Tessy Igomu

 For years, Nigerians have been beset by tales of boat tragedies on the waterways. The increasing number of fatal accidents recorded on the waterways has assumed a worrisome dimension, creating an atmosphere of apprehension around those who ply the seemingly troubled waters.

From time, River Niger and River Benue constitute the major channels for inland navigation that include the Port Novo-Badagry-Lagos waterways, Cross River waterways, Lekki and Lagos lagoons, Benin River, Ogun-Ondo waterways, Escravos channel, Imo River, Nun River, Orashi River, Ethiope River, Ugwuta Lake and Lake Chad, among others.

Between 2017 and 2018, hundreds have reportedly lost their lives along these corridors to boat tragedies, with statistics pegging the figure of deaths at about 1,005.  

Though most states abutting the waterways have had their fair share of such ill-fated accidents, those on Lagos waterways remain unmatched. This development has spread panic and fear among hapless individuals that daily rely on water transportation to move about in order to avoid the monsters of bad road and intractable gridlock plaguing the state.  

Lagos residents have also lost count of the number of such unexpected, needless deaths, which seem to happen in quick succession, each with its own burden of tears and sorrow.

One of such recent tragedies took place in the evening of Saturday, February 2, 2019, claiming three lives. The boat, said to be travelling from Okeranla in Ajah to Bayeku in Ikorodu Terminal with 20 passengers and two crewmen, ran into a heap of dredged sand and capsized. Seventeen passengers were later rescued by emergency services.     

The accident took place a few weeks after another one that claimed three lives, with five missing between Liverpool and Coconut Jetty. The 20-seater passenger boat capsized when it collided with another wooden boat in November 2018.   

Earlier on May 25, 24 passengers had escaped death when two boats collided and capsized in the Ojo area of Lagos.  

However, for 12 passengers aboard a passenger boat on August 20, 2017, fate was unsmiling as they all lost their lives in the Ilashe area of Lagos State.

The Nigeria Police Force also lost an officer, Mary Adesoba, who was attached to the Zone 2 Police Command, Onikan, Lagos. She died on October 10, 2017, when the 21-passenger boat she boarded capsized some metres to the Third Mainland Bridge.  

Similarly, on May 25, 2016, a woman died after a commercial boat en route Victoria Island from Ikorodu ran into a log of wood and capsized. Twenty-six other passengers on board the speedboat escaped death with varying degrees of injury.

Not long ago, the managing director of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, narrowly escaped death by the whiskers, while inspecting facilities with other officials and journalists.

According to reports, the boat he boarded hit an abandoned boat hidden under the waters as the team headed for Osborne Foreshore to inspect Texas connection ferries.  

Speaking on the near death encounter, Mr. Emmanuel Ilori, Mamora’s personal adviser, confirmed the incident and said the present management of the agency was seriously concerned about safety and security on the nation’s waterways.

His words: “Safety and security of inland waterways is the priority of the present management of NIWA. It is not only the issue of wrecks removal, we will remove wrecks and causes of wrecks and that is what we will be looking at fundamentally.

“So, we are working to prevent boat mishaps on the inland waterways and to be sure that when wrecks are removed, they are not dumped in another place where they will pose another hazard.”

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Ilori stressed that the agency would also do a survey under the water and place danger signs in areas where such wrecks are found.

“What we are looking at is to survey the wrecks. It is not only wrecks that we see on the surface alone because we also have wrecks under the water. That is why we say when people remove them, we want to understand how they will dispose (of them).”

Though the senator was lucky to have survived, many have not been so privileged and might never be. This was the opinion of experts concerned about what they termed NIWA’s inability to regulate inland water transportation across the nation’s waterways crisscrossing over 10,000 kilometres. 

Though factors like shipwrecks and the presence of other debris have been blamed for several boat accidents, nothing meaningful seems to have been done by the relevant agencies as these harbingers of death still lurk precariously on Lagos waterways.

Also, despite efforts by the Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Water Transporters of Nigeria to identify and demarcate 30 tragedy-prone spots on Lagos waterways with floating signs, nothing seems to have been done by the government to clear the wrecks.

According to the president of the association, Mr. Ganiyu Balogun, government needs to expedite action and clear wrecks on waterways, as they constitute the major source of hazards in recent times. 

In all, boat mishaps on Lagos waterways seem to have one thing in common: the blatant disregard by boat operators to adhere to basic safety regulations and guidelines put in place by agencies empowered to ensure safety on waterways. Many have noted that most of the operators make use of outdated life jackets. They also overspeed, overload, they do not address mechanical faults on time and usually cruise the waterways despite being warned of turbulent weather and rainstorm.

Many have also stressed that relevant authorities saddled with the responsibility of monitoring activities on waterways need to do more to protect innocent people. They have lamented the glaring presence of dangerous impediments to the smooth running of waterways transportation.

The urgent removal of water hyacinth, floating debris, including non-renewable objects, wrecks, logs and dredged sand, have remained top among the demands being made of agencies like LASWA and NIWA by passengers. They also stressed the importance of having the waterways dredged frequently to avoid incessant accidents that scare passengers away.

This stance was supported by Ikechukwu Ogbonna, a marine engineer with Scarlet Marine Technologies. He noted that, as long as wrecks remained underwater, many more lives would be lost and families left traumatized.

However, rather than take preventive and proactive measures to avert disasters on Lagos waters, boat operators, especially, have accused the agencies of being more concerned about revenue drive.

Most critics have also that, despite its empowerment by the Lagos State Waterways Authority Act enacted in 2008 to coordinate and regulate water transportation in the State, the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) has left boat operators to run contraptions that can vividly pass off as death traps on Lagos waters.

Safety experts have averred that, at the moment, most Lagos residents view water transportation with fear and scepticism. They maintained that except the regulators and operators are able to ensure that certain standards are maintained, as it is obtainable in other parts of the developed world, then it is not just worth the risk.

According to Akin Adewale, a resident of Ikorodu who works in Victoria Island, patronising the many boat operators along the Ikorodu jetty is akin to going on a suicide mission. He lamented that the number of deaths recorded regularly had become scary, causing him to perpetually shun the waterways.

He lamented that lack of regulation has made water transportation an all-comers affair and this has led to the proliferation of wooden boats powered by outboard engines that routinely jam-pack and transport passengers way beyond their capacity.

Several companies operating water transport business are accused of always sacrificing safety for profit, even as the agencies meant to regulate and monitor them are said to be inefficient. Now, the question is, when will the waterways be totally safe for commuters?