How lack of enforcements, operators’ nonchalance fuel reoccurring tragedies on waterways

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Lately, Nigerians have been inundated by cases of boat mishaps and their accompanying painful deaths in Lagos, Anambra, and Kwara states. CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes that though these accidents on the nation’s waterways have been blamed on over-speeding, overloading and non-use of life jackets, among others, more lives might be cut short in their prime if the federal and state governments do not enforce stiff regulatory measures

ThirtY-four-year-old Joseph Nzewi would have been among the 300 people that reportedly died in boat mishaps on the nation’s waterways in 2023, if not for the life jacket that he wore without questioning the boat operators.

The young man, who is a resident of Ikorodu in the Ikorodu Local Government Area of Lagos State, was rescued alongside 17 other passengers when the boat they were travelling in from Ikoyi jetty to the Ikorodu Ferry Terminal sank after being destroyed by water hyacinth.

The incident prompted the suspension of ferry operations at the terminal by Equus Logistics Limited on November 11, 2023.

According to the company in a statement, the presence of water hyacinth was making water travel treacherous and dangerous.

While recounting the traumatic experience, Nzewi said the plants got entangled with their boat and they were stationary for about 45 minutes, during which time water started seeping into the boat to the point of sinking.

“It was tough. We were ordered to leave the boat as a safety measure, or else we would all sink alongside the boat,” he said visibly trembling from remembering the incident that almost claimed his life.

 “The captain and other crew members told us to get out of the boat. They encouraged us, saying that the life jacket would help us stay afloat. We fearfully got into the deep water and held on to the side of the boat before a rescue team came.

 “It was very scary because the water hyacinth made it difficult for the rescue team to reach us and it took them over 30 minutes to get to where we were. I died and woke up several times before I was dragged out of the water into the rescue boat.”

 Nzewi said if not for the life jackets they had on, many of them could have died because it was apparent that most had no basic knowledge of swimming, which them unwilling to step out of the boat even though it was sinking.

“There was a man with a partial stroke who went for a medical checkup on the Island in that boat. God was with us because he could have been the first casualty.

 “We were looking at the jetty, seeing our destination but couldn’t get there,” he muttered.

On how the nearly ill-fated journey started, Nzewi narrated, “We took off from Ikoyi jetty and headed for Ikorodu. Just a few kilometres to berth at the terminal, our boat came in contact with some big water hyacinth and the operator started struggling to manoeuvre through the plants.

 “He was moving back and forth, and while doing this, the boat started taking in water from the back. We didn’t know how it happened and people started panicking and shouting.

 “It was at that point that we were ordered to evacuate and wait to be rescued. The next day, the state government suspended operations there and we started using the Ibeshe and Majidun jetties, still in Ikorodu.”

Died for not wearing a life jacket

A recent boat mishap that claimed the life of Nollywood actor, Pope Odonwodo, popularly known as Junior Pope, in River Niger, Anambra State, threw the country into mourning.

He died in his prime, alongside some crew members while returning from a location where they went to shoot a film, ‘The Other Side of Life’.

According to eyewitnesses, he would have survived the incident if he had worn a life jacket before embarking on the journey.

Before now, experts in marine transportation have always advised boat operators and management of jetties to ensure that all passengers comply with safety measures to guarantee safe water travel, with emphasis placed more on wearing life jackets.

The experts blamed the federal and state governments for not enforcing compliance to safety rules to reduce unnecessary loss of lives, especially in Anambra, Niger, Lagos, and Kwara states where such incidents have become a reoccurring decimal.

A diver and boat operator at Apapa jetty, beside Ajegunle school complex, Osai Esemene, said wearing a life jacket makes it easier for a drowning passenger to be rescued.

He said, “If you are wearing a life jacket, we can’t miss you in the water because you will be floating. The search team will see and rescue you first before going underwater to look for those who have drowned.

 “Life jacket makes sinking impossible but without it and you don’t know how to swim, it will become a disaster. It is not where people fall into the water that they are found because the water will keep moving and pushing them further.

 “In most cases, because water will take those in a capsized boat in different directions, we may not be able to rescue everyone. But with a life jacket, the chance of being rescued is very high because the bright coloured jacket would be seen from afar.

