Two river boat accidents that occurred within a week of each other in Niger State and caused an estimated 120 deaths have suddenly focused national attention on this country's very precarious but economically very significant inland transport sector.
On Friday September 27, a boat allegedly overloaded with passengers and goods travelling on the Niger River capsized, killing an estimated 100 people of the 150 that were thought to be on board. Survivors said the boat, which left Malilli village, split in two in the middle of the voyage, spilling all its passengers and goods into the River Niger at a time when the river has its highest water level.
Scores of the passengers that drowned were women, children and the aged. Head of Niger State's Emergency Management Agency [NSEMA] Mohammed Shaba described it as the worst accident to hit the state in recent years. The boat was suspected to have hit a submerged tree trunk.
Only a week later, another boat accident occurred in Niger State causing the death of at least 18 people. This second accident, also on the River Niger, occurred at Kokoli Village in Agwarra Local Government Area. The boat was conveying 80 traders and their children to Kokoli village after the weekly Thursday market at Ulakami village when it broke into two and sank. One family lost six daughters in this mishap. Rescue efforts by local divers however prevented many more deaths from this accident.
What is responsible for such heavy losses of life in a transport sector that operates almost wholly below the radar of any regulatory authority? To begin with, this country is blessed with numerous rivers, very large ones as well as hundreds of smaller rivers, lakes and dams. Riverine communities all over this country rely heavily on them for movement and they are central to their economic lives.
As the recent accidents prove, local traders move all across the rivers from one rural market to another, often overloading the boats with people and goods. Yet, in contrast to the heavy investment and the close regulatory attention that is accorded to the aviation sector for example, the inland waterways sector is virtually unregulated and it commands very little attention even from state governments that have big rivers within their territories.
All these despite the fact that there is a Federal Ministry of Transport, a National Inland Waterways Authority as well as ministries in charge of transport in all the states. The local governments too have departments that are supposed to oversee transportation.
Pinpointing the exact cause of these two accidents is difficult in the face of conflicting claims. Some locals blamed the tragedy on the failure to appease river gods.
More practically, observers have blamed the rickety nature of the boats. The boat operators however claim that they do their best to repair the boats at least once every four years, easily an insufficient maintenance interval for such a high risk operation. The operators however complain about the cost of overhauling the boats; they also say they no longer find quality wood to buy in the market.
According to many boat operators on the Niger River, the biggest hazard they face is hidden tree stumps in the river. These may not pose much of a threat at high water, they said, but when water levels begin to drop, submerged rocks and tree trumps pose a big danger to boats. Big tree cutting machines are needed to remove these hazards from the boats' path. It was also established that these boats have no life jackets on board in case of emergency.
Although some riders said authorities in Kebbi and Niger States issued out some jackets, these were insufficient to meet their needs. Then also, the boat operators were accused of overloading them with people and goods at every turn; they even have what they call "attachment seats" which are uncomfortable but cheap, as a result of which many boat passengers prefer to sit in them.
It is not like the river boat business is a lucrative one. One boat rider was quoted in Weekly Trust as saying he makes about N1,000 for a round trip, out of which he has to feed and pay two boys that help him to run the boat.
He also said a major boat overhaul could cost N150,000. It is difficult to see how a man who earns less than N1,000 a day could muster that kind of money to repair a boat, not to mention purchase of life jackets. Then also, when accidents occur, the authorities have no rescuers in place for the task. It is the riverine communities themselves that must mount rescue efforts using local canoes and divers. As anyone who has witnessed a road accident scene in this country knows, well-meaning but untrained rescuers often cause havoc of their own. In the first of these accidents, a boat that went for rescue operations also broke into two, a testimony to the boats' condition.
Clearly therefore, authorities at all levels must now focus attention on inland waterway transport, first of all by putting in place the necessary regulatory mechanisms to ensure that boats are built with durable products, are properly maintained, are not overloaded, and are driven only by able persons. It also calls for the channeling of more resources into the sector to assist the operators to purchase and maintain boats. They also need help in clearing obstacles such as rocks and tree stumps in the rivers. Then also, the matter of having life jackets as well as placing expert rescue boats and divers at strategic places must be attended to.
All these would still be chicken feed amounts compared to the money poured into the aviation sector, for instance, when in all likelihood more people use these boats than the number of aircraft passengers. Only that the latter belong to higher classes in society. It is time to right this national wrong.