta, five; Kogi, four; and Sokoto, 29.
One such tragic incident recently occurred in Ogbaru Municipality, Anambra State, when a boat allegedly carrying 85 passengers capsized; 76 of them drowned. The victims were reportedly mostly women and children who fled to safety after floods engulfed their community.
As usual, the federal government’s response was lukewarm. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), went little beyond his condolences, urging government authorities to “review the safety protocols on these transport ferries to ensure such incidents are avoided in the future.” He should do more. Around the world, leaders are moving quickly with relief efforts, visits, and mobilizing communities to recover from such disasters.
The LG’s official report on the accident was revealing. The boat had a carrying capacity of only 50 passengers. Also, it was reportedly steered by an inexperienced hand who took over the task because its more experienced brother and boat owner/pilot was unavailable. Overloading and unqualified pilotage were therefore evident; Oversight by state and LG officials was also absent.
Adding to these omissions was the lack of a passenger register, contrary to standard regulations, making it difficult to identify the victims. The Anambra State Government and LG clearly demonstrated fatal failures to enforce safety regulations. In order to make a difference and save lives, regulations must be enforced. Unfortunately, such dereliction of duty is the norm nationwide.
As a result, 16 passengers died when a boat capsized at Mile 2 in Lagos in July. In April, 29 young people, including five children, died after a boat carrying 35 people sank on the Shagari River in Sokoto state.
The punch reported that 307 people were reported dead in 2021, including 142 in Niger; Kebi, 76; Bayelsa, seven; delta, two; Taraba, five; Sokoto, 13; Kano, 40; Jigawa, seven; Lagos, 11; and Ondo, four. In 2020, 161 fatalities were recorded in boating accidents. Kebbi had eight; Lagos, 44; Bayelsa, six; Bauchi, 33; Nigeria, 18; Sokoto, nine; rivers, 16; Anambra, three; delta, 10; and Benue, 14.
Accidents happen all over the world; but governments have developed both preventive and reactive responses. Aside from Lagos, Nigeria’s federal, state and LGs have all eased up in this regard. Unlike other jurisdictions, there is no Coast Guard, rescue equipment or effective security forces to conduct efficient rescue operations on inland waterways.
The International Maritime Organization requires every vessel navigating the waterways to have life-saving appliances such as lifebuoys, life jackets, wet suits, hazmat suits and thermal protection. visual aids, floating smoke signals, survival craft such as life rafts and lifeboats, general alarm systems, public address systems and marine evacuation systems. Unfortunately, most of these are either unavailable or not easily accessible to most commuters on Nigeria’s waterways, particularly in rural communities. Lagos has introduced new regulations over the years but has failed to strictly enforce them.
In order to ensure the safety of ferry services, the necessary structures need to be put in place and regulations enforced. The United States Coast Guard said in 2021 that boat safety in that country had improved with a 15.4 percent decrease in the death rate since 2020 and the total number of fatalities fell 14.2 percent to 658.
In the UK merchant boats are checked for safety, construction, steering systems, onboard machinery and electrical equipment at the time of registration with the UK Ships Register. The accident rate has since fallen below the five-year average, The Gazette reported.
Authorities should study the risk factors and establish appropriate safety measures. For example, the National Inland Waterways Authority found that most boating accidents happen at night. NIWA and Lagos have since banned night sailing until the necessary water navigation aids and infrastructure are provided.
Not using or using faulty lifejackets are also risk factors. The US Coast Guard estimates that about 72 percent of boating fatalities in 2021 were caused by drowning, with 88 percent of victims not wearing life jackets.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration draws particular attention to fishing vessels anchored at night that do not have watchkeeping personnel, display proper lights, or do not have operational navigational aids.
Water transport is central to an effective intermodal transport system and should be vigorously pursued by States. Safety and regulation should also come first. Nigeria’s national and sub-national governments should develop modern and efficient water transport networks run by the private sector.
There should be national local and waterway control rooms for remote monitoring of the entire waterway, and surface and aerial drones to detect submerged wrecks and obstructions and prevent boat collisions.
Like Lagos, other governments should, for now, ban nighttime cruising on waterways and penalize operators and passengers who do not wear life jackets. Passengers should be made aware of the importance of safety, properly don their life jackets before boarding and throughout the journey, and correctly enter their details in the passenger manifest.
Civilian coast guard and rescue services should be established, well funded and equipped, as should the Federal Maritime Police be upgraded. Expanding safe and efficient water travel should be a new growth sector; States should rise to the challenge.