- A boat transporting passengers across states in north central Nigeria capsized, killing 103 people
- Several similar accidents have happened across Nigeria and Africa
- Recurring factors leading to the accidents are poor safety regulations, overloading and poor working conditions of vessels, amongst others
- The factors must be tackled both by the authorities and the communities
In the gruelling aftermath of a boat accident in Nigeria’s North Central zone, a death toll of 103 people has been reported by the local police and authorities.
The overloaded wooden boat, which capsized in the early hours of Monday, was ferrying people across the Niger River from Niger State to neighbouring Kwara State.
Many of the over 200 passengers had just attended a wedding ceremony in the former state—an excruciating conclusion to such a joyous occasion.
The boat had already crossed over into the Pategi district of Kwara State when it toppled over.
Local ruler Alhaji Bologi told Reuters that he had been informed that 150 people, including children, had drowned while 53 people had been rescued.
Other reports place the number of rescued casualties at over 100. Additionally, there are still reportedly missing passengers.
According to local police, part of the boat collapsed, causing it to flood and then capsize.
The 4,180-km-long Niger River is the main river of West Africa, running through Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin and Nigeria.
Interestingly, Nigeria, Nigeria’s Niger State and the Republic of Niger are named after the river.
Nigeria’s Deadly Waterways
Many Nigerians in the country’s northern regions opt to use boats to travel, in a bid to steer clear of gang-ridden, bad roads.
Yet, even these boats pose major threats to their lives as they are often poorly maintained, structurally unfit and overcrowded.
The greed of the boat operators is another noteworthy factor, as they often overload their boats in order to earn as much money as possible from trips. Still, one could also argue that the root of this issue in particular is poverty.
Additionally, the safety regulations concerning this means of transport are inadequate.
For instance, Aljazeera reported that “most of the passengers were not wearing any protective gear like life vests”.
Consequently, Kwara State Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq vowed to implement a safety education initiative, starting with the provision of 1,000 life vests.
AbdulRazaq shared that he had started discussing the enforcement of safety regulations with the National Inland Waterways Authority.
The Authority has, in the past, tried to ban night-time sailing on rivers and dubbed boat overloading a crime, yet boat operators often flout these regulations.
Just last month, about 15 people died after a boat capsized in Nigeria’s north-western Sokoto State. Majority of the fatalities were children who had gone in search of firewood.
Also in 2022, a boat accident led to the death of over 70 people in Anambra State in south-eastern Nigeria. However, the incident was tied to the flooding disaster that ravaged the West African country late last year.
Floods in Benue State, dubbed the ‘food basket of the nation’, have resulted in a looming food security disaster as at least 100,000 hectares of land …
A Continental Problem
Nonetheless, the occurrence of such devastating boat accidents is not unique to Nigeria. In fact, waterways across the continent of Africa have claimed thousands of lives altogether.
At the start of the year, about 145 people went missing after a motorised boat capsized on the Lulonga, a river in the Equateur province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The boat was en route to Lilanga in the neighbouring Republic of Congo when it sank, and was also reported to be overloaded.
Head of civil society groups Jean-Pierre Wangela blamed the accident, and others before it, on the poor means of transport in the province.
The notorious 2014 Lake Albert boat accident—which cost 251 lives and only saw 45 survivors—is another tragedy that comes to mind.
On March 22, 2014, two boats were en route to the DRC from Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement when one of the boats capsized.
The passengers had been returning home after the UN and Congolese forces resolved the conflict in the DRC at the time, when many of them met their untimely deaths.
The committee also claims that it is hugely concerned about the record of human rights violations by the Rwandan government.
Overcrowding was named as the main cause of the accident; the operators had managed to squeeze about 300 passengers into a boat with a rated capacity of 80. Factors like the lack of life vests, the poor working condition of the boat and the reported inability of most passengers to swim also resulted in the high death toll.
It was reported that most of the fatalities were children.
The Central African nation mourned the heart-wrenching loss for 3 days, following a government declaration.
The Way Forward
In a 2019 interview with Think Global Health, Olive Kobusingye, the executive director of the Injury Control Center at Uganda’s Makerere Medical School, shed light on the transport safety issues in Africa.
Responding to the question of why drowning rates in Central sub-Saharan Africa were double the rest of the world’s, Kobusingye cited factors like geographical location, the little use of life vests, an apparent inability to swim, the absence of search-and-rescue facilities and of course, overcrowding.
On the latter, she said, “And sometimes nobody knows how many people were on the boat, nobody knows how many people they’re looking for in the water. That’s the situation”.
Although natural disasters such as floods were widely present, Kobusingye stressed that the inadequate tackling of these factors only exacerbated the issue.
She also explained that many of the accidents were occupational-related drownings—either fishing, taking livestock to ponds or valley dams, or water transportation.
She went on to suggest ways that boat safety could be improved, opining that they needed to be a combination of policy-based, educational, and provisional approaches.
“…In terms of bringing in legislation and enforcing it around what kind of vessels can be on what type of waters, and use of flotation devices. Right now, even in Uganda it’s still just being brought up, the idea that every vessel that goes out that carries people should have lifejackets, and it’s very poorly enforced. But there are other things—the idea that small vessels should still have onboard the ability to call for help, for instance. Some of these are not hugely expensive; it’s just that nobody has brought them up. Nobody has enforced them.”
“Ultimately, what needs to happen is that countries like Uganda, like Tanzania, need to come up with a national water safety strategy and action plan that is considering all the different things that lead to drowning, that lead to a lack of water safety,” shared Kobunsingye.
Essentially, the governments of the relevant African countries must take the water transport safety issue seriously enough to adequately address it.
Too many lives are hanging in the balance because of problems that have straightforward solutions.
Patrols should be present at waterways to ensure that boats are not being overloaded and that the right kind of boats are being used. Likewise, crew members who defy such regulations should be sufficiently punished.
Seaworthiness should be taken with as little levity as air- and roadworthiness by relevant authorities.
Moreso, the way forward may also involve community efforts. Swimming lessons should freely be given in regions surrounding water bodies and those who can afford to could provide life vests, if the governments refuse to step in.
Both the governments and communities must come together to put an end to the needless deaths of thousands across the continent.
Sources: Reuters, Voice of Africa, BBC, The Guardian