Anambra disaster highlights high rate of boat accidents


RECENT findings by The PUNCH that no fewer than 701 persons have died in 53 boat accidents in Nigeria between January 2020 and October 2022 establish an alarming trend. The death of 76 persons in just one such accident in Anambra State underscores the scale of the unfolding tragedy. Officials attribute the accidents and fatalities to overloading, reckless sailing, poor maintenance of boats, and turbulent weather, among others. The upshot is that state governments need to step up regulation and oversight to keep the waterways safe and reduce the deadly toll.

Not surprisingly, the report indicated that boat accidents are more frequent during the rainy season, between April and July. Niger State recorded the highest number of boat accidents with 176; followed by Kebbi, 84; Anambra, 80; and Lagos, 72. A total of 233 persons were killed in 2022, with Benue recording six deaths; Jigawa, 34; Bauchi, five; Taraba, 18; Niger, 16; Lagos 17; Bayelsa, 22; Anambra, 77; Delta, five; Kogi, four; and Sokoto, 29.

One such tragic incident occurred recently in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State when a boat reportedly carrying about 85 passengers capsized; 76 of them drowned. Reports said the victims were mostly women and children fleeing to safety after their community had been overrun by floods.

As usual, the federal response has been tepid. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), hardly went beyond offering his condolences, and calling on government agencies “to check the safety protocols on these transport ferries to make sure such incidents are avoided in the future.” He ought to do more. Across the world, leaders are moving swiftly with relief actions, visits, and mobilising communities to recover from such disasters.

The LG’s official account of the accident was instructive. The boat had a carrying capacity of only 50 passengers. Besides, it was reportedly piloted by an inexperienced hand, who took up the task because his more experienced brother and boat owner/pilot was not available. Overloading and unqualified pilotage were therefore in evidence; oversight by state and LG officials was also absent.

Compounding these laxities, contrary to standard regulations, there was no passenger manifest, thereby making identification of the victims difficult.The Anambra State Government and the LG clearly demonstrated fatal lapses in enforcing safety regulations. To have any impact and save lives, regulations must be enforced. Sadly, such dereliction of duty is the norm nationwide.

Consequently, in July, 16 passengers died when a boat capsized around Mile 2, Lagos. In April, 29 young persons, among them, five children, died after a boat conveying 35 passengers sank on the Shagari River, Sokoto State.

The PUNCH reported that in 2021, 307 persons were reported dead, with 142 in Niger; Kebbi, 76; Bayelsa, seven; Delta, two; Taraba, five; Sokoto, 13; Kano, 40; Jigawa, seven; Lagos, 11; and Ondo, four.  In 2020, 161 casualties were recorded in boat accidents. Kebbi had eight; Lagos, 44; Bayelsa, six; Bauchi, 33; Niger, 18; Sokoto, nine; Rivers, 16; Anambra, three; Delta, 10; and Benue, 14.

Across the world, accidents do happen; but governments have developed both preventive and reactive responses. Apart from Lagos, Nigeria’s federal, states and LGs have been remiss in this regard.  Unlike in other jurisdictions, there are no coast guards, rescue kits, or effective security operatives to conduct efficient rescue operations on inland waterways.

The International Maritime Organisation requires every vessel navigating the waterways to have life-saving appliances such as lifebuoys, lifejackets, immersion suits, anti-exposure suits, thermal protective aids; visual aids, buoyant smoke signals, survival crafts such as life rafts and lifeboats, general alarm, public address, and marine evacuation systems. Unfortunately, most of these are either not available or not easily accessible to most commuters on Nigeria’s waterways, especially in rural communities. Lagos has rolled out novel regulations over the years, but has not succeeded in strict enforcement.

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Ensuring the safety of ferry services requires emplacing the necessary structures, and enforcing regulations. The United States Coast Guard in 2021 said boating safety improved in that country with a 15.4 per cent drop in the fatality rate since 2020, and total fatalities decreased by 14.2 per cent to 658.

In the United Kingdom, commercial boats are tested to ascertain their safety, construction, control systems, on-board machinery, and electrical equipment at the point of registration with the UK Ship Register. The rate of accidents has since dropped below the five-year average, reported The Gazette.

The authorities should research into the risk factors and map out appropriate safety measures. The National Inland Waterways Authority found for instance that most boat accidents occur at night. NIWA and Lagos respectively have since banned night travel until the necessary water navigational aids and infrastructure are provided.

Also, the non-usage of, or use of faulty life jackets are risk factors. The US Coast Guard estimated that about 72 per cent of boating deaths occurring in 2021 were caused by drowning, with 88 per cent of victims not wearing life jackets.

China’s Maritime Safety Administration beams special attention on fishing vessels anchored at night that do not have watch guards, display proper lights, or lack operational navigation aids.

Water transportation is central in an effective inter-modal transportation system and should be vigorously pursued by the states. Safety and regulation should also be paramount. Nigeria’s national and sub-national governments should develop private sector-led modern and efficient water transportation networks.

There should be national local and waterways control rooms for remote monitoring of the entire waterways, and surface and aerial drones to detect submerged wrecks and impediments to prevent boat collisions.

Like Lagos, other governments should for now ban night travelling on waterways and penalise operators and passengers that do not wear life jackets. Passengers should be properly sensitised on the importance of safety, properly don their life jackets before boarding and throughout the trip, and record their details correctly on the passenger manifest.

Civilian coast guard and rescue agencies should be established, well-funded and equipped, and the federal marine police likewise upgraded. Expanding safe and efficient water travel should be a new growth sector; states should rise to the challenge. ,

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