 “To help yourself and the search team, please always wear a life jacket because nobody can prevent a boat accident. Junior Pope would have been alive today if he had worn a torn or even dirty life jacket.”

 Badagry Pathfinder Jetty where life jackets is taboo

 Despite the frequent loss of lives on waterways, According Healthwise discovered that many jetties, especially those sited along riverine communities do not enforce the use of life jackets.

The operators virtually see life jackets as a taboo and huddle passengers that include vulnerable children and pregnant women who rely on water transportation into their boats.

During According Healthwise’s visit to some riverine communities in Badagry, it was discovered that Pathfinder Jetty, one of those located on Marina Road, Badagry, in the Badagry Local Government Area of Lagos State, have passengers board without lifejackets.

When our correspondent engaged one of the boat operators, Sola Aboderin, he claimed that they have enough life jackets but do not use them unless they find out that officials of Lagos State Waterways Authorities are on patrol.

Still trying to defend why they allow passengers to board without life jackets, he said the distance they cover is very short and so, there is no need for the life-saving suit.

He explained, “We only take off from Marina and berth at the Gberefu terminal, which is just across the water.

“Yes, I know anything can happen within the shortest distance, but we don’t see it as a problem. We have not witnessed any accidents here. We use it when the LASWA officials are around. If you are caught, they will carry your engine and you will have to pay a fine of N50,000 or more depending on their decision.

 “They may sanction the company you are working with or as a boat operator, you will be barred from taking a boat from another company. The punishment depends on what they deem fit.

 “We are the ones that are supposed to provide lifejackets for the passengers for free and collect them when we get to the jetty and they are coming down from the boat”

Surprisingly, According Healthwise sighted LASWA and the Federal Inland Waterways Authority’s offices in the area, and yet, not one personnel was seen monitoring and trying to ensure that safety regulations were followed.

It was discovered that the boat operators are always vigilant and bent on covering their tracts by ensuring that phones are not used around the jetty to avoid having pictures of passengers embarking or disembarking without life jackets taken.

An attempt by our correspondent to take a ‘selfie’ was met with a brutish, “It is not allowed. You might post it online and the LASWA will come after us. So we don’t allow videos and photographs but you can snap or video if they are wearing jackets.”

 Overloading, an accepted norm

When our correspondent wanted to embark on the boat and discovered that 12 passengers, instead of eight were on board, he voiced his concern but was told it was the norm.

Aboderin the boat operator said, “We carry a maximum of eight passengers but during peak hours, we can carry as many as 12 persons. We never had any accidents here and maybe that is why we don’t take life jackets seriously.

“Our job is to carry you to the other side of the water. It’s not far. The only accident we have encountered here sometimes in the past wasn’t that of a boat accident. It was that of a young man who jumped into the water after playing ball and disappeared.

Bent on making our correspondent comfortable, the chatty boat operator added, “Three days later, we found his body on the water. People thought it was a boat mishap. So, when we inquired about what happened, we were told that he stole somewhere and before being pushed into the water, a heavy iron was put on his neck, making it impossible for him to swim.”

Also, during According Healthwise’s visit to different terminals in that axis, a particular boat that was supposed to carry a maximum of eight passengers was seen returning with over 15 from the Gberefu jetty.

The majority of the passengers onboard were children without life jackets and also, two bags of foreign rice were sighted in the same boat.

However, other terminals complied with wearing life jackets because they were going to Lagos Island where they could be easily spotted.

How non-enforcement of safety measures fuel boat mishaps

Some boat operators, who said they had been in operation for decades, blamed recurrent boat mishaps on Lagos waterways on the new ones who they noted have total disregard for lives and are more after profit.

They told According Healthwise that the way they handle their boats while in transit, lack of maintenance of boat and engine maintenance, and non-compliance with safety measures on the waterways are the reasons why such accidents have been on the increase.

At Ibeshe, a community in Ikorodu, an elderly, former boat operator, Rafiu Ogundare insisted that boat mishaps can be avoided if proper safety measures are taken, including the use of life jackets.

He said that in case of a capsize, life jackets can provide buoyancy and stability, which increases the chance of survival in rough waters.

Ogundare noted that the majority of boat operators on Lagos waterways do not have formal training and orientation in handling boats; neither are rules on standards enforced.

