The recent boat accident in Lagos, which claimed many lives, has once again brought to the fore the imperatives of according priority to safety in water transport, not just in the state, but across the entire country. There is no doubt that, with the decrepit state of roads, the high cost of travelling by air, which is affordable only to a few, and the virtual non-existence of a functional rail system, water transport, especially the inland waterways, offers a viable alternative for the free movement of people and goods.
The accident, which occurred last week, resulting in the death of an unspecified number of people, was clearly due to the non-observance of safety rules. To start with, nobody seems to know the exact number of people that were on the boat when the accident occurred. A report from the Lagos State Emergency Management Authority boss, Olufemi Oke-Osanyintolu, said there were between 17 and 21 people on the boat, while another put the number at 26. This makes it difficult to know the exact number of people that were yet to be accounted for, even though three people were said to have been rescued.
What is obvious from that account is that there was no manifest, which means that it may never be possible to reveal the identities of all of those who made the trip, let alone those who died. But as of the last count, 12 bodies had been recovered while others were still missing, according to the Lagos State Waterways Authority. On its part, the National Inland Waterways Authority put the death toll at 10, eight missing passengers and three survivors. This is not good enough for a fast-growing megacity that is aspiring to match the standards of its peers around the world. That particular boat trip violated almost all the requirements for safety. This was again confirmed by the LASEMA boss, who said, “The boat allegedly capsized due to overloading.”
The Lagos incident is not peculiar; all over the country, people die cheap deaths because the necessary precautions are ignored while travelling on the numerous waterways. For instance, it was reported that 99 people died in boat accidents that occurred in Kebbi, Niger and Lagos states between April and September 2017. Most of the deaths occurred on the River Niger, where, in one particular instance, no fewer than 53 people died at the Kebbi end of the river. Although Nigerians are dying in droves by the day, either through bandit attacks or terrorist attacks, the drowning of 99 people in six months demands serious response from the appropriate authorities.
Aside from River Niger, boats have also been capsizing in River Kaduna, leading to the loss of precious lives. One such incident occurred on September 19, 2017, claiming 12 lives. Particularly heart-rending was the incident of November 2017 in which five pupils of Victory High School, Ungwan Yelwa in Chikun Local Government Area drowned in River Kaduna while on an excursion. The excursion, which had taken them to Kaduna Water Board near Railway Station, saw some students entering a boat, trying to cross to the other side of the river. Unfortunately, their boat sank.
Featuring highly among reasons for the misfortunes has been overloading. A boat that should ordinarily carry 10 people may end up with 20. According to NIWA, this was the situation in the latest Lagos incident, in which the unmarked 10-passenger boat had in excess of 20 travellers. Since most of the people that adopt this mode of transport are traders, they pack more goods than the old and rickety boats can carry. Without a strong regulatory authority, the boat operators get away with their dangerous escapades and nobody seems to take any concrete action until another fatal accident takes place.
Beyond the breach of the carrying capacity, many of the passengers were said to have undertaken the trip without life jackets. Traversing such a large expanse of water without a life jacket is akin to attempting suicide. It is the duty of the government to prevent people from committing suicide. An online report by Boaterexam.com, quoted the United States Coast Guard as saying, “Eighty-five per cent of people who drown while boating are not wearing a life jacket.” It therefore recommends strongly that anyone on a boat trip should not do so unless he or she wears a life jacket.
In a well-regulated environment, the authorities will ensure that only boats that are in good condition are allowed to undertake any journey. According to NIWA, the only authorised period for trips in Nigeria is between 6 am and 6 pm. This only underscores the danger of using the waterways under the cover of darkness; it has resulted in serious accidents, especially head-on collisions with other boats.
Very important is the seaworthiness of the boats. NIWA rule states that any boat that has spent five years should be subjected to a complete overhauling to avoid a situation where it would develop a fault that would endanger lives. It is the duty of the regulators to ensure that only boats that are seaworthy are allowed to operate. In a well-regulated environment, all operators should be registered. By so doing, it is easier to control their activities. The way it is now, it seems like an all-comers affair.
Two years ago, the LASWA boss, Oluwadamilola Emmanuel, promised to ensure strict law enforcement in the state. So far, it does not seem as if much has been achieved in that respect. But it is important to know that, no matter how good the rules and regulations are, if not properly enforced, accidents will continue to happen. Impunity will breed and people will have the feeling that they can get away with anything they do.
In other parts of the world, when such accidents happen, those responsible are never allowed to go unpunished. For instance, in Hungary, a 54-year-old captain of the vessel that collided with a small tour boat in River Danube last month, resulting in at least seven deaths, was arrested. The Ukrainian national was held for “reckless misconduct in waterborne traffic, leading to mass casualties,” a BBC report said.
A similar action was taken when a Korean ship, Sewol, sank near Jindo Island in 2014, resulting in 304 deaths, mostly schoolchildren. Apart from arresting the captain, the teacher who took them on the tour, facing the prospect of prosecution, also committed suicide. In Nigeria, people should also be made to take responsibility for their actions.