By Steve Agbota

On July 6, 2022, at about 7.45am, it was reported that a 20-passenger ferry carrying 17 passengers, named “R & N 2,” suddenly capsized due to mechanical fault less than 200 metres from the terminal and submerged immediately after it departed the Ipakodo ferry terminal in the Ikorodu area of Lagos State. Fifteen persons were rescued, three went missing, while two were confirmed adead after the boat capsized.

Barely three days after, another passenger boat carrying 16 persons from Mile 2 to Ibeshe, Ojo, in Lagos State, on Friday night, capsized with all passengers onboard declared missing.

A statement by Sarat Braimah, the general manager, National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), on Saturday, in Lagos, said the boat broke the waterways rules by setting sail at 7:45pm.

According to her, the tide of the water forced the boat to a stationary barge, which caused the boat to overturn.

“At about 7:45pm, July 8, NIWA and Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) received a distress call of an incident on the waterways.

“A W19 passenger fibre boat carrying 16 persons capsized along the Ojo area of the state. The boat going from Mile 2 to Ibeshe in Ojo axis broke the waterways rules of late travelling by setting sail at 7:45pm.

“As he set out, the tide of the water drifted the boat to a stationary barge, which caused the boat to overturn. It is said that all passengers on board, which included children, were not all putting on their life jackets,” she said.

Over the years,  many Nigerians have lost their lives as a result of boat mishaps in inland waterways. These were ordinary Nigerians probably trying to avoid traffic jams, which have become common on most of the nation’s busy and bad roads. The boat accidents have majorly occurred in riverine communities in all the 22 out of 36 states that engage in water transportation system in the country.

Frequent boat accidents on the nation’s waterways have been blamed on substandard boats, over-loading of passengers and goods, disregard for safety guidelines and lack of boat maintenance, water hyacinth, night voyages by ferry operators, obstructions on waterways, violation of route usage, faulty boat and ferry engines, non-usage of life jackets and other life-saving appliances and fueling of boat on the water, among others.

Blaming bad weather for the accidents amounts to excusing human carelessness. In spite of campaigns being carried out by NIWA, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and other agencies to engage in enlightenment and education of ferry operators and passengers on safety, rules and regulations, some recalcitrant boat owners and drivers are still flouting the rules.

The act of defiance of these boat operators have sent thousands of innocent people to their earlier grave.

Data from Nigeria Watch showed that 1,607 lives were lost in 180 boat accidents between June 2006 and May 2015. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, hundreds of Nigerians lost their lives along Nigerian inland waterways across the riverine communities of the country due to boat/canoe accidents. Within the same period, industry watchers put the figure of those who died in water accidents at 1,005.

No fewer than 99 persons died in six boat mishaps that occurred in Kebbi, Niger and Lagos states between April and September 2017, according to a survey.

Several boat accidents claimed hundreds of lives between 2019 and 2020. In July 2019, 15 people died after a boat carrying 21 passengers capsized, three people survived while others were missing.

In July 2020, no fewer than 10 passengers escaped death when their boat capsized on Lagos waterways.

Also, four died while 14 were rescued in a 20-seater passenger boat mishap in Lagos. Meanwhile, in August 2020, 10 died in another boat accident in Lagos.

In September 2020, two died and four were rescued as another boat capsized in Lagos. In August 2020, nine died in a Sokoto boat accident. In 2021, more than 250 people were killed as a result of boat mishaps on Nigerian waters.

As boat accidents become rampant, experts have urged government to prosecute and jail boat owners and operators who refuse to abide by the laws of water transport in the country, wich they said will curtail the menace.

Speaking with Daily Sun, president of the Nigeria Association of Master Mariners (NAMM), Captain Tajudeen Alao, said: “I feel concerned as a major stakeholder that too many accidents occur in the nation’s inland waterways and too many lives have been lost.”

He said, basically, there are institutional requirements that government needs to introduce, adding that the inland water act comprises movements on inland waterways.

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He said government agencies, including NIMASA, NIWA and others, must take responsibility to ensure compliance on the nation’s waterways.

“NIMASA as body and a safety administration is an institutional requirement, marine police is an institutional requirement, various state organs like LASWA are the same with Delta, Customs and Immigration. When you read all their acts, they all have responsibility about safety of the waterways.

“The problem of boat mishaps is not the enforcement. The problem is our people: maritime workers’ union, the community where these boats operate, load and where they move, because everything cannot be government.

“Those local people have to take responsibility because, for many years, accidents have been happening and the agencies of government have been enforcing. Maybe when they jail one or two people and they give it adequate publicity, then people will sit up. Even though the international law does not affect internal local law. The local law is even above international obligation.

“But if you look at our local law, article 94 on compliwnce and implementation and article 217 on enforcement, laws are supposed to be implemented and enforced. And where people are not listening, then you will act by prosecuting them and jailing them. I think this is very important. NIWA, and NIMASA have done enough campaign but the communities where this things are happening should take responsibility,” he said.

He said the maritime workers union should take responsibility because water is so sensitive that when something happens, somebody is going  to drown unlike when something happens on the land.

Meanwhile, Braimah said that the agency recognises that some of the accidents are caused by the use of sub-standard boats.

To escape from this scourge, she said efforts have reached advanced stages to formulate standards and regulate the boat building industry.

She added that in the long term, subsequently, some class of boats will be phased out while certain class of boats can only ply on given classes of rivers and waterways.

“Discussions are on to provide surveillance gadgets along the waterways to enhance safety and security. Our personnel are also deployed to the respective loading terminals to provide  pre-boarding safety talk to passengers and prevent overloading and night sailing.

“Many things can be done, and are being done to address boat mishaps: training of boat drivers and licencing of same to properly equip them to drive professionally. This, NIWA is already doing, particularly in the Southern parts of Nigeria. We are about commencing same in the Northern parts. We also hold regular safety awareness and sensitization campaigns across parts of the country.

“We carry out regular security and compliance patrols on the waterways. Niwa has established nine Search and Rescue stations, and will establish 3 more this year, across various locations in Lagos, Lokoja,Port Harcourt, Yauri and New Bussa etc. These stations are intended to prevent but also respond immediately and provide timely rescue,” she added.

She hinted that the Authority also ensures that inland river craft are inspected for standards and safety compliance that is seaworthiness, before such boats are registered and authorized to operate as passenger boats or even for private use.

A mariner, Samson Epkong, said due to the inefficiency in management and personnel, many people in their productive years have been lost to boat mishaps and many goods lost in recent years.

“While the precarious nature of water transportation in Nigeria is not restricted to managerial inefficiency and manpower ineptitude, the ignorance of boat riders and passengers in safety measures has proven to be worse.

“Boat riders rely on their over-rated knowledge of the water channels to convey passengers and goods to different destinations without adequate training and certification in safety measures and navigational techniques,” he said.

He said  there are some quacks and inexperienced operators who just drive to make a living without knowing the rules and regulations guiding the boat business.

He stressed the need for government to establish an institution where operators will be mandated to attend boating education training to learn the rudiments of the business.

“Boating laws and regulations, navigation rules, knot tying, trailering and what to do in a weather-related emergency are topics that must be included in the training.

“Taking a boating education class and being alert while on the water can lower drivers’ chances of run-ins with other boats. All boaters need to know the meaning and implication of stand on and give way,” he said.