He claimed that some of the operators are underage and indulge in substance abuse.

The elderly man claimed that a number of them make use of old boats with big engines and still get them overloaded, thereby increasing the chances of accidents on the waterways.

Recalling a boat accident that took place a year ago in the community, he said, “The boat operator did not check the level of fuel and oil in the boat engine. It was after pushing the boat to the water that he realized he needed to mix oil and fuel in the engine and unfortunately, disaster struck.”

On ways to address the menace, Ogundare said there is a need for NIWA, LASWA, LAGFERRY, boat operators association, Lagos State government, and other stakeholders to come together and address the issues, especially in the riverine areas.

Also speaking, a boat operator at the Ikorodu Ferry Terminal, Tajudeen Ogunbunmi, affirmed that many operators and companies operate boats and ferries without having them maintained regularly.

This, he said causes breakdowns in the middle of the lagoon, leading to accidents due to ferocious ways.

 “The only thing that can be done in this situation is to call on another boat to transfer the passengers. In some cases, it may take longer than expected to get there.

“Some boats have old engines, and when they are overloaded, they find it difficult to move. Apart from this, there are wrecks in the waterways, and if you are not careful and run into one, the boat will capsize. But we are aware of some of these places.”

 90% of waterway accidents are avoidable

Meanwhile, during a training programme organised by the Waterfront Boat Owners and Transporters Association of Nigeria last week, the General Manager of LASWA, Mr Oluwadamilola Emmanuel, said 90 per cent of waterways accidents are avoidable.

He stated that most of the time, it is operators’ negligence that leads to such accidents, emphasizing the need for training of operators to ensure they understand what should be done in every situation.

The LASWA boss, said, “In as much as we are taking responsibility for what we should, we also want the operators to take responsibility. If everyone plays their part, then we can have safe waterways.”

Regarding the wrecks in the water, he said, “One of the things we are doing is to mark areas where we have potential wrecks on the waterways in Lagos State. I believe that this information would enable us to advise operators on where some of the wrecks are.”

“These wrecks are caused by dredging companies and even other ship owners who abandon their ships on the waterways. Secondly, we are telling the operators that they must not overload their boats; this is why our personnel are at the jetties. We have also realised that sometimes even along the way, they pick up more passengers, thereby creating a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Lagos dredging, channelisation of navigable waterways

 In addressing the problem of wrecks in the water, Emmanuel added that the state government is currently carrying out dredging and channelization of navigable waterways in the state, which, according to him, is capital-intensive.

Also, the District Surveyor of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Patrick Ike, during the programme, said that NIMASA, as an agency, is working on creating a database of all boat operators operating on the Lagos waterways and their level of experience.

He noted that the agency is set to begin the enforcement of biometric barcodes on boats operating around the country, stating that the training and certification of boat operators should be a continuous exercise to guarantee the safety of all.

“NIMASA is interested in safety awareness and certification. If you look at our waterways and the rate of accidents that we record, the majority of them are caused by the boat operators due to faulty machinery and negligence,” Ike added.

  Timeline of major boat mishaps in Nigeria

States like Lagos, Kwara, Kebbi, Taraba, Niger, and Anambra, witnessed several boat mishaps in 2023, resulting in the loss of over 300 lives.

On January 3, a boat carrying over 100 rice farmers, mostly youths, capsized in Koko/Nesse LGA of Kebbi State, resulting in the death of 10 farmers.

The boat was conveying the farmers to Samanaji, a riverine community when the incident occurred.

On February 20, a commercial boat with 17 passengers capsized near the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. Fortunately, all the passengers were rescued.

On April 23, not less than five people died in a boat accident at Kanwa Dam in the Madobi LGA of Kano State. Six others, who were unconscious, were rescued by the State Fire Service.

On May 10, 17 people were confirmed dead in Dandeji village, in the Shagari LGA of Sokoto State.

The boat was reportedly carrying over 40 girls and boys who went to fetch firewood at a nearby bush.

On June 7, five people who went to buy seafood at a local market in Ugbo-Nla, in the Ilaje LGA, Ondo State, lost their lives in a boat mishap. Their deaths were attributed to failure to wear life jackets.

On June 13, over 100 people died after the boat carrying them capsized in Egbu village, in the Patigi LGA of Kwara State.

The victims, including women and children, were said to be returning from a wedding in Egboti, a community in Niger State. The boat was said to be overloaded.

 On August 11, two people were rescued after a boat capsized in the Atlantic Ocean in Lagos. The boat was moving from Makoko, Ebute-Meta, Lagos.

Also on August 24, another boat accident in Nasarawa State led to the death of 12 people in Arikiya, Lafia LGA of the state. Seven people were rescued from the boat, which had 19 passengers on board.

On September 8, 15 people were killed in Njuwa Lake in Yola South LGA of Adamawa State.

On September 10, a boat carrying over 100 passengers, who were on their way to farms, capsized in the Mokwa area of Niger State, killing about 24 passengers.

On October 2, about 23 people were feared dead when a boat capsized in Agwara LGA of Niger State. The boat was conveying passengers from Kasabo village in Agwara LGA of Niger to Yauri in Kebbi State. Seven people were rescued from the mishap.

On October 7, 76 people reportedly died following a boat accident in Ogbaru LGA in Anambra State.

The boat reportedly took off from Onukwu Bridge and was headed for Nkwo market, Ogbakuba in the Ogbaru LGA when it capsized.

The majority of the passengers were women and children trying to escape from their flooded communities.

On October 26, two bodies were recovered after a boat crossing from Olorunsogo to the Isawo area of Lagos capsized.

The Lagos State Fire and Rescue Service said four others were rescued alive.

Also, on October 28, two days later, a boat carrying passengers returning from Mayo-Renewo market to the Karim Lamido area of Taraba State capsized, killing over 20 people.

On November 6, four residents of Nasarawa State lost their lives in a boat accident that occurred in the Awe LGA of the state.

The boat was reportedly conveying rice farmers from Ubbe district in the Nasarawa Eggon LGA.

Eight people died while several others were injured in a boat accident in the Ibi LGA of Taraba State on November 12.

Tinubu Orders investigation into constant boat accidents

Bothered by the constant boat accidents, President Bola Tinubu ordered an investigation to unravel the immediate and remote causes

The directive was conveyed in a statement by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Ajuri Ngelale.

Tinubu emphasised that government agencies would be held accountable for any regulatory or safety lapses. He urged that comprehensive safety measures and enforcement must be carried out on water transportation in the country.

The president directed various government agencies, including law enforcement, maritime safety, and transportation safety authorities, to collaborate and identify the causes of the unfortunate and preventable disasters.

LASWA reacts

When contacted to know the level of monitoring and enforcement of safety rules by the agency, the Head, Public Affairs, LASWA, Wuraola Alake, said its monitoring teams are stationed at jetties to ensure compliance.

She noted that although they position their officers at jetties, especially the state-owned ones, some private ones still engage in illegal activities.

Alake promised that LASWA officials on patrol would always go after offenders and urged the public to assist in this regard by providing them with the right information.

“Our team will investigate the places you have mentioned and ensure compliance since they are aware they are engaging in wrongful actions,” she promised.

 FG working with Lagos to enforce waterways regulations –LASEMA

Also speaking on the issue, the Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, Dr Oluwafemi Oke-Osanyintolu said the Federal Government is working with the state to implement and enforce regulations for all transportation on the waterways.

 He said that the agency recognises the importance of regulating water transportation to prevent accidents and to ensure the safety of lives on Lagos waterways.

 He said, “On our water, we have what we call a command control centre, which means that effective and efficient coordination of emergency response prevention is moved to our waterways and is connected with the command control in Alausa.

 “So you can see that on Lagos waterways, we monitor, build regulations, and evaluate all processes to ensure safety. We work with the Federal Government to ensure proper regulations on our waterways.

 “LASEMA has the Marine Rescue Unit. We have our shark base and boats. Our shark base is located in Lekki. And these are the people who always go in for rescue missions.

 “We also have local divers that the agency has trained. And our local divers are different from normal divers because they know the terrain. They can dive with expertise on waterways.”

Oke-Osanyintolu said under the watch of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, LASEMA is doing everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of lives and properties on the Lagos waterways.

 “We appeal to Lagosians to abide by the laid down rules and regulations. Don’t forget to call the emergency number, 112 or 767, when necessary,” he added.

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